Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time Hardcover – 9 Apr 2013
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"Positing that the New Deal preserved liberal democracy, but at the expense of compromises with illiberal forces, Katznelson's hefty history weighs other historians' interpretations of the New Deal as it knowledgeably advances its own." --Booklist
"...there can be few people outside the academic world who relish the byzantine intricacies of Roosevelt's alphabet agencies or the interminable, miserable descriptions of the Dust Bowl. But Katznelson's Fear Itself is different: more focused, more argumentative, more ambitious." --Literary Review
"Katznelson, a distinguished scholar and professor at Columbia, writes elegantly and his book easily repays the reader's attention" --Prospect Magazine
"[a] powerful and well-paced account" --Financial Times
About the Author
Ira Katznelson is Columbia University's Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, and has served as the president of the American Political Science Association. He is the author of When Affirmative Action Was White (ISBN 978 0 393 32851 6).
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Top Customer Reviews
New Deal legislation was highly liberal in content, enabling among other things union organisation. But it carefully excluded certain sectors. The legacy of this, which ensured that farmworkers, especially in the south, were paid a pittance, is writ large in the persistent poverty and ongoing depopulation in the modern era, especially in Mississippi and Louisiana around the Delta region. Meanwhile, attempts to instigate legislation against lynching met with resistance from southern Democrats. Elsewhere in the US the rise in numbers, militancy and effectiveness of labour unions was accompanied by pressure from these organisations which, despite certain amount of segregationist residue, altered the balance of power.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The reason for the Legislative focus is due to the three fears the author makes center to the mission of the book, and how those three fears of the era largely guided politicians in the West. The first fear was that the Western Democracies with their legislative governance, were no match for the Dictators in dealing with the problems of the day. The book more than squashes that concern. With all its flaws---Epic flaws---Congress showed that legislature centered democracies could deal with pressing issues and keep democracy afloat. The second fear deals more with the concerns arising with the Bomb, after the war; that the need for secrecy to build and maintain a nuclear arsenal was incompatible with democracy. We haven't got to the end of this chapter in history, so the book is at its weakest when dealing with it. We are shown how the modern security state came to be, but it's not at all clear that Congress is or was capable of saving democracy in the face of fears over national security and the need for secrecy as the military and government calls for it.
The third fear, and hence the focus on the South and its representatives, seems misplaced, to me. The fear that the racist way of life cherished by the South was under threat by Federal interference. Fear makes people behave irrationally---as the US supports dictators over democracies when facing terrorists today or communists then. Nothing about the behavior of the Southern representatives seems crazed by fear. Everything they did displayed a remarkable sense of awareness and an alertness to how an issue that seems to have nothing to do with Jim Crow, like allowing the soldiers to vote, could set a precedent that could undermine Jim Crow. The Southern leadership wasn't afraid, they were calculating, and amazingly so. And racism wasn't the only issue important to them. Nearly as enraging was the North itself, and specifically, Northern Bankers, Industrialists, and Railroads.
To me, this is where the book was it's most illuminating. There are parts of the early New Deal where extreme racists Southern Senators and Congressmen were not only far to the left of FDR, but even apparently socialist. A socialist reactionary conservative? How is that possible? It seems that if it meant tying up the banks, or blocking the Industrialists, the South was for it. Glass Steagall, for instance. Brilliant idea. Separate the investment banks from commercial banks, so the gamblers can't access the public's money. It's demise in 1999 set in motion the sort of practices that brought about the 2008 economic melt down. But the banks have hated it since it came along, and that's a large part of the reason the South was for it. Glass and Steagall represented Virginia and Alabama. There are several instances where the reader is found scratching his head, wondering why these coots are supporting such liberal, lefty, causes, until it's shown that in one way or another, it is seen to benefit the South at the expense of the North. Ah.
I did not find the organization of the book wanting, after the second chapter. I suspect those who did, didn't get much further. A lot of time is spent in the first part of the book bouncing around, trying to set up how the era got where it did, and why the Dictators were such a threat, while at the same time, often widely admired. Chapter 2 spends a lot of time introducing us to Italo Balbo, the leader of Facist Italy's airforce, who flew to the US and great acclaim, in 1933; Iola Nikitchenko, who represented the Soviets at Nuremberg; and Theodore Bilbo, the extreme racist, and often vulgar Mississippi senator. All three men were once big names, and all three are completely forgotten, and after chapter two, almost never mentioned by the author. So what was the point? I have no idea but suspect it was part of a different version of the book that never made it to print. After chapter 2, the book's organization is perfectly logical and practical, and works well. Generally speaking, the flow is linear, from the Depression through both parts of the New Deal, then into the War, and from the War, through the reorganization of the government and the military to reflect the influence of the Bomb on war planning and the new reality it created.
I did have some issues with the author's definitions of democracy, which seem overly broad. Communism might have had some democratic leanings early on, but almost from the day the USSR came to be, democracy was not a word associated with it. Likewise, the Weimar Republic was purely RINO: A Republic In Name Only. Ludendorf and the Junkers who had run Germany in WWI, created the Republic to sign and implement the Versailles Treaty, knowing full well how horrific things would be, and that it would get the blame; history cheated them of the chance to use the treaty's effects to regain power and squelch the Republic, as Hitler and his National Socialists got there first. Then as now, simply pulling down a king and holding elections does not a democracy make, but the author, perhaps too beholden to his own agenda, doesn't seem to want to see that.
Katznelson also seems to share America's pathological blindness to the importance of WWI. It wasn't the Depression that created WWII, it was WWI and the Versailles Treaty. WWI is like a brush fire that denuded the political landscape of Europe, leaving its cultural hills prone to saturation come the rainy season; and the stock market crash; Smoot-Hawley trade wars were the deluge that set up the Depression, which helped send the landslide of Fascism down over the civilizations of Europe. Without WWI, it's hard to comprehend why Hitler came to power. Yet WWI is only briefly mentioned and the Depression is given most of the credit. There were no good guys in WWI, and it's conclusion, and the aftermath of that unsettling conclusion reverberates to this day---as with the borders of the Middle East, set by England and France, again, thanks to the Versailles Treaty.
Regardless, this is a good book. It's amazing that such a thick book about the New Deal could make so little use for FDR and almost no use at all for his famous New Dealer's, but we forget that we have a tripartite government, and the biggest part of it is Congress, and Congress' work is not unimportant, at all. So, this book illustrates how Congress wrote and enacted the New Deal, and why, and how so much of it was dependent on the South, and how almost everything was filtered through their concerns for Jim Crow, and their hatred of the North.
We think our government is broken today. If it wasn't broken then, it certainly didn't operate with the best interests of the country in mind, and that is the biggest take away lesson from this book: Don't Put So Much Faith In Washington. It's mind boggling how our government can spend so much time and money and effort, and none of it with any concern for the bulk of the nation's citizens. We really didn't matter, and I don't think we matter much to Washington today.
So, no, this is not a light summer read. It's most certainly not an FDR book. It's very dense, and probably best for scholars and students, but it's valuable to the more casual reader too. We needed a book that shows how the New Deal came to be, and how it wasn't all just FDR's chutzpah and charm. For people who want to know why and how things are the way they are, and came to be, this is a good book to read, for all the effort it demands.
With respect to domestic policy, Katznelson views the approach the southerner took through the prism of race. Specifically where the southerners feared the underpinnings of the Jim Crow south were under attackl they backed away from Roosevelt. Although I largely agree with that thesis, the major failing of the book in my opinion, is that Katznelson ignored the Jacksonian roots of the southern Democrats then sitting in Congress. At its founding the Jacksonian Democrats were both racist domestically and hawkish with respect to foreign policy. Thus while the southerners, opposed Roosevelt dometically after 1938, they stood by him and later Truman in supporting the foreign and defense polcies of the emerging national security state.
I would recommend "Fear Itself..." to both serious students of American history and the casual reader interested in how much the the institutions we now take for granted came into being.
The author explores every angle of the New Deal and it truly changed my thinking regarding its effects not only in that time but even how some of the actions taken then effect our lives today.
The look at how these ideas and programs worked their way through congress and some of the surprising bargains that were made is truly fascinating and a much different view of the New Deal and Depression than the one we were taught in school. History wants to give us singular heroes and while FDR was a driving force behind the New Deal he certainly didn't do it alone. The real story is one of a lot of real people who passed programs (some good, some bad) that still effect us today and changed the role of government and our expectations of it. The author relates all of this well and changes our previous views of the New Deal.
We've always gotten the New Deal history from an FDR angle but never seen the inner workings of how a congress was able to get this much revolutionary and radical change pushed through in just a few years. This makes us really think twice when we are today's congress that doesn't seem to get anything done.
The author presents what happened then and later effects from an unbiased but just different point of view than past looks at the New Deal. We see both the positives and negatives of these programs then and today.
At points the book does get a bit long winded and maybe repetitive on some subjects, but overall this is a fresh, exhaustive and thought provoking look at the New Deal era.
Katznelson uses the "Fear" theme to indicate the enormous challenges facing the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. These included the enormous crisis of liberal capitalism precipitated by the Great Depression, great doubts about the capacities of liberal democracies to respond to this challenge, the existence of apparently successful alternative models in the form of European fascist states, the need to mobilize American society for WWII, and the major problem of dealing with the Soviet Union after WWII. Katznelson is very clear that the New Deal met these challenges, an achievement whose consequences he compares to the impact of the French Revolution.
One of the particular strengths of this book is Katznelson's analysis of how these reforms were accomplished through Congressional action. While the New Deal era undoubtedly saw a great expansion of Executive branch power, the key role of Congress and the preservation of separation of powers that was a major feature of the New Deal was critical in demonstrating the ability of democratic states to deal with the challenges of the interwar period, WWII, and the early Cold War. Katznelson stresses that this creative response came with a considerable cost; the great burst of reform took place within the confines of what he calls the "southern cage." Reform in the New Deal depended on the support of Southern Democrats, and the latter were completely committed to maintaining the apartheid regime of the South. Southern Democrats were stong supporters of the early, and most interventionist phases, of the New Deal, and also of the relatively aggressive foreign policy and armarment initiatives of the Roosevelt administrations. But, as the New Deal unfolded, Southern Democrats began to balk and began to oppose key initiatives of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Anything that remotely threatened the apartheid regime of the South was strongly resisted. Katznelson argues very well that Southern Democrats were instrumental in modifying some of the most important aspects of labor militancy in the New Deal. In the post-war period, Southern Democrat support was crucial for the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act (over Truman's veto), which restricted the power of the more aggressive CIO unions. Katznelson argues very well that Southern Democratic resistance to labor unions and some crucial Federal initiatives prevented the emergence of a strong national labor movement and a more interventionist (corporatist is the term he usues) Federal government directly involved in economic planning.
Driven to a large extent by the racially based politics of the South, Katznelson indicates that the "southern cage" contributed greatly to the development of 2 major, and to some extent, contradictory features of American life. One is the Federal government as a "procedural state." Absent a Federal government involved in economic planning and driven by a view of government as contributing to the common good, but with the withdrawal of the Federal state from large sectors of the economy impossible, the default is a government committed to Keynsian macroeconomic management and a political system driven by large scale interest group politics. The second, driven particularly by the Cold War, is a "crusading state," a powerful national security state with a large component of dirigiste economic planning, "corporatist" management of major industries, and a powerful Executive branch functioning with relatively little Congressional oversight.
Katznelson is a good writer and his analyses are buttressed by impressive use of a large volume of data and secondary literature. In addition to the main analyses, there is a great deal of interesting detail and thoughtful insights in this book. His discussion, for example, of Federal science policy in the early Cold War is quite interesting. Many scholars point to the Cold War as tending to undermine racial segregation in the USA as American society had to demonstrate some actual domestic commitment to basic human rights. Katznelson points out another interesting racial aspect of the Cold War. Southern fears of anything left of center that could undermine segregation strongly predisposed Southern Democratic legislators to a militantly anti-Soviet foreign policy.
Overall, this is an outstanding book. My only, and minor criticisms, are that Katznelson missed some opportunities to link this book to some earlier and more recent aspects of American history. Katznelson points correctly to an earlier and important precursor of the New Deal, Wilson's Progressive reforms, particularly in WWI. Wilson's reforms were characterized by both exercise of Federal power and commitment to maintaining racial segregation. There may be a broader connection to aspects of the Progressive era, notably Robert Wiebe's "Search for Order" hypothesis that sees Progressivism as a middling class response to the social and political threats brought on by rapid industrialization. A more contemporary resonance is the relative roles of the "procedural" and "crusading" states in the American economy. The latter has been the source of many of the most dynamic aspects of the American economy over the past 6 decades.