Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, by Ira Katznelson, Liveright, 706 pages, $29.95.
Despite its subtitle, Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time does not focus solely on New Deal policies. Instead, the book discusses a range of events in American and world history that took place during the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman administrations. The topics sometimes seem almost randomly chosen, but a couple of themes emerge.
One is that, to an extent previously either ignored or underemphasized, politicians from the Jim Crow South controlled key committees in both houses of Congress, and therefore exerted a huge influence on the course of the New Deal. That part is true. Katznelson also indicates that the New Deal would have been more “progressive” but for the Southern Democrats. That part is more dubious.
As Katznelson acknowledges, Southern Democrats in the House and Senate tended to be extremely enthusiastic New Dealers and were among FDR’s most loyal supporters on both domestic and foreign policy. And while Katznelson rightly points out that Southern political influence made it impossible for the New Deal to challenge the racial status quo in the South, he provides no evidence that the president wanted to challenge that status quo.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest disappointment in Fear Itself is Katznelson’s missed opportunity to address an important and under-researched issue: how an early-20th-century economic progressivism that willingly accommodated segregation, eugenics, and other manifestations of racism evolved by the early 1960s into the racially tolerant liberalism we know today.
Fear Itself neglects this issue because Katznelson seems to assume that no explanation is needed. Like many modern American progressives, he writes as though, in the United States at least, economic statism inherently goes hand in hand with racial liberalism. But from the Civil War through the New Deal period there was no correlation between an American’s views on economic policy and on civil rights. As late as 1952, Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, who had a reputation as a liberal intellectual but a mixed record at best on civil rights issues, chose Alabama Sen. John Sparkman, a staunch Jim Crow supporter, as his running mate.
Katznelson is not much more insightful in discussing the late-1930s birth of a tentative coalition between Republican economic conservatives and Southern Democrats. Katznelson correctly asserts that southern politicians rebelled against President Roosevelt’s attempt to align the wage structure of southern industry with the rest of the nation. FDR did this through a national minimum wage set to northern standards and by encouraging national unions that would set uniform wages.
Opposition to these policies did not, as Katznelson would have it, come solely or even primarily from a desire to preserve the racial status quo. Southern politicians were opposed because these policies were, and were designed to be, a threat to southern industry. The South had low capital investment, educated its youth in poor schools, and generally lacked air conditioning, which was still in its commercial infancy. The only advantage the South could offer employers was the region's low wages. As the historians Bruce Schulman and Gavin Wright have documented, FDR’s attempt to create a national wage scale by government fiat represented an attempt to destroy southern industry at the behest of northern businesses and unions, which wanted to eliminate the South’s low-wage competition.
Katznelson also fails to address the threat that federal wage policy posed to the livelihoods of millions of black workers who worked in southern industry, disproportionately in low-wage jobs. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of African Americans did lose their jobs thanks to the minimum wage established by the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, and the rest were saved from unemployment only because World War II–inspired wage inflation kicked in before the act could be fully implemented.
This was hardly the only way that the New Deal didn’t simply accommodate the Jim Crow order but further immiserated the lives of African Americans. Most important, the two Agricultural Adjustment Acts eliminated hundreds of thousands of African-American jobs. But, though Katznelson does address some less significant ways in which the New Deal hurt blacks, you won’t learn that story from his book.
Katznelson’s other major theme is a defense of Roosevelt from critics, left and right, who emphasize the New Deal’s dictatorial elements. Katznelson acknowledges that New Deal economic planning was inspired in part by policies in Fascist Italy and that the New Deal tried to centralize economic authority in the executive branch. He attempts to explain the need for drastic measures by arguing that economic calamity threatened American democracy. And unlike Hitler and Mussolni, the author emphasizes, Roosevelt relied on powers duly granted to him by an elected Congress.
Katznelson’s book neglects some of president’s more controversial unilateral executive orders, such as Executive Order 6102, which required American to surrender their gold to the government; nor does it explore his effort to undermine the Supreme Court. Still, it’s true that the United States navigated the 1930s with its democracy intact. But was American democracy ever really in jeopardy from the Great Depression?
A few fascistic figures such as Father Coughlin and Huey Long (both of whom make only brief cameos in Fear Itself) had significant followings in the 1930s, and the Communist Party reached a membership zenith. But the U.S. suffered little domestic political violence in the decade, and no undemocratic movement achieved any real traction. None of the other Anglosphere nations—Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand—faced a serious threat to its democracy in the 1930s, even without an FDR at the helm. The idea that FDR’s embrace of soft fascism was necessary to preserve American democracy seems speculative at best, and a distortion of history to suit the author’s affection for FDR’s policies at worst. If Katznelson had made more of an effort to show how the New Deal affects modern times, and less time making excuses for Roosevelt’s most questionable political choices, this would have been a much better book.
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