Fear and the New Deal

In 1942, Congress passed legislation attempting to facilitate voting by soldiers stationed overseas. Passed too close to the date of the general election (and after the primary election season) and creating a cumbersome process, the bill was ineffective. As the number of American soliders overseas continued to increase, the lack of practical access to the ballot was intolerable to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He sent a bill to Congress in 1944 that would have created a simple federal ballot made it much easier for soldiers to make their voices heard. Despite having the authority of a wartime president, however, the bill failed. Congress instead passed a much weaker version, more similar to the 1942 statute, that did not send out a uniform federal ballot and left administration in the hands of the states. Fewer than 33 percent of eligible soldiers were able to vote in the 1944 elections. How, during the height of wartime, could such a basic democratic right be denied many soldiers risking their lives for their country?

The answer, as Ira Katznelson details in his brilliant new book Fear Itself, is that a coalition of Republicans (who believed that soldiers largely represented a pro-FDR demographic) and Southern Democrats (who feared that even this limited form of federal intervention would threaten Jim Crow) wanted to limit ballot access for soldiers. The clash between the imperatives of war and the constraints of congressional politics makes the failure of FDR's 1944 bill a paradigmatic New Deal story. Eighty years ago yesterday, FDR famously said during his First Inaugural Address that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The New Deal—which Katznelson argues should be seen as encompassing the period between the election of FDR in 1932 and the election of Eisenhower 20 years later—was, according to Fear Itself, conducted in the shadow of three major fears. First, there was the fear about whether democracy could survive the Great Depression as countries such as Germany, Italy, and Japan turned to authoritarian responses. Second, there was the fear protecting national security respresented, first by World War II and then by the Cold War and the atomic age. And third, and crucially, was the Southern fear that its system of white supremacy would not survive. The first two fears created an impetus for unprecedented federal action, but this federal action was, throughout the New Deal, shaped and constrained by the third fear.

One of the many strengths of Fear Itself is that it brings Congress back to center stage in the New Deal era. American politics past tend to be retrospectively seen through the lens of the presidency, an impulse that is particularly understandable with respect to FDR, who almost certainly did more to shape the political landscape than any politician of the last century. And yet, FDR (and, to an even greater extent) Truman were frequently constrained by Congress, with expansions of executive power often made at the initiative of Congress. And the importance of congressional power meant power for the Jim Crow South—because liberal Democrats never constituted a majority by themselves even in an era in which Democrats generally had huge majorities in both houses of Congress, southern Democratic support was frequently needed for legislation to pass. And because the one-party South meant lengthy tenures for many key southern congressmen, Southern Democrats used control the committee system to gain even more influence over the congressional agenda than their raw numbers would indicate. This influence was, of course, largely pernicious. As the opening story about the denial of ballot access to soldiers indicates, the most important impact of the ability of the Solid South to act as a veto point was that New Deal legislation had to be perceived as leaving Southern white supremacy undisturbed. As a result, the African-Americans who most needed New Deal benefits were given a disproportionately small share.

The New Deal required, as Katznelson puts it, "pragmatic forgetfulness" on the part of FDR and northern liberals in Congress about the horrific injustices of the apartheid South. The pension and unemployment systems established by the Social Security Act, for example, purposely excluded predominantly African-American agricultural and domestic workers from benefits, and this policy of racial exclusion was exacerbated by decentralized control that led to more discriminatory enforcement. Southern Democrats were also crucial to overriding Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, which devastated the American labor movement and intentionally broadened the definitions of agricultural and domestic work in ways that made it much more difficult for African-Americans to organize. And yet—nothing about the politics of the New Deal is straightforward—the influence of Southern Democrats was not uniformly negative. From 1933 to 1938, Southern Democrats were strong supporters of many New Deal initiatives. This support was not simply a matter of being cowed by FDR's use of the bully pulpit or arm-twisting. As Katznelson points out, even Theodore Bilbo, the cartoonishly demagogic racist senator from Mississippi, supported progressive economic policy as a state politician. (The Deep South in the 1930s was too poor to afford economic libertarianism.) There were even times when Southern Democrats staked out a position to FDR's left—most notably, attaching a major public works program to the Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 that FDR (who never fully abandoned his fiscally conservative instincts) didn't want.

Particularly important and complex, as the fears of fascist domination of Europe and then nuclear annihilation took center stage, is the role of Southern Democrats in national security policy. Southern Democrats were crucial to overcoming Republican isolationism and facilitating a robust American intervention into World War II. Somewhat surprisingly, Katznelson argues, the public officials and editorial boards who most supported white supremacy at home were also among the most committed to fighting the (admittedly even more extreme) version abroad. However, the commitment of Southern Democrats to the national-security state also persisted in its more dangerous aspects. The growth of the security state and its ongoing threats to civil liberties and lives, Katznelson reminds us, was not a simple matter of presidential usurpation: "Every key building block of the national security state that was developed during the Truman years required and secured congressional approval." Southern Democrats were often crucial to overcoming the opposition of isolationist Republicans and liberal Democrats and building the militar-industrial complex.

One of the many virtues of this masterful book is that it rescues the tragedies and ironies of the New Deal from the facile "liberal fascism" taunts from the likes of Jonah Goldberg. American political institutions may have demanded a Faustian bargain in return for comprehensive Great Depression policies, but that does not discredit the progressive accomplishments of the New Deal. White supremacy constrained and shaped the New Deal because in the early 20th century American polity, white supremacy and the tolerance of white supremacy were nearly ubiquitous among political elites of all ideological stripes. From William Howard Taft's disavowal of any interest in civil rights to the overwhelming Senate Republican opposition to allowing an anti-lynching bill to come up a vote to the conservative coalition that dominated Congress between 1938 and 1964, racism was hardly something that only affected the Democratic coalition. And it was economic progressives, not conservatives, who ultimately embraced civil rights under Lyndon Johnson.

70 years after FDR identified the fears of the age so memorably, the New Deal remains an achievement worth celebrating.

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