The Past Is Never Dead: How the White-Supremacist South Made Possible the New Deal-And Drastically Curtailed It

By Yeselson, Richard | The American Prospect, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Past Is Never Dead: How the White-Supremacist South Made Possible the New Deal-And Drastically Curtailed It


Yeselson, Richard, The American Prospect


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."

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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 eras 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. …

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