The Federal Forum Project (FFP) was established in 1936 to inspire Americans from all walks of life to gather and discuss important national and local topics. The leaders of the FFP sought to strengthen democracy through public discussion, critical thinking, and cooperative problem-solving. One of the most ambitious of the New Deal programs, the FFP was “the only national system of forums the US has ever known” .
The FFP was the brainchild of John W. Studebaker, Commissioner of Education in the FDR Administration. Studebaker had created a successful forum program in Des Moines, Iowa before the New Deal and had a firm conviction that the forums were needed nationwide: “If we are to have that trained civic intelligence, that critical open-mindedness, upon which the practical operation of a democracy must rest, we must soon take steps to establish throughout the nation an impartial, comprehensive, systematic, coordinated and completely managed system of public forums, publicly supported and publicly administered” .
Studebaker’s concern for the fate of democracy largely stemmed from the worldwide rise of authoritarianism and fascism in the 1930s. Many people were attracted to the simple answers those types of governments were offering for complex economic and social problems, even as those answers were typically wrong and cruel, for example, scapegoating minority groups. FDR shared Studebaker’s concern for the health of democracy, telling his top educator: “[It] is the responsibility of organized education to make sure that the people understand their problems and are prepared to make intelligent choices when they express their will. It is of great importance to the future of our democracy that ways and means be devised to engage the maximum number of young people and adults in a continuous, fearless and free discussion and study of public affairs” .
The forums started in September 1936 in a small number of cities and counties. They were administered by the federal Office of Education and funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) . Hundreds of WPA workers provided support, including “librarians, research assistants, artists, writers, accountants, bookkeepers, teachers, typists, stenographers and clerks” . The forums were held after hours in public schools and the standard format was a lecture by an expert, followed by a question & answer session, and then often a more open-ended, free-flowing discussion. Topics were wide-ranging: labor unions and wages; problems in Europe; relations with Latin America; news of the day; crime prevention; control of venereal diseases; taxation; and “Is America a Democracy?” .
Despite some accusations that the FFP was government propaganda and communist-inspired, and less hyperbolic criticism that the forums were simply too lecture-heavy, they became popular and well-attended. By 1939, over 500 communities had conducted 17,000 federal forums that were attended by two million Americans (an average of 117 people per forum) .
Unfortunately, the FFP ended in 1941 as America became immersed in the Second World War. The project’s success in reaching its goal—the improvement of American democracy—is impossible to quantify. Nevertheless, during its operation, “Forum directors told the national office that they believed certain changes could be attributable to the forums: better understanding among groups; increased tolerance of new ideas; decrease in race prejudice; organization of community groups to meet problems discussed in the forum” . These might seem like rosy assessments, yet it is still believed by some today that the best way to overcome political hostility and mutual incomprehension is to bring communities together face-to-face to share their concerns .
(1) William M. Keith, Democracy as Discussion: Civic Education and the American Forum Movement, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007, p. 263. (2) “National Public Forums Urged by Education Chief,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York), March 4, 1935, p. 6. (3) “Letter to J. W. Studebaker, Commissioner of Education, February 18, 1937,” American Presidency Project, University of California Santa Barbara (accessed March 1, 2021). (4) Exact figures are hard to come by, but the total WPA contribution to the FFP was somewhere between $590,000 and $1,250,000 (or about $11-23 million in 2020 dollars). See, Federal Works Agency, Work Projects Administration, Report on Progress of the WPA Program, June 30, 1939, p. 125, and Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947, p. 118. (5) See note 1, p. 295. (6) Pulled from various newspaper articles and announcements from the 1930s. For example, “Is America a Democracy?” comes from, “25 Federal Forums Are To Be Conducted During Week,” Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio), May 16, 1937, p. 13. (7) Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1939, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939, pp. 78-80. (8) See note 1, p. 309. (9) See, e.g., “Could deliberative democracy depolarize America? Stanford scholars think so.” Stanford News, February 4, 2021 (accessed March 12, 2021).
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