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

by Ira Katznelson

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242587,876 (3.95)4
Redefining our traditional understanding of the New Deal, this book finally examines this pivotal American era through a sweeping international lens that juxtaposes a struggling democracy with enticing ideologies like Fascism and Communism. Historian Ira Katznelson asserts that, during the 1930s and 1940s, American democracy was rescued yet distorted by a unified band of southern lawmakers who safeguarded racial segregation as they built a new national state to manage capitalism and assert global power. --From publisher description.… (more)
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The South has had an oversized influence on American history, rarely for the better. For a number of reasons (the culture of the initial Scotch-Irish founding population, the more aristocracy-friendly agricultural economy, the harsh system of racial apartheid), the South has remained stubbornly distinct as a society, and its representatives in the federal government have been ferocious about opposing any initiatives they saw as counter to the South's interests and values. Katznelson's focus here is on how important the South's representatives were to shaping the New Deal, America's conduct in World War 2, and the immediate Cold War aftermath, a thesis which rarely gets the attention it deserves.

Even though FDR was an aristocratic Northerner, Southern representatives were crucial to his legislative agenda. Because the South was basically a one-party region, once Southern Democrats made it through their primaries they were assured of winning elections. In an era of the seniority system, that meant that after the big Democratic waves of the New Deal coalition, they occupied a disproportionately large percentage of the leadership spots, as well as frequently remaining a majority of the party caucus. Additionally, Southern Democrats were often able to cast the deciding votes in disputes between Republicans and nonsouthern Democrats, able to extract whatever concessions they needed from bills that threatened the Jim Crow system or white superiority in general.

An example that Katznelson doesn't use is in my hometown of Austin: while the Santa Rita Courts were the first public housing in the country, there were three separate projects that were segregated by race in accordance with Southern values. I was surprised to read that Southern representatives were initially fairly economically progressive in terms of big public works projects like the TVA or the LCRA, but they inevitably dissented whenever a piece of economic legislation threatened to treat blacks and whites equally. Labor unions were nearly the only institution that was making progress in the fight for racial equality, and much of the modern South's antipathy to unions can be traced back to this period. Katznelson quotes a contemporary magazine article thus: "The only local institution that southern whites and Negroes have in common today is the labor union" and shows that over time, as the New Deal's economic component became more important, Southern Congressmen voted increasingly with Republicans to frustrate Roosevelt and other liberals.

The South has always been more militaristic than the rest of the country (if not quite as good at actually winning wars), and when World War 2 finally reached America Southern Congressmen were oddly eager to give the federal government vast powers to fight the Axis. Katznelson's explanations for why German efforts to promote solidarity between their similar racial ideologies during the runup to the war didn't take aren't very convincing to me, but he does a good job of showing the efforts of the Southerners to get disproportionate defense spending in their districts. I wish he had pointed out that this legacy lingers in the fact that Southerners like Stennis and Vinson got aircraft carriers named after them despite their frequently-deplorable records on civil rights and other issues. Regardless, the South's peculiar combination of nationalism and xenophobia fit perfectly into the paranoid Cold War period, when Southerners were exceptionally diligent in Red Scare witch hunts (though of course Joseph McCarthy was not a Southerner).

The overall lessons that I took away from Katznelson included a new respect for how LBJ was able to transcend his background and get through so much good legislation in the Great Society. His compatriots were clever and tenacious in their ability to water down laws to protect Jim Crow; that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eventually passed is a miracle. The way that the fear caused by economic and military crises can shape responses to them is well done here in the contrasts drawn between the US and the European dictatorships that abandoned democracy in a way the US never did. Additionally, I appreciated his focus on Congress, in contrast to so much literature that treats the President as a powerful sovereign and Congress as a faceless bill-generating machine. That makes his exploration of the South's attitude towards the way that things like trade policies and treaties should be negotiated very good. Furthermore, I was struck by how the South maintained its particular identity over many decades and despite many large demographic changes - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper once gave an interesting if predictably partisan speech to the US Council for National Policy in June 1997 where he analogized the US South to Quebec, and I think further study of the similarities and differences between the two in the effects of the regions on their respective national politics would be extremely enlightening.

Overall this book is an important contribution to understanding how the legacy of the South's unique culture has affected American history. While non-Southerners might rightly question why such a backwards region is able to have such a pernicious effect on the national discourse, continued population flows to Southern states make understanding why its legislators have such regressive and reactionary views more important than ever. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Author Katznelson puts the New Deal in a greater context than what is taught (certainly bigger than I was taught) in US high schools. The international and national stage, the time period of history, what it was like for people in the United States, the work it took to get it through Congress and more. We learn exactly how much "fear" in its various forms played a role in how the New Deal was shaped.

Katznelson takes us through the story by theme: from what was going on in other places around the world, to the make up of Congress at that time, the state of the economy and more. Like others, this was very difficult for me to read though. It was confusing because of the leaps in time forwards and backwards since the organization is by theme rather than a chronological look. It makes me think that the author expects a much greater understanding of the time period, the New Deal, FDR and Truman presidencies, etc. than the text allows.

This is not to ignore how much work and research Katznelson obviously put into it. But it really felt like it was just too much to absorb. I can't quite remember how I came to learning about this text but the angle that most interested me was how and why Congress fought against it and the role played by the particular parts of both parties. That is covered in the book but I had been led to believe somehow that this was what the book was about rather than a greater look at the New Deal itself.

I think for someone who is more knowledgeable and/or is studying this time period it could be enormously helpful and would be a book I could see on a college syllabus. But as a "regular" non-expert reader this was too much for me and didn't quite answer the knowledge gaps I have. Library borrow was best for me. ( )
  HoldMyBook | Jun 30, 2018 |
This book approaches the New Deal from the perspective of the political accommodations that surrounded the efforts to pass progressive legislation. As the title suggests, fear was a major concern, and this insight remains relevant today. It probably touches on something basic in human nature, but that's beside the point for now. The fear of economic collapse, fascism, communism, Nazism...and later nuclear weapons all play a part. The political compromises needed to appease these fears explain some of the characteristics of New Deal and subsequent progressive legislation. Although much of it was (and remains) largely successful, it could have been more effective. Much of the book talks about the influence of southern states that feared that their established social order (Jim Crow/segregation) could be undermined by progressive New Deal policies that supported workers. On the other hand, Southern legislators wanted the economic boon that New Deal legislation brought to their states. They would remain solidly behind it as long as the legislation was tailored to avoid disrupting their established discriminatory practices.

I found this book an interesting and informative account of a pivotal, possibly revolutionary period in history. It also provides relevant historical background for the political squabbles in Congress and in the nation today. ( )
  DLMorrese | Aug 23, 2017 |
In Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, Ira Katznelson argues, “The New Deal – the designation I use for the full period of Democratic Party rule that begins with FDR’s election in 1932 and closes with Dwight Eisenhower’s two decades later – reconsidered and rebuilt the country’s long-established political order” (pg. 4-5). To this end, Katznelson “examines the fringes of liberal civilization and the ways in which illiberal political orders, both within and outside the United States, influenced key New Deal decisions” (pg. 7). Unlike previous histories of the New Deal era that focus on the executive branch and President Roosevelt, Katznelson primarily focuses on the legislative branch of government. Crucially, Katznelson refocuses on the conflicting role of the South in the New Deal. He writes, “The failure to place the special, often determining role of the Jim Crow South front and center, I believe, has had much the same effect as the ‘willful critical blindness’ about race that Toni Morrison has identified so tellingly” (pg. 22).
Katznelson uses fear as a discursive tool to understand the actions of the legislature in passing extensive New Deal legislation; compromising with fascists early on, the Soviets later, and Southern racists throughout; and in the arms buildup at the beginning of the Cold War. Discussing the fear of the Great Depression, Katznelson writes, “Intense uncertainty, the kind that makes the usual sense of the term status quo virtually irrelevant, became a source of fear” (pg. 48). Discussing the ease with which U.S. policymakers overlooked the crimes of other governments and the racism of their own Southern representatives, Katznelson writes, “A willingness to countenance horrendous human rights violations in the name of realism, which would become even more apparent in 1938 with Kristallancht, thus already was evident in the aftermath of this aggressive Italian war” in Ethiopia (pg. 69). Describing the role of the Southern legislators, Katznelson writes, “Fusing white supremacy with American nationalism, most white southerners, including most politicians, saw little conflict between systematic racism and liberal democratic government. This combination controlled how the region stayed within the ambit of national politics through the instrument of the Democratic Party” (pg. 160). This further ensured a Southern blockade of civil rights legislation. In order to avoid a one-sided narrative, Katznelson writes of the South’s role in successful mobilization for war, “Without the South, strict neutrality would have persisted, aid would not have followed so readily to U.S. allies, and no person would have been subject to conscription for longer than one year” (pg. 281). Katznelson described the fear facing Americans in the face new dictatorships, writing, “Americans had reason to worry that their frail and undersized federal government lacked effective means to exercise global power, revive capitalism, or calm the widespread disquiet of the American people. The rise of the dictatorships along with the means they had adopted to address economic problems and rebalance international might and power revealed that familiar policies would no longer suffice” (pg. 114). In discussing the power of the legislative branch during the first one hundred days, Katznelson writes,
In placing the recovery program almost entirely in the president’s hands, Congress did flirt with what might be thought of as a functional Enabling Act. But flirt though it did, the institution also did not cross the line. Congress kept, and increasingly asserted, its legislative prerogatives. Even during the Hundred Days, the legislature dealt with the economic emergency through ordinary legislation, however novel and far-reaching, rather than by yielding lawmaking to the executive branch or declaring a state of exception (pg. 125).
Fear reasserted itself after the end of the war. Katznelson writes of postwar legislation, “The frantic pace of all this planning and legislation was propelled by anxiety. If the war had brought an end to the Depression conditions of investment and employment, what would happen when this unprecedented federal investment and spending, not to mention price controls and active manpower policies, were finally withdrawn?” (pg. 369). Discussing the role of fear in creating the national security state during the Cold War, Katznelson writes, “Hugely motivated by fears of Communism, congressional decisions were guided by a more bipartisan approach to foreign affairs than had existed before Pearl Harbor, particularly those related to the control of atomic energy and the organization of the armed services” (pg. 422). This fear led to the creation of the CIA and concentration of powers in the executive branch, though Katznelson argues it was with the legislature’s consent. He writes, “Nuclear fear was fueling lasting changes to the American state” (pg. 441).
Katznelson primarily interacts with the previous work on the New Deal by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Bernard Bailyn, and Richard Hofstadter. He extends the boundaries of the New Deal beyond the 1940s and into the early years of the Cold War, tracing the growth of government during that period to the process begun in the 1930s. Most interestingly, Katznelson avoids the congratulatory note that typifies New Deal history, instead focusing on conflicts of interest and moral bargaining. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Mar 17, 2017 |
A history of the FDR era, focusing on the big threats Americans perceived—unemployment and the Axis, mainly—and the compromises FDR made with Southern Democrats to fight them—accepting discrimination against African-Americans. As he puts it near the end, in the fight against radical evil (the Nazis), many compromises with lesser evils may have been justified, but the compromises with white supremacists on internal social policy can reasonably be described as wicked. These compromises included devolving control over relief programs to the states, which could then exclude African-Americans; excluding farm workers and domestic servants from the scope of pro-unionization federal law; and later in the Taft-Hartley Act, barring secondary boycotts so the Teamsters couldn’t encourage farmworker unionization by refusing to haul non-union-picked produce. Ultimately, these compromises—designed to protect the low-wage South from unionization and racial equality—may have brought down the New Deal entirely. ( )
  rivkat | Jan 26, 2017 |
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Redefining our traditional understanding of the New Deal, this book finally examines this pivotal American era through a sweeping international lens that juxtaposes a struggling democracy with enticing ideologies like Fascism and Communism. Historian Ira Katznelson asserts that, during the 1930s and 1940s, American democracy was rescued yet distorted by a unified band of southern lawmakers who safeguarded racial segregation as they built a new national state to manage capitalism and assert global power. --From publisher description.

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