New Deal, Old South: How FDR Propped Up Jim Crow

By Lee, Taeku | Foreign Affairs, September/October 2013 | Go to article overview

New Deal, Old South: How FDR Propped Up Jim Crow


Lee, Taeku, Foreign Affairs


New Deal, Old South How FDR Propped Up Jim Crow Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time BY IRA KATZNELSON. Liveright, 2013, 720 pp. $29.95.

In March 1933, with the United States deep in the throes of the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address, warning of the power of fear-or, more specifically, the danger of "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Those efforts were the "new deal" that Roosevelt had promised during his campaign, a sweeping reformation of the U.S. economy that would define his first two terms in office and create the foundations for the contemporary American social welfare state: federal aid to the unemployed, stiffer regulation of industry, legal protections for workers, and the Social Security program, among other major innovations.

Today, Americans tend to understand the New Deal in a few standard ways. The consensus view is triumphalist: the New Deal was the first step in the United States' muscular emergence from the Great Depression and the beginning of the country's rise to become the undisputed "leader of the free world." Then there are the more ideological interpretations. Liberals see the New Deal as a vindication of Keynesian economics, strong labor unions, and a secure social welfare state. In the liberal view, Roosevelt confronted the fear spawned by the cruel and crushing hardships of unfettered capitalism during the 1920s. Conservatives hold, meanwhile, that the New Deal lefta legacy of unrestrained government intrusion into the private sector and quasi-authoritarian limits on liberty and the free market. In the conservative view, Roosevelt is himself the source of fear, standing in for the menace of unbridled executive power.

The New Deal era portrayed in Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself contrasts sharply with all those conventional accounts. According to Katznelson, the fear invoked by Roosevelt persisted well beyond 1932, defining a Zeitgeist that extended into the Cold War era and ushering in an executive branch that behaved, even in peacetime, as if the United States had been "invaded by a foreign foe," in Roosevelt's phrase. By the time of Roosevelt's death, in 1945, the prospects of total war, genocide, and nuclear annihilation had thoroughly supplanted the kind of measurable and manageable risks that ordinary policymaking sought to address. But Katznelson argues that even before those fears emerged, the Depression and the New Deal marked the entrance of existential terror into modern American political life. "Surrounded by wild and intense insecurity," Katznelson writes, "American political institutions and processes could not look to fixed points or a guiding status quo."

These existential fears, Katznelson argues, derived from three sources. First was the possibility of democracy's demise, a sense that the problems of the day were simply too big and urgent for a system defined by the separation of powers, popular consent, and a market-place of political ideas. Second was the growing sophistication and lethality of technologies of warfare, which encouraged Washington's preoccupation with national security. The third and, for Katznelson, most overlooked source of fear was the systematic subjugation of African Americans in the South. In Fear Itself, these three sources merge, portraying the New Deal years as less an era of bold action than one of fraught compromises-especially on the part of northern liberals, who had to abandon their pursuit of racial equality, and hardline southern Democrats, who found themselves embracing big government.

By casting fear as the linchpin of politics and policymaking in the New Deal era, Katznelson tackles a big topic and makes it even bigger. "I ascribe to the New Deal an import almost on par with the French Revolution," he writes, describing it as "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. …

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