How FDR saved liberal democracy by compromising on it
Reviewed by Jonathan Bradley
The advantage any student of history has over the objects of her study is that she already knows how their story ends. The actors under scrutiny, however, are operating blind. This lack of precognition provides a critical context for Fear Itself, Ira Katznelson’s sprawling account of the United States during the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman presidencies.
“The only thing we have to fear”, in Roosevelt’s inaugural formulation, was fear itself, and it’s tempting to imagine that this heroic stoicism was characteristic of the populace of the period. The greatest generation, as journalist Tom Brokaw later dubbed them, was that who overcame the Great Depression and defeated fascism, affirming the US as a democratic and economic world power nonpareil.
Instead the period might be better characterised as one ruled by — in Roosevelt’s words — “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” during which it was hardly apparent that democracy was equipped to survive the level of economic catastrophe unleashed after the crash of 1929. Nations across Europe were succumbing to, in the form of Mussolini’s fascism, Hitler’s Nazism, and the Bolsheviks’ communism, confident new modes of governance, and politicians and intellectuals in the US feared constitutional democracy was too leaden and unresponsive to compete. The Pearl Harbor bombing would bring war to the soil of the United States and the US’s atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki unleashed the prospect of nuclear annihilation. For the paranoid, fear itself could be found anywhere.
Katznelson purports to detail how the New Deal — here used in its expansive definition as a description of the two decades of Democratic Party rule between the elections of Presidents Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower — saved liberal democracy as a viable form of government, but there’s little triumphalism in his telling. In Katznelson’s eyes, the New Deal was necessary and admirable as well as intrinsically compromised. To prove the enduring resilience of the American form of government, Roosevelt and Truman had to align themselves with profoundly illiberal interests both domestically and internationally.
Much of Fear Itself, and, indeed, its strongest sections, is not concerned with the presidency at all; this is a history bound by the tenures of two presidents yet focused tightly on Congress. Of particular importance is the role of the institution’s faction of Southern Democrats.
The South of the time was deeply Democratic and intensely anti-democratic: Katznelson describes a 1938 Mississippi election in which, from a population of two million — 49 per cent of which were African American — just 35,439 votes were cast. The state returned its seven white Democrats to the House, all re-elected unopposed.
Without the burden of competitive elections and with an overriding interest in maintaining white supremacy, Southern Democrats amassed great power within their party and in Congress itself. When Democrats lost seats nationally, the party’s safe Southern seats accounted for an even greater portion of its caucus. When the party won, the Southerners used their seniority and parliamentary expertise to align the party’s interests with their own.
Contemporary liberals like to imagine that cutting deals with Southern racists was an unavoidable price Democrats paid to construct the modern welfare state, but during the 1930s, the Southern racists were the liberals.
Consider Senator Theodore Biblo, a colourful and contemptible Mississippian and a proud Klansman, who was one of Roosevelt’s most fervent supporters. He campaigned tirelessly for the interests of the poor against the rich, but had no compunction about, for instance, accusing Eleanor Roosevelt of compelling “Southern girls to use the stools and toilets of damn syphilitic nigger women.” President Roosevelt, for his part, was careful not to disrupt his coalition; he refused to criticise a Senate filibuster of a 1934 anti-lynching bill on the grounds that “I’ve got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America … If I come out for the anti-lynching bill, [the Southerners] will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing.”
The result was a welfare state carefully constructed to enable the former Confederacy to do as much as possible to exclude its black citizens from any of the benefits it bestowed. Maids and farmworkers, for instance, were excluded from key New Deal programs because two-thirds of Southern black employees fell into one of those groups. During the war, vast numbers of active service members were prevented from voting due to Southern pettifoggery aimed at maintaining black disenfranchisement.
The product of the South’s peculiarities didn’t end at US borders, either. Although Nazi Germany initially saw Southerners as fellow traffickers in racial prejudice, the South provided some of the most enthusiastic opposition against isolationism in the lead-up to the war. After Germany had been defeated, Southern congressmen worked hard to maintain spending on military bases beneath the Mason-Dixon, solidifying the expansion of the federal American state and further shifting defence oversight from the legislative to the executive branch.
Katznelson’s survey of the period is, fittingly for an account of two decades and a body as unruly as Congress, expansive and multifarious. His thesis, while convincing, doesn’t sit together as elegantly as that of a more focused work might: is the Roosevelt administration’s embrace of central planning, echoing the autocratic regimes in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, really of a piece with the compromises in principle the US made with Southern segregationists or against judicial due process during wartime? The American fascination with icons of the Mussolini dictatorship during the 1920s and ’30s is embarrassing, but hardly of enduring import like the Allies’ willingness to overlook Soviet human rights abuses to sustain fair trials at Nuremburg after the war.
For the most part, Katznelson handles the thickets of legislative negotiation adroitly, though his nonetheless important discussion of the expanding role of the American state is at times waylaid into tedium. Even so, this is a thought-provoking section; Katznelson appears disappointed Roosevelt’s earlier efforts at central planning were watered down, but conservatives and libertarians will find much to enjoy about the connections he draws between increased federal spending and the risk of interest-group capture.
But if Fear Itself occasionally seems overwhelmed by the immensity of its subject matter, this is only because it is concerned with a period in American history genuinely overwhelming, both in scale and influence. The United States that Herbert Hoover left in 1933 was a very different place to the one Harry S Truman handed over in 1953, and no single work could fully tell the story of that shift. Fear Itself is an important addition to the scholarship of this era and opens up new dimensions on a period of history trod many times over.