[Marxism] Review of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 17 19:28:23 MDT 2013


LRB Vol. 35 No. 8 · 25 April 2013
Destiny v. Democracy
David Runciman

Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson
Norton, 706 pp, £22.00, April, ISBN 978 0 87140 450 3

Casting around for kindred spirits in the blighted international 
landscape of the 1930s, Hitler looked fondly towards Dixie. What was not 
to like? The South was effectively a one-party state. In the 1936 
presidential election, FDR’s Democratic ticket won 97 per cent of the 
vote in Mississippi, 99 per cent in South Carolina. In some counties no 
votes at all were recorded for Republican candidates. The figures 
compare very favourably with the 98.8 per cent the Nazis secured in 
their own national elections the same year. The difference was that 
Hitler used the coercive power of the state to secure an artificially 
high turnout (99 per cent of the German electorate was reported as 
having voted) whereas the Democrats used coercion to keep the turnout 
low. The population of Mississippi in the late 1930s was more than two 
million. Yet the number of people whose votes were counted in the 1938 
congressional midterms was barely 35,000. This remarkably limited 
franchise was achieved by means of elaborate rules – including a poll 
tax – designed to make voting both difficult and expensive; it was 
backed up by threats of violence to anyone who challenged the status 
quo. The aim, of course, was to make sure the electorate remained 
exclusively white. Of the residents of Mississippi nearly half – roughly 
a million people – were black.

This was the other thing the Nazis admired about the South: it was a 
political order organised around an unambiguous idea of racial 
superiority, and geared towards keeping the races separate. 
Miscegenation was to be feared above all else. Anything was permitted to 
prevent it. In a debate on anti-lynching legislation in the US Senate in 
1938, the senator from Mississippi Theodore Bilbo echoed Mein Kampf in 
asserting that merely ‘one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of 
the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and 
strikes palsied his creative faculties.’ The elected representatives of 
the South successfully blocked any legislative attempt to clamp down on 
lynching, holding it to be a matter for individual states to regulate, 
and something that Northerners couldn’t understand. Only Southerners 
knew what was at stake. Bilbo suspected a Jewish conspiracy behind what 
he saw as Northern interference: ‘The niggers and Jews of New York are 
working hand in hand.’ During Roosevelt’s first two terms, lynching 
continued unabated. There were 28 recorded instances in 1933 alone, the 
first year of the New Deal. This tacit acceptance of extra-legal killing 
was something else that struck a chord with the Nazis. In fact, what 
happened in the South was in the early 1930s more overt and more bestial 
than anything taking place in Germany, where state-sanctioned murder was 
treated as an unpleasant necessity rather than a public festival. As Ira 
Katznelson records, in November 1933, more than a year after FDR’s 
election, Lloyd Warner was burned alive before a cheering crowd of ten 
thousand in Princess Anne, Maryland, after an attempt to hang him had 
failed. Nothing so ghastly was permitted on the streets of Hitler’s new 
Reich. Still, this didn’t stop the Nazis romanticising the South and 
indulging in soft-soap fantasies about its martial culture. The German 
edition of Gone with the Wind – Vom Winde verweht – fascinated Hitler 
when it appeared in 1937. The film too was a big hit with the Nazi 
elite. On 22 June 1941, while he was waiting for the launch of Operation 
Barbarossa, Goebbels spent the hours after midnight watching a 
pre-release of the German version. It was comfort viewing.

About this, as about everything else, the Nazis couldn’t have been more 
wrong. Their love affair with the South was emphatically not 
reciprocated. Despite the lurid rhetoric of Southern senators like 
Bilbo, nowhere in the United States was more militantly anti-Nazi. It 
was from the South that the greatest political pressure came to break 
with the policy of neutrality after 1939, to arm on the side of the 
democracies and to take the fight to Hitler. Some of the reasons evolved 
from accidents of history and geography. German-Americans were 
concentrated in the Northern states. The South had always been 
pro-British, dating back to the Civil War, when it was to Britain that 
the Confederacy had looked for international support. After the Union’s 
victory, the South no longer had an army of its own. Its martial 
culture, therefore, could only find expression through the American 
army, which made the Southern states cheerleaders in any overseas 
military adventures. The South was strongly in favour of the 
Spanish-American War, the annexation of the Philippines, America’s entry 
into the First World War in 1917 and its entry into the Second a 
generation later.

Despite their endless misgivings about federal government and Northern 
aggrandisement, Southerners also saw themselves as patriots. They were 
sensitive to any slights to national honour. Many Southern newspapers 
were outraged by Hitler’s disrespectful treatment of black American 
athletes, including Jesse Owens, at the Berlin Olympics of 1936; the 
Atlanta Constitution even advocated a boycott of the games. The 
Montgomery Advertiser, taking note in 1933 of the regime’s attacks on 
Jews, apparently perceived no irony in declaring that ‘Hitler will only 
gain respect in the US if he stops persecuting the minority.’ The same 
newspapers flatly rejected any attempt to compare lynching to the 
systematic persecutions carried out by the Nazis. The point about 
lynching was that it remained ostensibly illegal, whereas Hitler was 
using the instruments of the law to pursue his campaigns of violence. 
Far from empathising with Nazis, Southerners seemed to find them a 
useful moral benchmark: say what you like about us, at least we’re 
nothing like them. People who outwardly resemble each other are often 
the ones most at pains to flag up their differences.

Some of the motivation for Southern anti-Nazism was more pragmatic. The 
South depended on free trade, especially agricultural and mineral 
exports, whereas the Nazi regime was promoting closed trading areas and 
protectionism. When Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, he also seized 
control of two-thirds of all Czech cotton mills. Once this happened, 
cotton exports from the South to Germany effectively ceased. Were Hitler 
to remain in control of continental Europe, parts of the Southern 
economy faced ruin. Southerners also knew that war was good for local 
business. The expansion of the federal military budget brought 
widespread benefits to Southern states, in the form of new army camps, 
investment in transport and other infrastructure and a sudden rush of 
commercial opportunities. There was always a balance to be struck in 
these calculations: government spending brought with it the danger of 
government oversight, which might lead to new questions being asked 
about the racial order of the South. If you took Northern money, you 
risked giving Northern politicians leverage over the way it was doled 
out. But Southern politicians rightly calculated that at a time of war, 
the federal government couldn’t afford to be too squeamish. In an 
emergency, getting the job done took priority over how it was managed. 
The money would get spent, and so long as the South remained 
enthusiastic about the cause, not too many awkward questions would get 
asked.

Politicking of this kind is the other reason it was a big mistake to 
think the South was Fascist. It may have been a one-party state, but the 
Democrats were not a one-state party. Southern Democrats didn’t have a 
single leader; theirs, as Katznelson says, was a ‘chaotic and anarchic’ 
organisation, riddled with local variations. More important, it was an 
organisation that extended well beyond the South. How the Northern and 
the Southern wings of the Democratic Party reconciled themselves to each 
other in this period was the central dynamic of American politics (the 
Western wing played a smaller part), and it provides the basis for 
Katznelson’s enthralling new history of the New Deal. Both sides had to 
compromise. For Southern Democrats, having their party in the White 
House meant accepting an outsider as president, since no Southern 
politician was considered nationally electable. If the Democrats 
controlled Washington, the benefits for the South were enormous, as 
resources were reallocated from more affluent parts of the country. 
After 1933, this was the lifeline on which the South depended to survive 
the Great Depression. The price paid was the uncertainty that came with 
having Northern and Midwestern politicians pulling the purse-strings. 
These men (and the occasional woman) were answerable to electorates very 
different from those of their Southern counterparts; indeed, many of 
them represented districts in which black voters, even in small numbers, 
could swing an election. Southern Democrats could never be sure what 
might be required of them in return for all that federal largesse; they 
had to be perpetually vigilant for signs of slippage on the race 
question. They couldn’t afford to pull up the drawbridge, but neither 
were they willing to let any do-gooding liberals across it. The result 
was an endless series of arms-length negotiations, in which each side 
did what it could to probe for weaknesses in the other. The South could 
never be Fascist because the South was part of a functioning national 
democracy, with all the unavoidable accommodations and patched-up deals 
that entailed.

*

However, the really significant compromises were the ones made by 
Northern politicians. Katznelson persuasively argues that the core 
features of the New Deal were fashioned out of Northern acquiescence and 
Southern intransigence. The give-and-take was highly asymmetrical. 
Roosevelt needed the votes of Southern representatives in Congress, 
above all in the Senate, to get his legislative programme for reviving 
the American economy passed. Though in a permanent minority, Southern 
senators wielded disproportionate influence. There were two reasons for 
this. First, they were more united than any rival grouping. What united 
them was race, and a shared sense that they represented the final 
bulwark against the destruction of the white order. Any local 
differences were put aside when segregation was on the line. Unity made 
them disciplined but also highly adaptable: Southern representatives 
would forge whatever alliances were needed to keep the South intact. If 
that meant doing deals with Republicans, so be it. Roosevelt knew he 
couldn’t rely on the Southern politicians in his party if they had any 
sense that their way of life was under threat. So he was loath to put 
them to the test. He may also have had a sneaking sympathy with their 
predicament. He was at ease among Southerners (as he was with pretty 
much everybody), and regularly holidayed in South Carolina, where he 
apparently felt at home. He believed that if the South was going to 
change, it would have to do so at its own pace. His administration had 
more urgent business to attend to.

The second weapon Southern senators had at their disposal was their 
longevity. Control of Senate committees went by seniority and because 
the South was a one-party state, Southerners were invariably the ones 
who had been there longest. In the 1920s, when the Democratic Party was 
being battered by Republicans in national elections, the South was 
immune. During this period, 67 per cent of all Democrats in the Senate 
and 72 per cent in the House came from the South. When a new raft of 
Northern and Western Democrats were returned on FDR’s coat tails in the 
1930s, the same Southerners were still around. So it didn’t matter 
whether the Democrats were down or up, the South still ended up on top. 
When the party was down, Southern representatives were the only ones 
standing; when the party was up, Southern representatives were the ones 
with all the experience. There was no way for a Democratic president to 
legislate without letting the South get its fingerprints all over his bills.

But Roosevelt had an additional motivation for not wanting to bypass 
Congress. As Katznelson points out, he arrived in office in 1933 at a 
moment of acute danger, not just for his country but for democracy 
worldwide. A widespread feeling had arisen that only dictatorship could 
tackle the chaos and misery that the Great Depression had unleashed. 
Mussolini, Stalin and now Hitler were all being cast as men of action; 
the indecisive democracies seemed to be trailing in their wake. Many 
hoped that Roosevelt would take a leaf out of the autocrats’ book. His 
inauguration was accompanied by a welter of newspaper comment demanding 
immediate executive action. The pre-eminent columnist Walter Lippmann 
wrote that ‘strong medicine’ was needed. He advocated a large increase 
in presidential powers, and a temporary suspension of Congressional 
checks and balances. In a private visit to the president-elect in 
February, Lippmann told him: ‘The situation is critical, Franklin. You 
may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.’ In his 
inaugural address, Roosevelt raised the possibility that he might have 
to act by presidential fiat. If the crisis persisted, he said, ‘I shall 
ask Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet [it]: broad 
executive power to wage a war against the Emergency, as great as the 
power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign 
foe.’ Another journalist, Anne O’Hare McCormick of the New York Times, 
described the atmosphere in Washington during Roosevelt’s first hundred 
days as ‘strangely reminiscent of Rome in the first weeks after the 
march of the Blackshirts, or Moscow at the beginning of the Five Year 
Plan’. The American people, she went on, ‘trust the discretion of the 
president more than they trust Congress’. His authority rested on his 
electoral popularity, but simply winning elections was not enough to 
guarantee democracy (Hitler won elections too). Instead, as McCormick 
wrote, mass popular consent ‘vests the president with the authority of a 
dictator’.

Yet in the end, Roosevelt was no dictator. If American democracy was to 
meet the challenge of the crisis, he knew that it could only be done by 
working with and through Congress. Katznelson complains that too many 
histories of the New Deal give undue weight to Roosevelt’s personal 
input, thereby granting him a pseudo-dictatorial authority over the 
process. In fact, Roosevelt never sought the kind of emergency powers he 
alluded to in his Inaugural. And he was careful to make clear that even 
if he were to seek any additional authority, it would have to be granted 
by Congress, rather than simply being taken from it. Roosevelt 
recognised that what distinguished democracy from the alternatives was 
the fact that national leaders had to govern with the consent of the 
people’s representatives in the legislature. It couldn’t be taken for 
granted. Bypassing Congress might have made government quicker to 
respond and more efficient, but it also meant admitting that a 
democratic system was too slow and cumbersome to deal with the most 
serious challenges it faced. In the fight to save democracy, this would 
have been a Pyrrhic victory at best.

*

Working with Congress didn’t in fact slow Roosevelt down. The Southern 
wing of his party was at least as keen as he was to see the national 
government play a greater role in co-ordinating economic policy and 
providing support for ailing sectors of industry and agriculture. The 
National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933 passed through Congress 
with emphatic majorities in both Houses; Southern representatives 
intervened only to strengthen its provisions where they felt that 
insufficient attention was being paid to the desperate hardships faced 
by their constituents. But the Southerners were playing a double game. 
They wanted to maximise the help the federal government provided to the 
worst hit parts of the country, while at the same time minimising the 
amount of control the federal government could exercise over the way the 
help was distributed within individual states. In calculating the scale 
of the emergency in the South, they saw to it that everyone’s misfortune 
was included. But in calculating how the South could benefit from 
government assistance, they made sure that it was only whites who 
counted. For instance, statistics were gathered that showed the South 
lagging far behind the rest of the nation in basic amenities. The 
figures revealed that only 5.7 per cent of Southern farmhouses had 
access to running water, and almost none had indoor toilets. As a 
result, water-borne diseases – including malaria – were widespread and 
basic health for many people was poor. The region lacked doctors, 
hospitals and clinics. It also lacked decent transport links and public 
schooling. Illiteracy was widespread. The whole area was crying out for 
help. But these statistics were only achieved by lumping white and black 
together, as though segregation didn’t exist. When it came to drawing up 
the legislation that underpinned the New Deal, Southern members of 
Congress made sure that segregation was not simply recognised: it was 
reinforced. So the NIRA codes that established minimum wages and maximum 
hours for workers explicitly excluded domestic and farm labour, thus 
ensuring that the vast majority of African Americans in the South would 
not be covered by their provisions. Roosevelt also agreed to exemptions 
for various Southern industries, including citrus packing and cotton 
ginning. He knew what he was doing. ‘It is not the purpose of the 
administration,’ he announced in 1934, ‘by sudden or explosive change, 
to impair Southern industry by refusing to recognise traditional 
differentials.’ In order to count as ‘Southern’, an industry needed only 
to show that the majority of its workers in a given state were black. 
This produced strange anomalies. Fertiliser production in Delaware, 
where nine out of ten workers were black, fell under a Southern code, 
whereas other industries in the same state that employed mainly white 
workers were included in the NIRA provisions.

By the late 1930s, the double game was starting to come apart. As long 
as the crisis could be presented as a great national emergency, 
requiring all hands to the pumps, the South was happy, because emergency 
politics is also ad hoc politics, allowing considerable latitude for 
local differences. In the early days, Roosevelt never pressed for more 
than voluntary co-operation between federal and state governments in 
order to retain flexibility and achieve the maximum immediate impact. 
But once the worst of the crisis had passed, his attention and that of 
others in the Democratic Party turned to institutional reform and 
structural change. When that happened, the South baulked. Southern 
politicians started to mutter darkly about Hitlerism in Washington: FDR 
was threatening to dictate a new set of rules without taking sufficient 
account of the separate struggle playing out below the Mason-Dixon Line. 
The focus of Southern fears was labour legislation. Plans to strengthen 
the bargaining position of labour unions and extend the minimum wage 
were fiercely resisted by many Southern Democrats, who rightly saw that 
organised labour posed the greatest threat to segregation (unions were 
almost the only public bodies of the time that welcomed black and white 
workers together). A 1938 labour standards bill, which would have 
brought Southern agriculture within the ambit of New Deal regulations, 
was defeated in the House, despite its overwhelming Democratic majority. 
‘Unworkable’, ‘un-American’, ‘impractical’ and, above all, ‘dictatorial’ 
was how Southern representatives characterised it. They allied with 
Republicans, who had their own reasons for wanting to curtail the 
unions, to pass a much watered-down version, which kept the important 
exemptions intact. The same alliance then established a House Special 
Committee to Investigate the National Labor Relations Board, which set 
about exposing Communist infiltration and racial bias (i.e. anti-white 
bias) inside the federal government. It was a taste of things to come.

The New Deal was fracturing, but the impetus behind it was far from 
over. One of the distinctive features of Katznelson’s book is that he 
sees the New Deal period as extending well beyond the 1930s. The 
mid-20th century was the age of ‘fear’ and there was still plenty to be 
afraid of. One emergency soon gave way to another. In 1941 the US 
finally confronted its foreign enemy. War meant another enormous 
expansion of government activity, including vast new increases in 
federal spending and economic controls. Again, the strongest support in 
Washington came from the representatives of the South. They were in 
favour of the fighting, because they believed Nazism was the true enemy; 
they were in favour of the spending, because they wanted more money 
diverted to their region; they were in favour of the controls, because 
they liked the idea that Wall Street would have its wings clipped; above 
all, they were in favour of the emergency, because it meant there wasn’t 
time to attend to niceties. War was both a welcome opportunity and a 
welcome distraction. The double game was back on.

As before, it proved unsustainable. The South made some compromises when 
it had to. First in 1942, then in 1944, finally in 1946, its 
representatives in Congress agreed to legislation that extended the vote 
to soldiers serving overseas, of whom a small but significant proportion 
were black. The Southerners knew it would be political suicide to 
disenfranchise men who had been fighting and dying for their country. 
But each successive piece of legislation reinforced the ability of 
individual states to control the electoral process. As a result, though 
the poll tax was abolished, the Southern states still excluded large 
numbers of soldiers from voting by applying arbitrary tests and 
cumbersome procedures that couldn’t be challenged in the federal courts. 
Of the more than nine million people of voting age in the military at 
the time of the 1944 election, fewer than three million ended up casting 
a ballot, despite expectations that the number would be far higher. The 
states with the poorest military turnout records were Alabama, South 
Carolina, Delaware, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Back in 
1942, a leading African-American columnist in the Atlanta World had 
asked whether ‘the lawmakers in Congress are going to disenfranchise a 
couple of million white boys to keep a couple of thousand Negroes from 
exercising the prerogative of American citizenship.’ He needn’t have put 
the question. Southern Democrats paid lip service to the principle of 
ballots for soldiers, but they allied with Republicans in Congress (who 
feared that active servicemen were more likely to vote Democrat) to 
limit the practice wherever possible.

*

The pattern repeated itself in other areas. Southern representatives 
supported the White House when the draft was first introduced in 1940, 
breaking with the traditional American suspicion of standing armies. But 
they made sure that conscription would be run by voluntary local draft 
boards, not federal employees. Southern states ensured that the armed 
forces remained segregated, first by refusing to draft African Americans 
(often by applying arbitrary medical or literacy tests), and then by 
insisting that troops of different regions didn’t fraternise. This 
decentralised system served the twin purposes of reinforcing the racial 
hierarchy of the South and allowing the defenders of the hierarchy to 
burnish their anti-Nazi credentials. Theirs was an ‘American’ draft, 
built on principles of localism and voluntary co-operation, so very 
different from the mass conscription of the dictatorial regimes they 
were fighting against. ‘With the administrative and substantive 
assurances provided by military segregation and draft board 
decentralisation,’ Katznelson writes, ‘the white South could pursue its 
preferences about global affairs as if they had no consequences for 
their racial order. Later, of course, this proved to have been a 
profound miscalculation.’

Once the war was over, the priority of Southern representatives in 
Congress shifted from promoting the ad hoc power of the federal 
government to ensuring that it didn’t become institutionalised. As in 
the late 1930s, the imperative of the late 1940s was to prevent 
emergency politics from morphing into structural change. The South had 
two weapons at its disposal. The first was to use its clout in Congress 
to dismantle the most intrusive aspects of wartime economic controls. 
Southern Democrats combined with Northern Republicans to rein in 
government bodies charged with economic planning at the national level. 
Neither wanted continued federal oversight of regional industrial 
policy. So the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB), which had 
acquired considerable authority during the war to intervene in many 
aspects of business, including wage policy, saw its powers whittled away 
and its funding cut off. The scope and funding of the Bureau of the 
Budget (BOB) was increased in its stead. The effect, as Katznelson 
points out, was to limit the federal government’s primary role in 
economic affairs to fiscal policy, rather than direct intervention. The 
BOB could expand government spending when necessary, and it could use 
the national budget to promote high employment. What it could not do was 
tell different sectors of the economy how to manage their own affairs. 
This suited most Dixiecrats just fine: mild Keynesianism plus maximum 
local discretion was their preferred policy mix. At the same time, the 
Southern Democrat/Northern Republican axis renewed its assault on 
organised labour, scuttling plans by non-Southern Democrats to bolster 
the regulation of industrial relations at the federal level. The Fair 
Employment Practices Committee suffered the same fate as the NRPB: its 
opponents in Congress outwitted its champions, and its powers were 
transferred to a neutered Department of Labor.

The other tool of the white South in its fight for survival was to 
identify a fresh emergency: when one war ends, another must begin. The 
Cold War became the vehicle for a new wave of patriotic sabre-rattling 
and lavish military expenditure. Southern members of Congress were among 
the most enthusiastic champions of enhanced presidential discretion to 
channel resources where they were needed in the fight against Communism. 
They also championed loyalty to the cause of freedom as the ultimate 
test of every federal employee’s credentials for remaining in post. 
Communism was in many ways a more convenient enemy for the South than 
Nazism, since no one was in any danger of confusing the two sides. The 
anti-Communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s took place 
with the connivance and often the direct encouragement of the Southern 
bloc in Congress.

What better way to keep uppity government officials in line than to 
remind them that excessive zeal in promoting social justice was 
inherently suspicious? The dawn of the nuclear age also served Southern 
purposes, by making large swathes of military activity highly secretive 
and very expensive. Lots of government money, very little public 
accountability: the ideal combination. Katznelson describes in 
compelling detail how the South effectively shaped the American 
military-industrial complex in the years after the Second World War. 
Southern representatives in Congress promoted measures that gave 
military planners exactly the sort of latitude in the control of policy 
they had denied to economic planners. This included a vast expansion of 
state funding of scientific research, almost all of it channelled 
through the military. Katznelson cites the astonishing fact that 96 per 
cent of all federal funding for science in American universities in 1949 
came from the army, the navy, the air force or the Atomic Energy 
Commission. In this, the air force played an outsize role, accounting 
for more than 40 per cent of the entire military budget that year. 
Aviation was a Southern passion. It had also been a Fascist one. The 
Italian journalist Guido Mattioli announced in 1935 that ‘every aviator 
is a born Fascist.’ Charles Lindbergh, the hero American pilot of the 
interwar years, was the closest the country ever came to a genuine 
Fascist figurehead (a possibility imagined by Philip Roth in his 
remarkable counterfactual novel The Plot against America). Now that 
Fascism was dead, control of the skies could revert to being an 
all-American activity. The federal government was free to pour money 
into it like there was no tomorrow.

*

Katznelson’s argument is that the distinctive character of the postwar 
American state was determined by the compromises that riddled the New 
Deal from its outset until its demise under Eisenhower. The result was a 
‘Janus-faced’ politics: outwardly assertive, interventionist, crusading, 
moralising, always looking to take the fight to the enemy; inwardly 
constrained, laissez-faire, decentralised, protective of private 
interests, reluctant to uphold the public good. Katznelson sees this 
dual state – mixing nearly unconstrained public capacity with nearly 
unconstrained private power – as both enduring and pathological. He also 
sees it as distinctively American. But how distinctive is it? The 
combination of unlimited external force and maximal internal freedom 
describes, among other things, the vision of the state first laid down 
by Hobbes. For Hobbes, states need to be Janus-faced so that they can 
preserve the peace: preserve it from external aggression and internal 
interference. But Hobbes also thought that this would only be possible 
with an unequivocal sovereign who had the power to decide when to fight 
and when to let things be. Separation of powers was anathema to him. 
What’s distinctive about the American story is that a Hobbesian state 
was produced in the absence of a single sovereign. It was born out of 
the mess and equivocation of democratic politics. This inadvertent 
quality marks the continuing trajectory of American democracy. As 
Katznelson says, the South got what it wanted, and in so doing lost the 
thing it was trying to defend. By helping to save democracy, even on its 
own terms, it surrendered control of its destiny. Eventually segregation 
was undone by the legislative efforts of Lyndon Johnson, the first 
Southern senator to make it to the White House in a hundred years. LBJ 
saw that breaking with his former colleagues was the way to cement his 
national electoral appeal. He did what FDR couldn’t: he undermined the 
South from within.

‘If there is a lesson,’ Katznelson writes of the New Deal, ‘it is not 
one of retrospective judgment, as if the possibility then existed to 
rescue liberal democracy and pursue racial justice simultaneously. It 
later turned out that the first would prove to be a condition of the 
second. But there is no reason not to brood about the confining cage of 
explicit and wilful racism in the Roosevelt and Truman years, or not to 
weigh its implications.’ This is a beautifully measured book, but it is 
shot through with regret. Katznelson calls Roosevelt’s accommodations 
with the representatives of the South – men like Bilbo, who deserves his 
place up there with the other monsters of the age – a ‘rotten 
compromise’. It would be nice to think that he could have done more to 
take them on. But in the absence of the dictatorial powers that he 
eschewed as president, it is hard to see how. He could have tried 
calling the bluff of the Southern blowhards in Congress. The trouble is 
they weren’t bluffing. Everything about their behaviour indicates that 
they were willing to sacrifice a Democratic president for the sake of 
the Democratic South. If Roosevelt had gone down, and his New Deal with 
him, the alternatives would have been worse. Perhaps the fantasy of a 
Lindbergh presidency is far-fetched. But there were plenty of nasty 
options out there in the age of ‘fear itself’. In that respect, 
traditional histories are not wrong to emphasise the centrality to the 
whole story of the accommodating Roosevelt. America was lucky to have him.

Katznelson’s other regret is what the ‘Southern’ New Deal did to the 
prospects of economic justice in the United States. As well as 
entrenching the white supremacist order of the South for a generation, 
it killed the possibility of European-style social democracy, by 
curtailing the role of government, entrenching the rights of private 
corporations and undermining the organisational capacity of the unions. 
When the civil rights movement finally gathered momentum in the South, 
there was no equivalently forceful labour movement for it to ally with. 
‘As a result,’ Katznelson says, ‘the frontal attack on black civic and 
political exclusion advanced without focusing on social class, economic 
equality or labour rights as essential features of racial justice.’ 
Still, it is best not to be too wishful about European-style social 
democracy. It developed during the same period with the aid of a few 
rotten compromises of its own, including, in various places, with its 
unmentionable Fascist past. Katznelson complains that the ‘procedural’ 
American state, lacking any developed sense of the public interest, is 
endlessly prone to crises of civic trust, as people tire of the 
pretensions of an ostensibly impartial system that is so manifestly 
unfair. But the ‘corporatist’ European state is also prone to crises of 
trust, as people tire of the pretensions of an ostensibly fair system 
that is so manifestly unresponsive to their most pressing demands. We 
are living through just such a crisis at the moment. No one knows how it 
will play out. Democracy, everywhere, remains an inadvertent form of 
politics.





More information about the Marxism mailing list