Share story

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

by Ira Katznelson

Liveright, 706 pp., $29.95

The New Deal is one of those great historical epochs, like the Civil War, that compels generation after generation of historians to revisit it. It has everything: economic and social upheaval, outsized personalities, political conflict, looming threats of war overseas, and above all a charismatic hero-President in Franklin D. Roosevelt. There’s no end of fine books on the New Deal era, from Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s classic trilogy to David Kennedy’s splendid “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War,” from 2001, and Adam Cohen’s “Nothing to Fear,” from 2010.

Given that torrent of ink and paper, it’s all the more impressive that Ira Katznelson has contributed something truly new in New Deal studies: a magisterial, compelling examination of how the fears that permeated the era — economic collapse, totalitarian dictatorship, nuclear Armageddon — pushed progressive New Dealers into codependent relationships with illiberal forces, especially Southern segregationists.

Katznelson, a distinguished professor of history and political science at Columbia University, marks out the “New Deal era” as running from 1933 to 1953, encompassing the entire Roosevelt and Truman administrations. He describes how their ambitious reform agendas during the Depression, and their actions during and after the Second World War, were buttressed and circumscribed by their dependence on Southern votes in Congress.

Even as most Southerners fervently supported the New Deal’s economic interventionism, from which their region stood more to benefit than any other, they remained committed to maintaining the rigid hierarchies and separations of Jim Crow. Southern leaders, Katznelson writes, embraced radical economic policies that “offered the South the chance to escape its colonized status while keeping its racial order safe.”

Because the “Solid South” was effectively a one-party region, its senators and representatives dominated the Democratic caucus through their sheer numbers and the legislative process through their uncommon seniority and chairmanships of key committees. For most of the period between 1933 and 1953, little of consequence got through Congress without the South’s acquiescence.

The heart of the book is a series of analyses of key legislation, comparing Southern voting patterns in Congress to non-Southern Democrats and Republicans and describing how the bills were shaped so as not to threaten Jim Crow. Millions of farmworkers, the majority of whom in the South were black, were excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (guaranteeing workers’ right to unionize) and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (establishing a federal minimum wage and limiting working hours). Along with maids and other domestic servants, farmworkers also were left out of Social Security. Anti-lynching bills went nowhere. Even bills to ensure that soldiers serving in World War II could vote — without regard to poll taxes, literacy tests or other notorious Southern contributions to democracy — were expertly gutted by Southern delegations.

After the war’s end, when the rest of the Democratic Party began moving toward supporting civil rights, Southerners increasingly allied with Republicans — sometimes opposing legislation (such as the union-promoting Wagner Act) they had enthusiastically backed a few years before. But the tide, Katznelson concludes, already had turned: “The New Deal of the CIO and the welfare state produced at first mere chinks, then whole openings for social change that were grasped by an incipient, soon powerful, movement for equal rights for blacks.”

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.