Prof. Ira Katznelson's Book Offers a New View of the New Deal
Ira Katznelson’s first political memory dates to when he was 8 years old. His parents were ardent supporters of Adlai Stevenson, the Democrat running against Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, and they were stunned to learn that Katznelson’s grandmother did not plan to vote at all. Striking her dining room table with a copy of the Yiddish language Daily Forward for emphasis, she exclaimed, “Since Roosevelt, they are all pygmies!”
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University
That incident may well be the origin of Katznelson’s enduring interest in Roosevelt’s much-scrutinized New Deal, the subject of his most recent book, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. In analyzing the period from several new perspectives, Katznelson hones in to an unprecedented degree on the influence of Southern Democrats in shaping the historic legislation.
“When I thought I would write about the New Deal initially, I did not initially place the Southern question front and center,” he says. “It emerged as I shifted away from the riveting figure of Franklin Roosevelt toward Congress.”
The book represents the second installment of an informal trilogy about Southern power in the making of modern America, part of his broader interest in race relations. The first, When Affirmative Action Was White, probed the impact on African Americans of discriminatory features of decisions taken about social policy, labor law, and the GI bill in the 1930s and 1940s. For his next book, titled Southern Nation, he and a University of Pennsylvania colleague, John Lapinski (GSAS 2000), have built a database coded by policy areas of every Congressional roll call from the end of Reconstruction to the Voting Rights Act. Their goal: to measure the extent to which Southern lawmakers, in the years between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, shaped national legislation in ways that would help to maintain segregation. “We want to systematically let the data help us answer these questions,” he says. “As the two of us sit here, neither John nor I yet know the answers.”
Q. Why revisit the New Deal now?
I became interested in how democracies deal with fearful situations. By that I mean circumstances that seem unprecedented, in which the status quo provides no sure guidelines. I’m not talking about ordinary risk, a feature of everyday life. We buy a house, we take a chance: House prices don’t always go up. We get married, we take a chance: Only 50 percent of marriages survive long-term. We think we can beat those odds. But some circumstances, like the great crash of 1929, like the emergence of atomic weapons, like 9/11, something so novel happens, so unprecedented, so shocking, that we become fearful.
Q. Is that why Roosevelt’s line about “fear itself” has such resonance all these years later?
Yes, but there’s another part of his address that people forget, when he said, “I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—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.”
In raising this possibility, President Roosevelt was reflecting the widespread anxiety that the ordinary practices of American constitutional democracy might not be able to cope in that emergency. The single greatest triumph of the New Deal, more important than any particular public policy like Social Security, is that the president never did rule by executive power. The country never bypassed the ordinary separation of powers of the American constitutional system. When the Supreme Court said no to Roosevelt, he obeyed the court; when Congress did not quite go along with things he wanted, he lived with that. While many democracies around the globe were toppling during the Depression, the United States maintained its democratic form.
Q. Why include the Truman administration in your definition of the New Deal?
When we elongate the time period to the full 20 years of Democratic presidential rule (1932-52), which, except for two years, was also a period of Democratic congressional majorities, we can witness the layering of sources of fear—the collapse of capitalism, the competition of the dictatorships, unprecedented wartime violence, atomic weapons, the Cold War—and also see the development of a new national state in Washington that we experience today. What is that? It’s a kind of two-sided national state, with one aspect, primarily domestic, marked by organized groups wrestling for influence; and a second aspect, a global national security state.
Q. In your book you contrast the procedures of the domestic state with those of the national security state. Can you elaborate?
The United States fought against dictatorship—whether Nazi, Fascist or Bolshevik—and for democracy without the kinds of processes and constraints that characterized ordinary domestic politics. In pursuing national interests, this side of the state was nearly unbounded, deploying military might and clandestine subversion and surveillance in unprecedented ways without procedural restraints. The issues these developments raised have not gone away. Today, we are wrestling with whether the President can legitimately go after an American citizen whom he thinks is a terrorist without any court procedures or a vote of Congress.
Q. Why do you focus so much of your book on Congress?
In the 1930s, the friends and enemies of democracy thought the legislative branch was the great problem. They believed the main reason democracies could not solve the great problems of the day was parliaments could not effectively govern. The fulcrum of my book is Congress because its policy achievements falsified the common claim at the time that national legislatures were incapable. Another reason concerns the dynamics of Congress in the 1930s and ’40s when southern legislators composed its key bloc of pivotal voters. Then, there were 17 states in the Union that legally mandated racial segregation. Almost all their representatives in both the House and Senate were Democrats. Think of the consequences of that—34 senators from the Jim Crow South.
Q. What were the consequences?
In the 1930s nothing passed into law that Southern Democrats strongly objected to. One of the key themes of my book is how Southern members of Congress took their fear for the future of the Southern system and translated that into public policy in Washington. Not just on race, but also on issues concerning the role of government in managing the economy or labor law. Once they protected their region’s racial system by excluding farm workers and maids from inclusion in key legislation, southern members voted for the major Roosevelt initiatives—the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Wagner Act [permitting unions to organize and collectively bargain], Social Security. But they broke with other Democrats when they thought the racial system to be under threat. Southerners also were with Roosevelt on his international agenda. The first peacetime draft had passed in 1940 with many restrictions, including that it would last only a year. When the president returned to Congress in the middle of 1941 saying that the U.S. had to continue to have a drafted armed force, Republicans were overwhelmingly opposed, as were northern Democrats who had Irish, Italian, and German constituencies. The conscription bill passed the House by a single vote just five months before Pearl Harbor. Imagine if it had failed; we would have had an Army smaller than Belgium’s.
Q. What was the cost of their support?
Southern Democrats, who were deeply anxious for the future of segregation and Southern race relations, made this the litmus test. They excluded farm workers and household workers from New Deal legislation because those were the jobs black people held in the South. In 1944, there was a move to provide ballots for the millions of members of the armed forces serving overseas, including about a million African Americans. But the bill that passed Congress was written by Sen. James Eastland and Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi in a manner that ensured African Americans could not vote. The Soldier Voting Act of 1944 required that absentee votes be counted only in states where the governor and state legislatures approved the use of the federal ballot. Eastland said on the floor of the Senate, “Our boys are fighting to maintain white supremacy.” The labor market was very tight during the war because so many young workers were overseas in the armed services. Unions mounted massive organizing drives in the South, and Southern Democrats said on the floor of the House and the Senate that these were the biggest threat to their racial order ever. And they responded by passing new labor laws, most notably the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, that made labor organizing much more difficult to achieve.
Q. Were there other examples demonstrating the clout of the Southern delegation?
After the war in 1946 Congress passed the Hill-Burton Act, which paid for hospitals all over the country. Few hospitals had been built during the Depression or World War II so the medical system had decayed. The new young congressman from Harlem, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., proposed an amendment outlawing discrimination in these new hospitals on the basis of race. The Southerners turned to the Northern Democrats and threatened to vote against the bill if it contained this anti-discrimination amendment. So it passed without the ban, and hospitals built with federal money were segregated in the South.
Q. Can you give some other examples of such liberal legislation that wouldn’t have been possible with the Southern Democrats?
All the great bills we remember, like Social Security and the National Industrial Recovery Act, were voted for by Southern Democrats, supported by Southern Democrats, often written in committees chaired by Southern Democrats. And so with the fight against Nazism, the buildup of our armed forces, the national security state. In all, the main outcomes of the full New Deal era were deeply influenced by the preferences of Southern members of Congress. The first chapter of the book is called “The Triumph and the Sorrow.” The triumph is real—the New Deal successfully guarded liberal democracy in an age of dictatorship. But the triumph cannot be severed from the sorrow.
Q. What do you consider the biggest accomplishment of the New Deal?
The greatest triumph was that American democracy not only survived but confronted the big questions of the era—including without undoing the constitutional system marked by the separation of powers. Now, as then, this achievement remains fragile, especially when matters of national security are navigated under conditions of fear.
—Interview by Bridget O'Brian
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