The Book —
The Author —
Ira Katznelson, Ruggles professor of history and political science at Columbia
The Question I Should Have Previously Asked But Did Not Ask Until Reading This Book (QISHPABDNAURTB) —
“Why, if FDR won reelection in 1936 with a landslide vote and even greater Democratic margins in Congress, was his second term so lacking in lasting New Deal legislation?”
The Review —
Fear Itself is amazing, all 720 pages of it. It’s hard for me to do it justice in a review, which is why I’ve been unable to complete this two months after finishing the book and seven months after checking out the book (the library closed down in the interim). Plus, the book came out four years ago. You can read better reviews here, here and here. But recent events in Charlottesville make me want to share my piece.
Fear Itself explores just how much the solid South did to shape and control the achievements of the Roosevelt/Truman years. The imperfections this created in the crown jewel of the American welfare state linger today. This is a book centered on the legislative branch; those two great presidents are in the supporting cast.
Here is the basic story: With the ascension of FDR and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, the solid South saw the New Deal as an opportunity to finally catch up economically with the North. They only felt comfortable doing this because Jim Crow was so entrenched that they couldn’t fathom any serious challenge to the racial order. Plus, FDR was friendly to the South. His Cabinet and court picks were packed with Southerners. Laws could be shaped to exclude blacks, and regulators could be selected to exercise proper discretion. It’s no coincidence that so many New Deal programs were delegated to regional or state-based administrators — the South could continue to rule itself.
However, despite the best intentions of racist southern Democrats, the New Deal couldn’t help but help blacks as well as whites. Democratic majorities were elected all over the non-South with the fusion of labor and black voters, who defected from the Republican Party en masse. And with the influence of northern Dems and people like Eleanor Roosevelt, sometimes FDR couldn’t help but be egalitarian. Some regulations started to prohibit racial discrimination. Anti-lynching laws started to get votes in Congress. Jim Crow was not invincible, it turned out.
Therefore, southern Democrats, who, being senior, still controlled the pivotal committees of Congress, started to oppose FDR whenever he would interfere with the racial order. They would even vote with Republicans if necessary. And FDR needed their support if he wanted to get anything done. So the madcap pace of Roosevelt’s first four years gave way to relative stagnation until the largest war in human history. There is your answer to the QISHPABDNAURTB. Back in high school history class, they told us that the Supreme Court was the culprit, but that doesn’t explain the anemic response by the other branches of the government.
Essentially, the New Deal represents the last time the South welcomed rather than opposed direct federal intervention with the economy. It only let its guard down for a moment; as soon as the racial order was threatened, it closed ranks. But in that window of opportunity the American government forged the modern welfare state. It was a miraculous accomplishment.
I oversimplify, for the sake of a cleaner story. The book gets into a lot more. You can read about Mussolini and get a sense of how fragile democracy and capitalism seemed to be by the time FDR took office. You can read about World War II, when America became a planned economy. You can read about a bill to let overseas soldiers vote, seemingly noncontroversial but quashed by southern Democrats nonetheless. You can read about the decline of government planning and the rise of the budget as a more hands-off approach to managing the economy. It’s not a coincidence that that suited the South. It’s all there.
One of the book’s little detours that I wish to spotlight, because it’s relevant to the white supremacist march on Charlottesville, is the bizarre fact that southern Democrats were easily the most gung ho about going to war with the Nazis. This despite Hitler’s open admiration of Jim Crow, slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, etc. Before the war, Nazi officials even came to the South to try to build rapport, but they were rebuffed. FDR’s war policies could not have passed without the uniform support of the South.
How did that happen? Katznelson speculates on a few possibilities. Was it white-on-white racism, with Anglo-Saxon, Scotch-Irish southerners rejecting the Teutonic hordes? Was it the economic setback that war in Europe would inflict on the South? Was it a defense mechanism to cope with the fact that they weren’t so different? The answer is unclear, but the fact that it happened is astounding.
Occasionally the book doesn’t hang together. You could write separate books on the New Deal, World War II, fascism, unions, the Manhattan Project, etc. Instead, they’re all jumbled together in one. But that is the fault less of the author than of the source material. We are an assemblage of contradictions and paradoxes bundled together into something we call “America.” To draw such a powerful and persuasive narrative from it is a magnificent feat by Katznelson. Fear Itself reshapes the way you view the world while leaving you hungry for more. You should read this book.