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Fear, Southern Democrats, and the New Deal


FDR’s first inaugural was 80 years ago yesterday, and Ira Katznelson has a terrific book about the New Deal. My review is up at the Prospect:

The New Deal—which Katznelson argues should be seen as encompassing the period between the election of FDR in 1932 and the election of Eisenhower 20 years later—was, according to Fear Itself, conducted in the shadow of three major fears. First, there was the fear about whether democracy could survive the Great Depression as countries such as Germany, Italy, and Japan turned to authoritarian responses. Second, there was the fear protecting national security respresented, first by World War II and then by the Cold War and the atomic age. And third, and crucially, was the Southern fear that its system of white supremacy would not survive. The first two fears created an impetus for unprecedented federal action, but this federal action was, throughout the New Deal, shaped and constrained by the third fear.


One of the many virtues of this masterful book is that it rescues the tragedies and ironies of the New Deal from the facile “liberal fascism” taunts from the likes of Jonah Goldberg. American political institutions may have demanded a Faustian bargain in return for comprehensive Great Depression policies, but that does not discredit the progressive accomplishments of the New Deal. White supremacy constrained and shaped the New Deal because in the early 20th century American polity, white supremacy and the tolerance of white supremacy were nearly ubiquitous among political elites of all ideological stripes. From William Howard Taft’s disavowal of any interest in civil rights to the overwhelming Senate Republican opposition to allowing an anti-lynching bill to come up a vote to the conservative coalition that dominated Congress between 1938 and 1964, racism was hardly something that only affected the Democratic coalition. And it was economic progressives, not conservatives, who ultimately embraced civil rights under Lyndon Johnson.

Another of its virtues, as you have seen, is that it counteracts the Drew Westen view of the presidency that remains so common. FDR had a greater influence on the trajectory of American politics than it’s possible for any contemporary president to have, and yet his legislative initiatives succeeded when Southern Democrats in Congress supported the policy goals a priori and otherwise failed.

This is a very rich book, and I suspect I’ll be returning to it in a couple of follow up points. One point worth making right away that I didn’t have space for in my review is Katznelson’s very useful analysis of the role of labor politics in explaining the transformation of the Democratic coalition after 1938. One reason that Southern Democrats voted like liberal Democrats on economic policy at the beginning of the New Deal once the policies were pre-cleared to ensure that they didn’t threaten Jim Crow is the concentration of union strength in the North. Southern Democrats strongly supported the Wagner Act in large measure because most national unions were racially exclusionary and the Wagner Act excluded the agricultural and domestic work that still dominated the Southern political economy. Once the more racially egalitarian CIO became more powerful and wartime mobilization increased industrialization in the South, however, Southern Democrats became about as anti-union as conservative Republicans. I understand why Katznelson declares the New Deal over with the inauguration of Eisenhower, but one could also make a good case for seeing the end of the New Deal at the point at which Congress overrode Truman’s veto of Taft-Hartley.

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