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The New Deal We Didn’t Know

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Marion Post Wolcott/SSPL/Getty Images
An African-American entering a movie theater through the segregated back entrance, Mississippi, October 1939; photograph by Marion Post Wolcott for the Farm Security Administration

The New Deal, the apogee of liberal political power in American history and a story with a relatively happy ending—the Great Depression vanquished, World War II won—has usually had its history presented, except by conservatives who disapprove of the expansion of central government and taxation in the 1930s and 1940s, as an uplifting, inspiring one. That is not how Ira Katznelson presents it. There is only one very brief personal note in his long, scholarly book—a snip of memory about having to wear military-style dogtags and practice responses to a nuclear attack as a schoolchild in the early 1950s—but all of Fear Itself is suffused with the same sense of pure terror during the Roosevelt and Truman years as, say, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. It’s easy to forget not just how dangerous the situation was, at home and abroad, during the New Deal, but how palpable were outcomes far worse than what we got.

Another difference between Fear Itself and most of the familiar histories of the New Deal is that Katznelson thinks like a political scientist. That means that, although he defines the period presidentially, as the twenty years when Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were in the White House, Roosevelt and Truman themselves are spectral presences. They are not the primary determiners of the course of government, and Katznelson has no interest in their personal qualities or their methods of leadership. Instead his focus is on Congress and government agencies, and more broadly on political systems, voting, and interest groups. This gives Fear Itself the feeling of a fresh look at a familiar story; what Katznelson loses in ignoring the inherent force of the hero narrative, he gains in being able to make an argument that largely ignores the presidency.

The argument bears laying out in some detail. Katznelson begins, usefully, by placing the New Deal in a global setting: the severity of the Great Depression presented an existential threat to liberal democracy everywhere, both as an ideal and as a reality. In response to the same economic crisis that confronted the United States, Germany turned to National Socialism, Italy to Fascism, and the Soviet Union already had a form of communism that no liberals except willfully blind ones could believe in. During Roosevelt’s first term, these alternate systems were on the verge of imposing themselves by force on many other countries.

It was not at all clear that democracy would survive here. George Kennan privately came to believe that the United States should become an “authoritarian state.” Walter Lippmann, on a visit to Roosevelt a month before his inauguration as president, advised him that “you may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” Even in public, all sorts of prominent people praised the undemocratic alternative political systems that were emerging in Europe, especially Italian Fascism. One prominent New Deal official hung a portrait of Benito Mussolini in his office. Nicholas Murray Butler told the Columbia freshman class that the dictatorships were now producing a better class of leaders than the democracies.

When Italo Balbo, Italy’s minister of aviation, barnstormed across the United States in 1933, he was greeted as a hero. At a grand welcoming dinner at a Chicago hotel, Katznelson tells us, “many rose to offer a Fascist salute when Balbo and his squadron entered the ballroom.” Even after the war, it wasn’t considered disqualifying that Iola Nikitchenko, the Soviet judge at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, had presided over Stalin’s worst legal depredations, like the 1937 Moscow show trials, just a few years earlier.

Katznelson wants us to understand how far from assured the final result of the New Deal was. And—since there was no real space separating the Depression from World War II, or the war from the threat of nuclear destruction—he maintains that the national fear that attended Roosevelt’s coming to the presidency did not abate much over the next twenty years. The New Deal took place, he writes, in “an atmosphere of unremitting uncertainty about liberal democracy’s capacity and fate.” This is a very dark picture of the period that also manages to convey how profoundly grateful we should be that things didn’t turn out worse, as they easily could have.

For Katznelson, the central institution in a democracy is the national legislature, so the test of a democracy’s strength is whether the executive takes the legislature’s authority away. What the Italian, German, and Soviet systems had in common was the complete abolition of legislative authority—without, at first, any real public objection. Roosevelt and Truman consistently tried to shift authority from the legislative branch to the executive, but the United States never wound up venturing anywhere near a permanent diminution in Congress’s role. This was, Katznelson says, “a notable, even extraordinary, attainment.”

Concentrating far more intensely on Congress than New Deal histories aimed at a nonacademic audience have usually done naturally leads Katznelson to a concomitant focus on the essential role that the South played in the shaping of the New Deal. Anyone who ever took an American history course is aware that the South was an essential part of the Democratic Party coalition during the New Deal, and that during that period it maintained the Jim Crow system of legal racial segregation. By making this a major theme of Fear Itself and examining it in great detail, Katznelson removes the South’s place in the story from its usual duly noted blandness to an arresting, almost obsessive centrality. The New Deal made two great Faustian bargains with allies Katznelson would not hesitate to call evil, and they frame his idea of the New Deal: the one with Stalin and the one with the Jim Crow South. And it wasn’t just that the New Deal looked away from these systems’ horrors and proceeded on its way; it’s that the new political system the United States devised during the period was profoundly shaped by these unsavory alliances.

The South was of course Democratic because of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In the political bargain that ended Reconstruction, in 1877, the Republicans got the White House (for Rutherford B. Hayes) and the Democrats got the withdrawal of federal troops from the South—which meant that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution (guaranteeing African-Americans civil rights and voting rights) would no longer be enforced there, since they had been enforceable during Reconstruction only at gunpoint. The South was so profoundly grateful for this that it remained substantially loyal to the Democratic Party until the Democrats strongly reversed their previous position and endorsed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Conversely, at the beginning of the New Deal, and for the same reasons, most black voters (who were necessarily outside the South) were still loyally voting Republican.

Katznelson reminds us that for large sections of the period he covers, including at the outset, the Democratic Party was not capable of winning a presidential election without the South (as is true of the Republican Party today). In the 1932 elections, Democratic congressional candidates outside the South, taken together, got only 40 percent of the vote, but 86 percent in the South. When Roosevelt took office, more than half the committee chairs in Congress were southerners.

Katznelson also reminds us that whites as well as blacks were substantially disenfranchised in the South, because of poll taxes. Voter turnout was shockingly low in the South—below 20 percent of eligible (meaning mainly white) voters, for example, in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina in the crucial presidential election of 1940. In the 1938 midterm elections, Mississippi, with a population of more than two million, had only 35,000 voters. A tight-knit group of very secure and long-serving southern politicians, for whom the maintenance of Jim Crow was an absolute necessity, used the congressional seniority system to maintain a working veto power over all New Deal policies.

In the narrow sense, the South used its power to create de facto regional exceptions to many New Deal policies, either by exempting domestic and agricultural workers (meaning blacks) from them, or by placing administrative and policy control of them in the hands of state governments. To use the most obvious example, the 1935 law that created the Social Security system had both of these features. In the larger sense, Katznelson argues, it was specifically the South that blocked off the possibility of the New Deal’s moving further left in its policies. The New Deal wound up largely achieving one set of goals—an American welfare state, including retirement security and an empowered labor movement—but stopped far short of another, which would have involved creating, through democratic procedures, a more centrally planned economy, like those of this country’s undemocratic, and evidently successful, competitors during the 1930s and 1940s.

This was not, Katznelson insists, a matter of Roosevelt’s changing his mind, or reacting to the setback of the Supreme Court’s undoing in 1935 of his first major foray into planning, the creation of the National Recovery Administration. Nor was there a national consensus on central planning. The period was too chaotic for any of that to be the case. It was Congress that blocked national planning, for reasons having to do with the southern bloc’s overriding concern with maintaining the regional racial order. The South, in Katznelson’s view, was willing to move left on economic issues as long as that didn’t threaten segregation. When economic policy and race began to seem intertwined, the South opted out on economic policy, and that defined the leftward boundary of the New Deal.

The turning point, Katznelson says, was the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, the law that established the federal minimum wage and “the last lawmaking victory of the New Deal’s radical moment.” Although the author of the earliest version of the law was Senator (later Justice) Hugo Black of Alabama, by 1937 the South’s support for federal legislation affecting working conditions had begun to crumble, because southern members of Congress no longer felt quite so confident that they could amend any law so that their system would be excluded. The national political power of organized labor, which was interested in enlisting blacks as well as whites, was rising rapidly, and there was now a distinct, though small, black voting bloc within the Democratic Party, located in the northern cities. With the South suddenly (though, it turned out, enduringly) in doubt, the FLSA barely passed, and only after a very long legislative struggle.

As the South was turning away from solidarity with Roosevelt on domestic issues, Roosevelt’s own attention was turning to the coming of World War II—and there, in Katznelson’s telling, the South was completely supportive, far more so than the rest of the country. The dominant strain in the Republican Party in those days was isolationist, and, as Katznelson reminds us, the northern, urban wing of the Democratic Party included many Italian-Americans, German-Americans, and Irish-Americans who were skeptical about the war.

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