What exactly was left to be explored about the political era of the Great Depression and the New Deal?"Why paint, yet again, the most painted political landscape of 20th-century America?" author Ira Katznelson asked."What more can be written?"The answer is in shifting the focus of scholarly works to the role of the legislative branch in the New Deal era and how three persistent, uniquely American fears became intertwined in congressional politics.In Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, Katznelson crafts a unique, fairly easy-to-read history of the era, a period of 20 years -- from the election of Franklin Roosevelt (who rallied the nation with his "fear itself" speech 80 years ago) as president to Dwight Eisenhower -- guiding the reader through the challenges faced by liberal democracy ("liberal" in the classic sense) in beating back the threats of domestic and worldwide crises.The chief fear of the period was the thought that liberal democracy was a wholly and inherently inadequate system for crisis management, especially when confronted with thriving dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Russia.An authoritarian form of government with a central figure who could make decisions quickly was much more accommodating for such a time, not a system of legislators who would "argue over it for a period of weeks and months," wrote Katznelson, a professor of political science and history at Columbia University.In the end, it was Congress that remade the United States, both during the Great Depression and in post-war America, and gave an increased role to labor unions -- which, some argued, became stronger than any law.The era also produced two new American fears: global warfare and nuclear proliferation and the realization that America could no longer withdraw from the world (the cry of "no foreign entanglements" became a thing of the past), and the breakdown of the intrinsically evil racial hierarchy of the Deep South.The South's culture of racial segregation and institutional racism, protected and embraced through the "civil" lawmaking in one-party state capitols (and enforced through the least civil practice of lynching), had been sanctioned through Plessy v. Ferguson and further endorsed by a stated policy of inaction by the federal government first articulated by President William Howard Taft."It is not the disposition or within the province of the federal government to interfere with the regulation by Southern states of their domestic affairs," Taft said in his inaugural address of 1909.In Fear Itself, Katznelson dissects the pivotal role of Southern legislators in passing New Deal legislation.They were, the author notes, "the most important 'veto players' in American politics."Like compromising its liberal ideologies to find common ground with fascist Italy in the 1930s and Soviet Russia during World War II, Congress compromised America's most precious ideals of freedom by ensuring the continuation of Jim Crow to appease Southern legislators, whose votes were crucial to passage of New Deal legislation.But social justice won out, because these New Deal compromises and appeasement of Southern members meant keeping them within the Democratic Party and the democratic process, thus leading to the breakdown of the Jim Crow Old South.
Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
by Ira Katznelson