For those of us under 80 or so, the New Deal was basically President Franklin Roosevelt using the federal government in creative ways to address the Great Depression, which wasn’t fully tamed until World War II began, government spending rose even further and lots of working-age men joined the armed forces (there were 450,000 Americans in the military in 1940 and 12.5 million in 1945).
A recent book, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, tells the story but leaves Roosevelt in the background. The New York Review of Books has a fairly long but excellent review by Nicholas Lemann, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, here.
The author of Fear Itself is Ira Katznelson, a professor of political science and history, also at Columbia. According to the review, Katznelson considers the national legislature to be the most central political institution in a democracy. For that reason, he presents an account of the New Deal and its aftermath that pays little attention to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman:
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.
In addition, Katznelson emphasizes the perilous situation the country faced in the 1930s. Germany and Italy had reacted to the Great Depression by turning to fascism. The diplomat George Kennan believed America’s government should become authoritarian. The respected journalist Walter Lippmann told President Roosevelt that he might have to become a dictator. New Deal policies were enacted in “an atmosphere of unremitting uncertainty about liberal democracy’s capacity and fate”.
Becase Katznelson focuses on Congress, the South has a major role in the story he tells. Since the Civil War, the South had been firmly Democratic. In the 1932 election, Democratic congressional candidates received 86% of the vote in the South. After that election, more than half of the committee chairmen were southern Democrats. As a result, Roosevelt needed southern support in order to get anything through Congress:
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...
It was specifically the South that blocked … 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….
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.
Reading this should remind us how little has changed since then. Much of our politics is the same old deal it’s always been. Since the compromise that resulted in slaves being counted as 3/5ths of a person in the Constitution, America has been politically divided between the North (now including western states like California) and the South (now including northern states like Idaho and Wyoming).
Of course, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the South switched to voting Republican. But progressive federal policies are still being watered down in order to accommodate southern sensibilities. For example, the Affordable Care Act allowed individual states, especially in the South, to avoid expanding Medicaid, thereby limiting benefits to poor people and low-paid workers (including, of course, poor and low-paid blacks).
Professor Lehmann, the author of the review, highlights other ways in which southern “conservatives” have affected federal policy since the New Deal: by supporting our entry into World War II (Southern politicians tend to favor the military and military activity); by encouraging the creation of our national security state (internment of the Japanese, loyalty oaths, FBI surveillance, the creation of the CIA and the House Un-American Activities Committee); by voting for a “defense” budget that has continued to grow even in peacetime; and by making life difficult for labor unions and people who want to vote.
For example, given the Republicans’ recent attacks on voting rights, this passage from the review is especially striking:
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.
There are few activities more troubling in a democracy than intentionally limiting the size of the electorate, although that’s now standard Republican policy, especially in the South.
Professor Lehmann thinks that the South described by Professor Katznelson is too homogeneous. Lehmann argues that there have been significant differences between Southern politicians regarding civil rights and economic issues. Nevertheless, if you want to understand where America is today, Lehmann’s review of Katznelson’s book is terrific reading. So, probably, is the book.
(A personal note: when I was in college, I read something by a black author who claimed that the status of black people has been the central issue in the history of our country. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the quotation or even identify the author. But I remember reading that statement some 40 years ago and being highly skeptical. The more I learn about American history, however, the more I’ve come to agree.)