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The New Deal We Didn’t Know

Woodward and Key were pro–New Deal economic populists who spun out an alternate history of the South in which racism, rather than being the inevitable controlling factor in southern politics, had been put front and center by prosperous white conservatives so as to distract the poor majority from making common cause across racial lines and demanding economic justice. Here is King’s version, as delivered in Montgomery:

Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.
You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

It’s hard to think of academic work with more direct and immediate political consequences than Woodward’s mid-twentieth century conjuring up of a version of southern history in which Jim Crow had been avoidable in the first instance, and therefore was reversible in the present. Only a few months after King’s speech, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court has just substantially negated) and liberal democracy in a recognizable if imperfect form came to the South.

Today Woodward’s view of southern history seems overoptimistic. The economically populist strain that he believed could have become dominant after Reconstruction seems retrospectively faint in comparison to white racism at the time. (Many more blacks were murdered in the late 1860s and early 1870s by white terrorists who were trying to overturn Reconstruction than were ever lynched.)

Even if Katznelson is essentially right, though, it’s a real stretch for him to present southern Bourbons like Harry Byrd of Virginia or James Eastland of Mississippi and bank-hating populists like Wright Patman of Texas or Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi as not having been meaningfully different politically. “Most of the region’s political leaders almost giddily propelled the New Deal’s radical economic policies,” Katznelson writes; these policies, he says elsewhere, “simply would have been impossible without the willing audacity of the segregated South.” But this is too dismissive of the importance of business-oriented “New South” conservatives who were active throughout the New Deal and became dominant afterward, and who were inclined to become a little less extreme on race, especially when they felt that doing so would bring economic rewards, and were anything but radical on nonracial domestic issues.

The people who created the South’s garment- and furniture-making industries, for example, had reasons to be anti-union that were more direct and immediate than the fear that unionization would undermine the racial order. They wanted to pay lower wages than their northern competitors. When Katznelson writes, by way of explaining southern opposition to pro-labor legislation in the late 1940s, that “a truly national labor system threatened to erode the ability of plantations to hold on to low-paid field-workers,” he is missing the South’s fundamental shift, already well underway, from Cotton Belt to Sunbelt (to borrow the title of an excellent 1994 book by Bruce Schulman).

The same political logic applies to the South’s oil, chemical, banking, and military-contracting industries, which were quite powerful by the end of the period Katznelson covers. They did not want their congressional representatives to push for radical economic policies. But neither did they want them to be focused on the maintenance of segregation to the exclusion of attending to their business interests. Whether or not Woodward (and King) were right that southern Bourbons had consciously used racism as a kind of ruse to get what they wanted economically, one can also make a reverse argument: southern business has tended to play down race if that seemed to serve economic development, for example in wooing northern companies to relocate to the South. And southern business has for many years reflexively turned to government for help, without having any populist inclinations. It practices what Katznelson calls “corporatism,” but as a matter just between government and business, without a substantial role for unions.

This isn’t a small matter. Katznelson argues persuasively that the basic political order of the United States was remade during the New Deal: government’s role expanded, but only up to a point, domestically, and expanded almost without limit militarily. But the variations within the South on nonracial issues also became nationally consequential.

Beginning with Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat defection from the Democratic Party in 1948, the South became less solidly Democratic—rapidly so after the height of the civil rights era. That was about race. Also, beginning with Jimmy Carter in 1976, the South began to demonstrate that it could produce successful presidential candidates (I’m not counting Lyndon Johnson because he was elevated from the vice-presidency), something that had not been possible during most of the Jim Crow era, when congressional leadership positions were the most that even the most talented southern politicians could aspire to. Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush all became major-party nominees, and although they did not all come from the same party, they all ran as more or less moderate, pro-business politicians who were sensitive to middle-class voters’ needs and did not openly appeal to white racial prejudice. This set of views, which dominated presidential politics for years, emerged from a tradition of business-oriented politics in the South—going back at least to the 1880s, when Henry Grady of The Atlanta Constitution began using the phrase “The New South” to express the hope of a move beyond dependence on agriculture—which Katznelson doesn’t mention.

That period of high southern influence on national politics may now be over. Hillary Clinton lost to Barack Obama in 2008 in part because she attended too closely during the Democratic primary season to the lessons she had learned in becoming a southern moderate during her years in Arkansas. The Democratic Leadership Council, the moderate-to-conservative group that both Clinton and Gore chaired, has gone out of business. The Democrats have found a way to win presidential elections that largely bypasses the South (but not Florida), and the Republicans are dominated by a libertarian strain in the party that doesn’t have much room for blacks but also doesn’t have roots in traditional southern politics.

Still, even in the Obama administration, a moderate, pro-market, anti-regulation, less than wholeheartedly pro-union politics dominates. So does the idea that military and “security” affairs can be legitimately conducted in secret by the executive branch. This is partly a legacy of a long-standing congeries of southern views that can’t be completely understood in racial terms. Conversely, one lesson of the Obama presidency thus far is that even the immense effort the president obviously makes to take overt considerations of race out of politics—the passion and eloquence of his brief remarks about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case gave some sense of how much he is usually suppressing—does not produce the benefits in other areas that liberals have dreamed of for many years. It has not led to the undoing of the frustrating aspects of the legacy of the New Deal, as Katznelson persuasively sets them forth.

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