Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson

April 11, 2013

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a New York Democrat both patrician and populist, occupied the White House for four successive terms after winning his first presidential election in 1932. In the nadir of the Great Depression, when bank panics were legion, soup lines stretched for blocks and a quarter of the US public was jobless, he struck a tone of reassurance: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Promising a “new deal for the American people”, he initiated interventionist measures and forged a modern liberal state that stabilised capitalism, even as he blasted Wall Street’s “economic royalists”. The New Deal brought one breakthrough after another: massive public works spending; the Wagner Act and its guarantee of workers’ rights to organise and strike; the Social Security Act’s old-age pensions and unemployment insurance; and national regulatory agencies from the Agricultural Adjustment Administration to the National Labor Relations Board. Once a laissez-faire bastion, the US leaped to within hailing distance of social democracy.

Captivated by that drama, many a first-rate historian has retold it - so often and so skilfully that we now possess more superb narrative histories of the liberal New Deal than we may ever need. The dazzling accomplishment of Fear Itself, a career capstone work by political scientist and historian Ira Katznelson, is to cast the New Deal anew. He arranges his examination thematically, not sequentially. He sees Congress, not the presidency, as the essential fulcrum of decision-making. He casts US social policy not as a response to economic crisis so much as to the fear that liberal democracy might not be sufficient to address the crisis, a refrain then heard among dictatorship’s admirers in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Stalin’s Soviet Union. He holds that the American South and its politicians were every bit as crucial as liberals in the North to the New Deal. Finally, he believes that total context, not the Oval Office, best explains the New Deal. None of this is altogether new. Some of the points even appear in Katznelson’s own 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White: Uncivil Rights. By bringing them to bear in concert on the New Deal, however, he reorients our understanding brilliantly.

Take the weight Katznelson accords the American South. The single-party South is almost always mentioned in accounts of the New Deal coalition, but ritualistically and in passing. The South appears as one element in the long list of Democratic coalition constituencies, including northern liberals, intellectuals, immigrants, ethnics, blacks and union members. For Katznelson, by contrast, the South is axiomatic - a player rather than a backwater. The region changed the nation in the 1930s and 1940s even as the nation changed it. Its semi-colonial status in relation to northern industry and finance left the South’s House and Senate delegations eager to pass economic redistribution measures and programmes such as the Tennessee Valley Authority in the radical early New Deal years. By 1938, after the New Deal had unleashed interracial labour organisation, strike waves and proposals for federal standardisation of wages, however, southern Democrats recoiled and began to ally with Republicans in demanding exceptions for agricultural and domestic workers, in excluding black labour from New Deal protection and in passing measures such as the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that curtailed union power. That, as much as the Cold War, is why the 1940s stymied the New Deal’s progress towards social democracy. Subsequently, white southern Democrats simply became Republicans, replacing one “Solid South” with another. Alive with insight, Fear Itself is essential reading for those seeking to comprehend the promise and limitations of US politics, past or present.

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