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

In Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, Ira Katznelson lays out in fine detail the challenges and contradictions of the New Deal and covers enormous ground. An influential historian and political scientist at Columbia University, Katznelson serves as a member of The Living New Deal’s Advisory Board, but this is not at all the typical paean to the New Deal that one might expect.  Katznelson is acutely aware of the limits of American liberalism, even as modified by the New Deal, and this is no rosy look back at the  the pivotal period of the 1930s and 40s, as one might guess from the title

Katznelson makes two original contributions to New Deal studies in this book.  First, he looks at the situation facing the country and its institutions in an international context.  With ideologies of communism and fascism vying for domination abroad, Franklin Roosevelt managed to steer the ship of state between these shoals and preserve American democracy when that was by no means a certain outcome. Katznelson is fair-minded in attributing this success to both liberal and conservative forces at home, even though the latter staunched some of the more progressive aspirations of the New Deal.

Second, Katznelson’s book contains important new research on the Congressional politics of the New Deal.  It shines a light on how crucial Southern legislators were to the success and failures of the New Deal, given that their power over the Democratic Party and in Congress.  At first, they went along with most of Roosevelt’s innovative programs, but by 1937 the tide was turning and in the 1940s they frequently allied with Republicans to bring the New Deal to an end and launch the Cold War.  Without a doubt, the Dixiecrats heavily restricted the contours of New Deal policy, and this was because, Katznelson argues, the white-supremacist racial order of the South was inviolable. So New Deal policies moved forward only insofar as they allowed racist regimes to remain. These included the legalized segregation in some New Deal model communities, discriminatory practices that cut black laborers out of Social Security and minimum wage laws, and a steadfast refusal to challenge the Jim Crow regime of terror. In later years, the Southern alliance curtailed New Deal liberalism in other ways, weakening labor laws and impeding progressive economic planning.

Katznelson acknowledges that New Deal programs uplifted communities and offered a sense of belonging and hope to those Americans the nation regarded as outsiders. His larger message, however, is that the contradictions of contemporary liberalism are rooted in the compromises struck in FDR’s time.  This is undoubtedly true, and the combination of US international dominance (the National Security state) and southern domestic conservatism (the Blue states) still weigh on the nation and have contributed significantly to the retreat from New Deal liberalism in recent years.

Nevertheless, Katznelson’s two major arguments have some important lacunae. On the international front, his bleak picture of the descent into Fascism in Europe overstates the case for a similar triumph in the United States, which did not have anything like the same potential for a dictatorial takeover, given its more fragmented polity, lack of mass parties and movements, and weak federal state.  On the domestic front, Katznelson fails to explain why southern congressmen ever supported the New Deal at all: lacking here is any discussion of the roots of the southern white populism that propelled men like Claude Pepper and Lyndon Johnson toward New Deal reforms.

Finally, it must be said that at over 700 pages, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time is a real door-stopper of book that will stop too many people from getting through it all and absorbing the important lessons therein.  Given its two-part thesis, he might have done better to publish it as two volumes rather than one.

Reviewed by Richard A Walker

Richard A Walker is the director of the Living New Deal.

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