During the Great Depression, Americans learned a lesson: A president alone could not “fix” a free-falling economy or repair a deeply divided nation overnight. Such problems were larger and more complex than any one man or party or ideology.
And so, the newly inaugurated Franklin D. Roosevelt made few promises and he never predicted quick success.
But he did make a difference during a time of despair, deprivation, confusion and shock. How? By offering frightened listeners empathy.
Through his Fireside Chats, Roosevelt spoke directly to down-and-out citizens, entering their rickety houses and cramped apartments through the reach of radio. He narrated and explained the confusion around them; he did not sugarcoat, condemn, or oversimplify. Roosevelt connected with his audience through an open conversation about what ailed the country.
By making himself a vehicle for citizens’ fears, Roosevelt channeled those anxieties toward positive collective actions: depositing family savings back in banks, building schools, planting trees, and many other “make work” public activities. As Americans grapple with economic inequality and political polarization in the twenty-first century, our leaders today have much to learn from Roosevelt’s ability to connect diverse constituents with hope and inspire shared sacrifice for a common cause.
“I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking,” Roosevelt said at the start of his first “fireside chat” on March 12, 1933: “I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.”
Roosevelt went on to explain, but not condemn, the “undermined confidence” of citizens in banks and other institutions. He then outlined how his efforts to close banks temporarily (the “bank holiday,”) audit them, and print new currency could help restore public faith. Roosevelt asked citizens to resist being “stampeded by rumors or guesses.” He asked them to “unite in bashing fear,” and trust that the machinery of government was working on their behalf.
Roosevelt did not act as a savior, but as a public motivator for what Abraham Lincoln had called, more than seventy years earlier, the “better angels of our nature.” “You have a marvelous radio voice,” James Green wrote to Roosevelt: “It almost seemed the other night, sitting in my easy chair in the library, that you were across the room from me. A great many of my friends have said the same thing.”
Viola Hazelberger wrote: “I have regained faith in the banks due to your earnest beliefs.” Hundreds of thousands of others sent letters to the White House expressing similar sentiments: continued concern, but renewed confidence in collective American capabilities to weather the crisis, thanks to Roosevelt’s words.
The novelist Saul Bellow, then an unemployed immigrant in Chicago, recounted the powerful effect of Roosevelt’s radio addresses. They literally stopped traffic and knitted diverse listeners together in a common cause: “I can recall walking eastward on the Chicago Midway on a summer evening…drivers had pulled over, parking bumper to bumper, and turned on their radios to hear Roosevelt… You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by. You felt joined to these unknown drivers, men and women smoking their cigarettes in silence, not so much considering the President’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and taking assurance from it.”
Roosevelt transformed the figure of the president from a distant commander-in-chief into a personal father figure. Despite his physical paralysis, he made house calls. Through radio he came into citizens’ homes and cars, he helped them make sense of their suffering, and then he encouraged them to join others in their community on a path forward.
That was the core insight of what Roosevelt aptly called the “New Deal” – a renewed social contract between Americans to rebuild their communities. Federal agencies like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and countless others created a venue for citizen activism, energized by the president’s words and attitude. Through the CCC alone, three million young men gained employment in collective projects, funded by the federal government, to improve their communities and public spaces.
Roosevelt’s approach was markedly different from other political leaders. His nemeses were men like Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh, who roused large audiences with nightmare visions and simple solutions to complex problems. They had rabid followers and they caused great damage, encouraging racial and anti-Semitic violence.
But because they could not sustain lasting coalitions, Coughlin, Lindbergh, and other demagogues of the 1930s were fleeting figures, eclipsed by those – especially Roosevelt – who connected more deeply with men and women across the country.
Enduring political connections emerge from the authentic and sincere empathy that the president displayed in his fireside chats. Leaders need to convey understanding before they promote solutions. They must describe and diagnose the different fears that affect diverse citizens. Leaders help people in pain feel validated. They give them voice. Connections come from people seeing that they are not alone in their suffering.
Roosevelt’s fireside chats were a collective coming out – a public acknowledgement that the personal problems of so many were normal and worthy of national attention. Roosevelt brought people together by giving their painful experiences voice, and by showing that he cared. His words sent a message to citizens that he had listened to them, and that he was trying to feel what they felt. That is why so many Americans – hundreds of thousands – sent him letters after each speech. They believed he would continue to listen.
Americans did not overcome economic depression and fascism because Roosevelt had the answers. He was deeply uncertain about what to do, and he had the wisdom not to pretend otherwise. Instead, Roosevelt empowered the people to help themselves, as one would expect in a democracy.
The president provided citizens with motivation and means to make collective improvements, working together. Teamwork produced public goods – from schools and roads to trees and art – not the other way around.
More than eighty years since Roosevelt’s first fireside address, when Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media sites have supplanted the radio (and its successor, television,) Americans must ask themselves what they can learn from the New Deal president about restoring unity in our own deeply traumatized time. Are there lessons for today? Or are Roosevelt’s speeches antiques from a permanently lost past?
The president’s expressions of empathy for confused and despondent citizens are, in fact, as powerful as ever. I know this from playing them for my students today, who still listen intently and feel touched by the fatherly tone that moved their predecessors so many years ago.
Contemporary leaders must find the words, through diverse media, to bring Americans together in a common story. The solutions to our current problems – inequality, climate change, foreign threats, and others – will come as the collective story unfolds.
Promoting simple solutions intensifies divisions and makes it hard for citizens who disagree with a proposal to feel connected. Conveying collective empathy on behalf of national unity must precede issue positioning.
The lesson from Roosevelt for current political candidates is clear: connecting with citizens matters most. Show you care and understand. Encourage and empower people to help themselves, working together.
Talk more about how they feel and what they can do. Talk less about policy and more about how government can assist, inform, and protect. The president leads by connecting and facilitating a vibrant democracy in its moments of greatest challenge.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Washington Post.