Hard Bargain

by Christopher Caldwell
Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
By Ira Katznelson
Liveright, 706 pages, $29.95
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A man works in a Tennessee Valley Authority chemical plant near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in a 1942 photograph by Alfred T. Palmer. / Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Color Photographs

It has taken a long time for Americans to calm down about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Seven decades after his death, histories of the New Deal era still tend to be partisan. FDR’s defenders credit him with having saved capitalism (even if they are seldom fans of capitalism in the first place). FDR’s detractors claim that, in an authoritarian age, the New Deal was, unsurprisingly, an authoritarian program. The possibility that both sides might be correct has rarely been considered. In an ambitious history, Ira Katznelson ’66CC, the Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia, highlights the radical achievement of FDR, but grants that it owed much to “illiberal political orders, both within and outside the United States.”

One illiberal order that Katznelson is thinking of in particular is the European systems of charismatic leadership — Nazism, communism, and fascism — which were more sympathetically viewed in the US than we care to remember. Columbia was not immune: Nicholas Murray Butler told students that such regimes were producing “men of far greater intelligence, far stronger character, and far more courage than the system of elections.” It was Italian fascism that most influenced the New Deal, Katznelson believes. Roosevelt sent his Committee on Administrative Management to Rome to study Mussolini’s government. Roosevelt did not manage to defang the regulatory agencies as Mussolini had done, but only because Congress stood in his way.

Katznelson explicitly rejects the view that the New Deal was itself a dictatorship, but he approvingly notes the remarks of New York Times journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick describing Washington’s atmosphere in the months after Roosevelt took power as “strangely reminiscent of Rome in the first weeks after the march of the Blackshirts.” In discussing the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the New Deal agency that sought to steer much of the country’s commerce until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1935, Katznelson notes that FDR “made use of instruments that had largely been invented and sponsored by antidemocratic regimes.”

Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our TimeThe other illiberal order that most influenced the New Deal was closer to home. It was the Southern system of racial segregation that we know as Jim Crow. The South protected its racial order through a one-party state, and FDR was its national beneficiary. In 1936, he got 97 percent of the vote in Mississippi and 99 percent in South Carolina. Never during his administration did Southerners make up less than 41 percent of the Democrats in either house. Southerners were eager to “harness Yankee finance capital that had helped impoverish their region ever since the Civil War.” Early on, they voted almost unanimously for the most progressive parts of the New Deal. And the South was as eager as FDR to regulate business and finance. The Banking Act of 1933 was sponsored by Virginia senator Carter Glass and Alabama representative Henry Steagall. The New Deal would not have passed without Southern support, and that support came at a price. The Southern states demanded local discretion on any federal welfare, development, and regulatory programs that might disrupt the segregationist racial order. Farm workers and maids, for instance, were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 because in the South most were black.

The alliance could not last forever. In the course of the 1930s, Northern Democrats began losing patience with the South — either that or they had got what they needed out of it. They voted for anti-lynching legislation that they had previously helped quash. Starting with the Wagner Act of 1935, they pushed to spread trade unions, which Southerners saw as having the potential to integrate labor markets. Southerners began to see that they could not get federal money without federal involvement in their local institutions. That seemed to stop the New Deal in its tracks.

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