Roosevelt revisited

Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, by Ira Katznelson, WW Norton, RRP£22/$29.95, 720 pages

New Deal poster, c1936-39

The idea that in times of trouble the leaders of democracies can invoke temporary dictatorial or emergency power has long been central to modern politics. While dictatorship in this sense is most obviously needed in wartime, might it also be justified – advantageous, even – in a really severe economic crisis?

This has been a pressing question during our current economic and financial woes, and debate in the US has focused on whether this crisis is anything like the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. If it is, then what might be required now is a modern version of the New Deal policies for national reconstruction that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration implemented in the 1930s.

In Fear Itself, Ira Katznelson, professor of political science and history at Columbia university, has produced an excellent work of synthesis about the political and economic terms of the New Deal. It forms a bittersweet homage to the period he has long thought of as the pivotal moment in the development of both American democracy and the US national security state, founded on foreign and domestic policy designed around the “containment” of threats.

As the book’s subtitle – The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time – suggests, Katznelson takes a sober look at that age of political and economic fear in order to explain how the modern American state emerged out of it. His powerful and well-paced account begins in 1933 at the start of FDR’s extended presidency and ends with the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower 20 years later.

Those two decades reflected an “unremitting sense of fragility” about the fate of American democracy, then under attack from economic depression, dictatorship, war and the development of nuclear weapons. That it was “fear itself” which Roosevelt sought to counter in his presidential addresses is clear, but how was that to be done? By the time of Hiroshima, many thought that all future democratic governments would rule in a permanent form of constitutional dictatorship, simply in order to survive.

Fear – real and imagined, domestic and international – structured the entire period, and this is what gives Katznelson’s book its focus. He cites FDR’s claim that he would not “evade the course of clear duty” that emergency powers required. In the 1930s and 1940s the consequences of democratic failure were too catastrophic to contemplate.

Yet the possibility of that failure seemed all too real. The anti-democratic successes, political and economic, of fascism and National Socialism brought forth what Katznelson calls a crisis of democratic confidence in America, as elsewhere. How could the checks and balances of American federal democracy match the vigour of demagogic dictatorship? Moreover, how could a rugged and individualist American capitalism learn from dictatorship and central planning, without falling prey to some sort of government-sponsored socialism? Dictatorship or democracy? This was one of the big questions on contemporary commentators’ minds, including the celebrated columnist Walter Lippman, founding editor of The New Republic magazine, who is a recurring presence in this book and who believed FDR would have to assume the mantle of a democratic dictator in order to “mend” American democracy – whether by saving the banking system or through setting up an agency for national reconstruction.

Much of the infrastructure that FDR created has since been repealed, notably the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which prevented commercial banks from engaging in investment business: its absence is thought of as presaging the current crisis.

The presentation of FDR as a democratic dictator who pushed through these changes through presidential decree – and thereby saved American democracy from fear – has become part of popular political mythology. Instead, as Katznelson shows, it was Congress that enacted much of the radical legislative agenda. Statute, rather than executive command, transformed American capitalism.

Katznelson’s book goes on to show how both Congress and President were kept in a stranglehold by the veto power of the southern Democrats. The segregationist south was intent on preserving the rights of states to run their own affairs as they saw fit, but it came to support progressive political and economic policy from Washington DC. Katznelson suggests this was because it was in the south’s economic interest: it was poor and economically weak relative to the north and the New Deal offered it the chance of economic prosperity on terms the southern Democrats could live with. While the “Dixiecrats” made the New Deal possible, their support for progressive economic legislation was conditional on non-interference with the right to run their states on segregationist grounds.

This powerful southern Democrat grouping held three trump cards: longevity of its personnel, numbers, and an ideological commitment to racial segregation. According to those below the Mason-Dixon Line, southern-style racism was both religiously sanctioned and patriotically American. When the Nazis sought common ground with US advocates of racial purity, however, they were rebuffed for being anti-American; the barbaric and unjust persecutors of a minority.

In addition, the Nazis’ rapid conquest of much of Europe had closed off some of the principal markets for southern exports of tobacco and cotton, and this made the south a critic of American isolationism as a strategy. Yet, as Katznelson shows, the very successes of the New Deal, which benefited the south as much as anyone else, ultimately broke the racial foundations of southern power by unleashing uncontrollable economic and political forces. Capitalism here trumps ideology.

Katznelson also concludes that the development of the national security state, which began during the second half of the New Deal and continued well into the cold war, was founded upon the determination to banish fear itself. This fact lies behind the politics of today’s US, and anyone wanting an intelligent guide to the ideas that still shape its place in our own fractious times should begin by reading this book.

Duncan Kelly teaches political thought at the University of Cambridge

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