Wednesday, May 01, 2013

What We're Reading: A New Look at the New Deal

Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, by Ira Katznelson. 

Having just finished reading a very fine history book that focused rather narrowly on the subject of the end of slavery during the years of the American Civil War, the broad scope of Fear Itself and the 20-year history between 1932 and 1952 that it surveys appears by contrast a rather unfocused book. It has the feel of a miscellany on various themes. It sees that the topics, although they manifestly have a bearing on each other, were originally developed as subjects of independent historical and political research. It will be up to the individual reader to decide if they have been successfully fashioned into an original and compelling new framework through which to view the New Deal.

Katznelson’s investigation of the political influence of the American South on the legislative process during these years is thorough and is a recurring theme of Fear Itself. It is a fact that has long been lying in plain sight, and yet no one before has so thoroughly teased out the political implications of the electorally solid Democratic South that existed during these years. It was a bloc that was crucial to the successful passage of most of the New Deal programs and that was instrumental in the building of the U.S. national security state in the years immediately following World War II as the United States took a leading role in international affairs. Katznelson shows how Southern senators and representatives provided critical support for the major public programs of the New Deal, while keeping a jealous eye on anything in the legislation for these programs that might weaken the structure of the segregated society of the South. Not only Jim Crow laws in the South, but the economic control of the region’s labor market was fundamental to maintaining a segregated society. The occupations in which most black people worked--agriculture, its support industries, and domestic service--were not a part of the legislation that made union organization easier, and they were not occupations protected in the social welfare programs of the New Deal. Exemptions of this sort were necessary, for instance, to get Southern support for the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. And these exclusions were accompanied by Southern insistence that federal employment programs be placed under state and local control so that job opportunities could be limited by race, occupations could remain segregated, and businesses and agriculture in the South could maintain depressed wage structures.

Because the South was solidly Democratic and elections were not competitive, incumbents were returned to office over and over again and thus came to occupy through the seniority system the key committee chairmanships in the Congress in both houses. Southern intransigence on race issues also came into play in the fight over the draft (they insisted its administration be decentralized and local) and at the federal level when Congress considered legislation that would make it easier during the war for soldiers stationed overseas to vote. The Southern system of segregation depended on maintaining control over who was able to register and vote, and any attempt by the federal government to be involved in the voting process was rejected as a potential federal wedge into the closed world of regional and state devices that were employed to manipulate the vote in the South. Southern concerns about black soldiers voting and about an incipient role for the federal government in registration and voting issues made it difficult to develop any effective means for facilitating the voting by servicemen in national, state, and local elections. Katznelson argues that the Democratic Party was forced to make a Faustian bargain with the Southern wing of its party in order to pass most of the legislative agenda of the New Deal. The author shows how the passage of key programs often came at the price of any advance in civil rights for blacks, and he presents here testimony of the most raw and unabashedly racist remarks of veteran Southern lawmakers; it seems shocking to us today that these kinds of statements could be made publicly by respected members of Congress. Ultimately, the growing national power of labor, its generally positive support for civil rights, and its attempts to organize workers in the South led to a defection of Southern lawmakers from the pro-labor agenda of the Democratic Party. Southern lawmakers crossed the aisle to join Republicans in limiting the power and influence of unions. Their support was instrumental in the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which put constraints on the ability of unions to organize and strike.

Katznelson argues that it was because of the hesitation of Southern lawmakers that the New Deal came to play a less direct role in management and planning of the economy (as it had done in the crisis years of the Depression) and came to rely more on federal fiscal policy to nudge capitalism towards national economic and social goals. Concurrently, Southern lawmakers were central to the internationalist posture that the United States assumed in the years leading up to and immediately following World War II, voting for the expansion of federal power as it pertained to issues of national defense and domestic security, supporting legislation that handed over legislative powers and prerogatives to a growing executive branch. Some of the most interesting passages in Fear Itself are those that describe the development of the national security institutions still with us today: the formation of the CIA; the creation of the National Security Council; the reorganization of the military services and the creation of the Department of Defense; the organization of the Atomic Energy Commission; the expanded role of the FBI in internal security; and the build-up of American’s military arsenal. The fear and sense of crisis that created these changes was accompanied by a growing distrust of “Fifth Column” and popular front movements. Rhetorically, Southerners argued that the international threat of Communism and liberal domestic movements that were attempting to end segregation were part of one and the same movement.

Throughout Fear Itself, Katznelson is concerned with the compromises of ideals and principles that were made to solve social, economic, and international problems the nation confronted during the years of the New Deal. We are reminded here that the international and domestic challenges the New Deal faced during its time consisted of finding a way to save a system of capitalism that was discredited by the economic collapse of the Depression and proving the ability of a liberal democratic system to solve the momentous social and military challenges of the period, challenges of an international nature that were being met with apparent success by newly developed totalitarian systems of government. It was not clear in 1932 when Roosevelt took office that democratic systems of government would survive in the modern world. While economic crisis, waging total war, and the building of national security often involved challenges to civil rights and civil liberties in this climate of fear and uncertainty, the compromises made in the United States were not as radical as what happened in the Nazi, Fascist, and Communist states, whose leaders sneered with contempt at the mire of partisanship and constraints to decisive and forceful action that seemed to characterize government in democratic countries. Even the massive mobilization of the U.S. economy for war was done without the kind of coercive control of business and economic intervention that took place in the Axis countries. And importantly, these compromises were not permanent and preferred methods of governance, but were rather matters of exigency that electoral and legislative democracy for the most part redressed in favor of liberty when the period of crisis had passed.

The Southern legislative bloc limited the extension of civil liberties for black citizens during the early years of the New Deal, and also set the boundaries for the role of federal power in managing the economy in the waning years of the New Deal. After the war that bloc supported an internationalist role for the United States, something that inevitably involved the growth of the federal government and vested increased power in the executive branch of government. It was a concentration of federal power that in the short run brought military bases and research installations to the districts and states of powerful committee chairmen, but in the long run it was an enhancement of federal power that would ultimately be used to end segregation when the demographic and geographical foundations of the major political parties shifted. Katznelson’s perspective here is that of a political scientist rather than a historian, and so the focus in this book is not on personalities or the narrative drama of political events but rather on changes in how American government functioned procedurally, how relationships between entities that composed the federal structure changed, what sometimes morally ambiguous compromises were critical to bringing those changes about, and which of those changes were successfully institutionalized and have endured. It is an attempt to isolate and describe what is the essential political dynamic of these years. It will stimulate thought, argument, and disagreement. In this genre, that’s the measure of a good book.

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