Invoking “dysfunction” is now the basic black of punditry about American politics. As the British political theorist David Runciman recently observed in the London Review of Books, “Commentators find it almost impossible to write about American democracy these days without reaching for the word ‘dysfunctional.’” Consider the lowlights of our political culture in just the past 15 years: a puerile impeachment; the subsequent president elected via a Supreme Court filled with political allies; a radicalized Republican Party, convinced that taxation and domestic government spending are a form of socialism; a failure by bipartisan elites even to prioritize, let alone tackle, continued high unemployment and the looming catastrophe of climate change. As Runciman’s editors titled his own essay on America’s lumbering democracy, “How can it work?”
It is one measure of the power of Ira Katznelson’s important, overstuffed new book, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, that the reader conjures thoughts of today’s challenges to our American experiment from a work so firmly set in the crisis of 75 years ago. Katznelson traces U.S. domestic and foreign policy during the long New Deal, from Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration through the end of Harry Truman’s presidency. With a largeness of vision tethered to dense and gritty research, he shows how the South—not just the states of the Confederacy but border states as far north as Delaware—exercised a decisive influence over every stage.
Southern politicians, solidly Democratic, weighed the value of their party loyalty against their fear that new laws and proposed initiatives would disrupt the system of cheap African American labor that grounded their indigenous racial hierarchy. These included the monumental decision to prepare for and enter World War II. In an unintentionally hilarious part of the book, Katznelson describes how Hitler’s propagandists hoped that white Southerners, whom they saw as kindred spirits in bigotry, would provide an American fifth column. But the white-supremacist South baffled and disappointed Berlin. Against opposition from isolationist Republicans, it was the South—guided by, in addition to patriotism, the region’s desire for export markets, military bases, and assurances that its apartheid would remain stable—whose crucial votes in Congress supplied the British with arms and conscripted a vast military force to fight the Nazis. In a wonderful phrase, Katznelson calls this an expression of the South’s “provincial internationalism.”
Katznelson, a professor at Columbia and a giant in the fields of history and political science over the past 40 years, concedes in the introduction that the Southern voting bloc’s influence over the New Deal is not a new topic. Katznelson covered some of this ground in When Affirmative Action Was White (2005), arguing that in such crucial areas as military personnel and Social Security, the era’s policymakers created an enduring set of discriminatory advantages for whites.
In Fear Itself, Katznelson gives these themes more relentless investigation. He widens the lens onto how the South affected the very “character of capitalism” and makes the broadest possible claim for the Southern bloc—both its uniqueness and its influence. “Make no mistake. … The South was singular … an entrenched system of racial humiliation that became everyday practice,” he writes. Southern lawmakers, moreover, “acted not on the fringes, but as an indispensible part of the governing political party. New Deal lawmaking would have failed without the active consent and governing creativity of these southern members of Congress.”
Yet Katznelson concedes that the New Deal did not fail. The United States, following economic devastation and war, emerged a better and stronger nation. We didn’t cancel national elections as Great Britain did. FDR pushed the boundaries of democratic norms—once, during the war, he told Congress he’d implement the partial repeal of the Emergency Price Control Act himself if it didn’t pass the repeal by the end of the month. But we did not succumb to fascism or communism.
From the shards of the Depression, we built a social insurance and regulatory state that protected the elderly, guaranteed the rights of workers to collectively bargain, and monitored the stock market. We remade the most productive and creative economy in the world. As Katznelson writes, “I ascribe to the New Deal an import on par almost with the French Revolution … not merely an important event in the history of the United States, but the most important twentieth century testing ground for representative government in an age of mass politics” (emphasis added).
Emerging better and stronger is not the same as being politically virtuous. Katznelson is concerned that through FDR’s partnership with white supremacy’s enforcers and, later, with Stalin’s Soviet Union, America undermined “core tenets of liberal democracy,” fostering a new “ethos of unaccountability.” The elites of the “greatest generation” turned a blind eye to racism, effectively lied on behalf of Stalin’s reign of terror, and destroyed whole cities in bombing campaigns that caused the deaths of 750,000 German and Japanese civilians. To situate this quandary, Katznelson cites Michael Walzer’s famous essay about the problem of “dirty hands” in politics. The book’s unstated question is, how dirty is too dirty?
It’s not news to say that the South was different. Katznelson quotes Ulrich Phillips, early 20th-century historian of the antebellum slave South, observing that the region’s “white folk [are] a people with common resolve indomitably maintained—that [the South] shall be and remain a white man’s country.” Katznelson notes that as late as 1938, only 4 percent of African Americans in the South were registered to vote. As University of Michigan political scientist Robert Mickey argues in his forthcoming study, Paths out of Dixie, during this period, there were, in fact, significant variations between “Outer” Southern states and the region’s core—states like Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina that Mickey labels “authoritarian enclaves” under the loose aegis of a democratic federal government. But during the New Deal, at the level of national lawmaking in Washington, D.C., these variations mattered little: The region’s members of Congress mostly supported or opposed the same bills.
Katznelson concentrates on Congress rather than the oft-explored theme of presidential leadership embodied in, say, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Roosevelt. How did almost every vote of consequence depend on the weight applied by the Southern legislators? The short answer is one-party rule by the Democrats. Katznelson traces a sequence of reinforcing structural dynamics. Uncontested elections led to the accrual of Southern political seniority. Seniority resulted in leadership positions. The guaranteed long tenures of Southern politicians gave them a deep understanding of how Congress worked. Throughout the period, Southerners chaired the majority of committees in both houses and sometimes held the majority of seats within the Democratic Party.
Katznelson’s mining of the record yields dazzling, daunting results. In battle after legislative battle, Southern Democrats found themselves pitted on the one hand against Republicans who opposed government expansion and entry into the war and on the other hand against liberal Northern Democrats like Senator Robert Wagner of New York, who sought to strengthen labor and expand African Americans’ civil and political rights. In the New Deal’s early years, Southern members of Congress stuck with their long-held Democratic loyalty and championed the vast sums of federal dollars rushing into their impoverished states. Even the rabidly racist Theodore Bilbo, senator from Mississippi, who proposed as late as 1946 that blacks be resettled in Liberia, voted in 1935 for the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), labor’s so-called Magna Carta.
That was before union growth tripled in little more than a decade—and the political muscle of Southern blacks started to flex. At war’s end, the South found itself faced with the prospect of an interracial movement for economic empowerment. This was symbolized by the CIO’s “Operation Dixie,” begun in 1946 as an ambitious campaign to organize the low-wage, biracial Southern working class. The region’s political and economic elites race- and redbaited the effort, which stands to this day as one of organized labor’s great failures.
Operation Dixie epitomized the fear of white Southern elites that an emergent labor movement could organize workers—including black workers—at the levels of 35 percent or more found in many Northern states. A militant movement, supported by Democratic presidents and a sympathetic National Labor Relations Board, would do more than undermine the region’s exploitative wages. It would augment the embryonic political strength of blacks, already enjoying a boost after the Supreme Court’s 1944 abolition of the South’s whites-only primary election system. Katznelson’s critical synthesis is to track the fate of labor and employment legislation—from the passage of the NLRA to the dramatic, restrictive revisions of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 to the final defeat of the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1950—and show how closely its weakening correlated with the emerging civil-rights activism of African Americans.
Southern legislators began rejecting or watering down any bill that enhanced union power, gave the federal government more authority to manage the labor market, or—in the case of granting GIs the right to vote during World War II—promised to enhance in any way the political power of African Americans. The legislators’ choice marked a turning point in the history of midcentury America—what the historian Nelson Lichtenstein has called “the eclipse of social democracy.” While the fight took place in workplaces and town squares throughout the South, Katznelson renders the national expression of it in revelatory detail. He evokes the climate in a profile of Mississippi’s Bilbo, whose reactionary barbarism shocked his Southern peers no more than his “loud check suits and brash ties.” It is chilling to realize there are living Americans who can recall a U.S. senator scolding Eleanor Roosevelt for her support of black civil rights by saying that she “would like to compel Southern girls to use the stools and toilets of damn syphilitic nigger women.” New York’s Wagner, meanwhile, emerges as one of the Southern bloc’s most implacable foes.
Fear Itself convincingly shows how Bilbo and his colleagues eroded the social-justice and egalitarian possibilities of the New Deal. But Katznelson is too sanguine about the technocratic nirvana that might have been if not for the “Southern imposition.” He spends several pages describing one of the era’s intra-liberal-left domestic battles over broader economic policy. How should capitalism be managed? Fiscal Keynesians—sitting in this case to the “right”—favored the manipulation of taxes and revenues to enhance consumption. Advocates of planning wanted the government to work with business and organized labor in directing investment to capital markets and workers to job markets. The planners enjoyed their widest latitude during the early war years. But no popular movement ever arose to back their wonkish vision for America, and after the war their dreams fizzled. Yes, white Southern solidarity blocked a more capacious social-insurance state. No, a continental-size Sweden was never in the offing.
Katznelson also ascribes to organized labor a more intellectually coherent, politically potent desire for planning than it possessed. Walter Reuther, the brilliant president of the United Auto Workers, indeed favored European-style joint planning in which labor worked with management to effectively run the company. But by the spring of 1946, Reuther had already waged his famous 113-day strike against General Motors—he’d demanded a union seat at the management table—and lost.
There is a bigger meta-argument here, invoked in Katznelson’s title and guiding metaphor of the New Deal traveling “uncharted territory, often without maps in hand.” “To understand [the New Deal’s] achievements and their price,” he argues, “we must incorporate uncertainty’s state of doubt, and identify the objects of fear and the effects of being frightened.”
To make this larger claim, Katznelson alludes to fear to such a degree that it seems everywhere in his book, and everywhere in America from 1932 to 1952. On page after page, he repeats dramatic variations on the theme of fear and what he takes to be the grave risks of making policy choices in a crisis. He writes, “A climate of universal fear deeply affected political understandings and concerns. Nothing was sure.” Later he says, “Spreading like fire from rooftop to rooftop, fear provided a context and served as a motivation for thought and action both for American leaders and ordinary citizens.” There is a poetic, narrative sweep to this method. But a comparison to another recent book with fear in the title is illuminating. InFear: The History of a Political Idea (2004), political scientist Corey Robin reads canonical texts in political philosophy and reconstructs the real-world impact of fear during the McCarthy era and in the employer-controlled workplace. Robin views political fear as a kind of collective identity formation—a perverse social vitality, encouraged by the state in reaction to traumatic events like September 11—and also as a weapon of social control: “The most salient political fear … is the fear among the less powerful of the more powerful.”
Fear Itself lacks such a precise analytical purchase. Toward the book’s end, it switches perspective from domestic politics to the postwar creation of the American national-security state. As Katznelson argues, Congress slowly but surely abdicated its oversight of nuclear weaponry, military and scientific research, and war-making powers to the president and the executive branch, beginning a trend that has lasted to this day.
Other scholars have more extensively treated this material, so these sections have an “I must get to the end of Truman’s term” feel to them. There’s also nothing especially “Southern” in this abdication, so the book’s strongest narrative thread gets lost. (The South, however, did gain enormously from military spending and bases in the region. With so many Northern Democrats defeated in the 1942 and 1946 midterms, the Southerners’ influence only grew. By 1948, they represented almost 60 percent of the Democrats in Congress.)
The irony here is that Southerners who had spent 15 years in worried opposition to federal powers joined the legislative rush to hand the executive branch and the newly created Department of Defense more power—in the realm of national security and invasive investigations into the political views and sexual orientation of federal employees. Two emblematic policy fights of the postwar era concerned the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission and later the National Science Foundation. Public-minded civilian-planning types faced off against most (if not all) scientists, the military, and university officials, who saw visions of a lucrative military industrial complex dancing before their eyes. By 1950, the civilian planners had lost. The national-security state as we know it was founded. Over the decades, this state has become ever more divorced from democratic accountability. Katznelson sees it as lacking a humanist civil purpose, almost a soul.
With its 150-plus pages of detailed endnotes, Fear Itself displays the artisanal mastery of a scholar immersed in his subject. I loved these endnotes, with their discursive references ranging from Robert Musil to Bernard Bailyn to Henry James. Yet Katznelson’s knowledge serves more than a professional standard. Katznelson wrote a poignantly academic (the oxymoron is deliberate) book, Desolation and Enlightenment (2003), about postwar intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Karl Polanyi, and Richard Hofstadter who rethought Western liberalism in the face of totalitarianism, world war, and mass extermination. As Katznelson once recalled in homage to his early mentor, Hofstadter “taught me to prize the craft of writing history and social science as an aspect of public life and political responsibility.”
In its ambition and affecting earnestness, if not its contents, Fear Itself reminds me somewhat of a work by another postwar social scientist Katznelson discusses inDesolation and Enlightenment, Charles Lind-blom’s Politics and Markets. In both books the reader senses the quietly emotional undercurrent of a great intellectual self-consciously grappling with the largest questions. How to balance democracy and capitalism in an age of American global hegemony? Sometimes, the questions can’t be satisfactorily answered. Katznelson can’t quite reconcile the two valences he gives to the word “planning.” He stands in support of democratic domestic planning and in opposition to secretive national-security planning.
Fear Itself is an uneven but extraordinary and suggestive achievement. It is also timely, arriving as the Supreme Court, in considering the constitutionality of Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, ponders anew this book’s question: When did the South fully integrate itself into the United States? Has it ever? At the same time, during a “war on terror” that feels as endless as the Cold War seemed in the 1950s, at least some of our elites are worried about the president’s accountability to democratic protocols. Entwined in every aspect of our political culture is the fear of one major political party that its cultural, racial, and economic homogeneity might disqualify it indefinitely from presidential power. Somehow, we are still arguing about the social solidarity arduously forged out of the New Deal.
“The past is never dead,” a character of Faulkner’s famously said. “It’s not even past.” In thinking about Fear Itself, I read a speech given by Frederick Douglass following a visit to South Carolina and Georgia in 1888, a full generation after the South had been left decimated at the Civil War’s end. Douglass, the 19th century’s greatest African American leader, addressed a continuing “love of power” in the white South. Douglass warned that this love of and “talent” for power “makes the old master class of the South not only the masters of the Negro, but the masters of Congress and, if not checked, will make them the masters of the nation.”
Early in Fear Itself, Katznelson briefly revisits some of the intellectuals to whom he devoted Desolation and Enlightenment. By 1935 and 1936 many of these mostly German Jewish émigrés—Arendt, Adorno, Strauss, Morgenthau, Neumann—had fled Europe and were meeting at New York’s New School for Social Research, in a regular “general seminar” to discuss the fate of liberal democracy and policies that might sustain it.
In doing so, writes Katznelson, they seized the challenge of their time, “defending liberal democracy in an open, rich and cosmopolitan way.” Fear Itself elliptically reminds us that we, too, in our much more modest way, should try to defend against the authoritarian and the parochial with open, rich, and cosmopolitan hearts. Read the book, argue with it. Dive in: Don’t be intimidated by its expansive and sometimes digressive scope. I mean, you remember what the man in the wheel chair said about fear itself, right?
–By Rich Yeselson, The American Prospect