By Ira Katznelson. Liveright, 2013, 720 pp. $29.95.
Today, Americans tend to understand the New Deal in a few standard ways. The consensus view is triumphalist: the New Deal was the first step in the United States’ muscular emergence from the Great Depression and the beginning of the country’s rise to become the undisputed “leader of the free world.” Then there are the more ideological interpretations. Liberals see the New Deal as a vindication of Keynesian economics, strong labor unions, and a secure social welfare state. In the liberal view, Roosevelt confronted the fear spawned by the cruel and crushing hardships of unfettered capitalism during the 1920s. Conservatives hold, meanwhile, that the New Deal left a legacy of unrestrained government intrusion into the private sector and quasi-authoritarian limits on liberty and the free market. In the conservative view, Roosevelt is himself the source of fear, standing in for the menace of unbridled executive power.
The New Deal era portrayed in Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself contrasts sharply with all those conventional accounts.
Many histories of the New Deal cast Roosevelt as a hero, quashing fear and winning the day for democratic principles, remaking the nation’s social contract, and committing his country to the cause of global peace. Katznelson eschews this formula, focusing instead on the southern Democrats in Congress who emerged as the pivotal characters in the New Deal’s transformation of the American state. Katznelson painstakingly details how Roosevelt’s agenda would not have been possible without the endorsement by southern representatives of a massive expansion of federal power at home. “Without the South,” Katznelson asserts, “there could have been no New Deal.”
The South in the 1930s was defined by what the historian C. Vann Woodward has called “the paradoxical combination of white supremacy and progressivism.” The progressivism had its roots in a southern economy that depended on agriculture and, as a result, suffered an unusual degree of penury during the Depression. Those dire circumstances fueled an appetite for generous social welfare policies and large infrastructure projects. Hard times also pushed southerners to accept the sweeping regulation of capitalist industries, especially those associated mostly with the North, such as banking, railroads, and utilities.
But an even more powerful factor in southern politics was the strict racial hierarchy that placed whites above African Americans and that imbued the South with what Katznelson calls “powerful authoritarian tendencies.” Indeed, when it came to white supremacy and Jim Crow, the South’s congressional representatives displayed an unusually fervid and disciplined unanimity. By dint of their sheer numbers and their seniority in Congress, they wielded an effective veto over every major legislative effort of the Roosevelt presidency. Katznelson terms the result a “southern cage,” which resounded with an “obbligato -- the deep and mournful sound of southern political power determined to hold on to a distinctive way of life.”
At each point, Katznelson masterfully documents the extent to which southern Democrats decreed as a nonnegotiable precondition to any legislative action the prevention of African Americans in the South from benefiting from the New Deal in any way. The segregationists supported the Tennessee Valley Authority, but only so long as the cheap electricity it produced flowed only to communities that were strictly segregated. Likewise, African Americans were specifically excluded from New Deal legislation that set minimum wages and secured benefits for farm laborers and domestic servants.
Katznelson plunges much deeper than most historians of the era into the lives and careers of the South’s Jim Crow New Dealers. He profiles well-known figures such as Louisiana’s Senator Huey Long but also reveals the instrumental roles played by others, including Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, and Hugo Black, who served as a senator from Alabama for ten years before Roosevelt appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1937. Katznelson does not spare the reader the vivid, revolting details of the unreconstructed bigotry of many southern Democrats toward African Americans. (Bilbo, an ardent New Dealer, was also an enthusiastic member of the Ku Klux Klan; while filibustering an anti-lynching bill in the Senate in 1938, Bilbo warned that “one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculty.”)
But Katznelson also chronicles the acquiescence of well-meaning liberals in the North who were complicit in denying black southerners both the benefits of the New Deal and the prosperity generated by the U.S. victory in World War II. The Roosevelt administration and its northern liberal allies often looked the other way while southern Democrats excised any elements of New Deal legislation that might have benefited southern blacks and thereby threatened the existing racial order. Katznelson calls this Roosevelt’s “strategy of pragmatic forgetfulness.”