Wonkblog book club: Ira Katznelson’s “Fear Itself” — Part I

May 10, 2013

It's time to start our book club. With any luck, everyone's read the Introduction and Part I of Ira Katznelson’s, “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time” by now.

So let's discuss in comments. A few quick points to kick things off:

1) The early chapters are slow-going, but I do like that Katznelson takes time to establish the enormity of the crisis during the Depression and to remind everyone of just how fragile the political situation really was. Prior to the New Deal, the prospects for democracy around the world looked incredibly dim. (Although, as Katznelson concedes, there were never majorities of Americans in favor of dictatorship, and U.S. democracy itself was likely never in serious danger.)

Even to some in Congress! "If this country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now," Pennysylvania Republican senator David Reed said in 1932. "Leave it to Congress, we will fiddle around here all summer trying to satisfy every lobbyist, and we will get nowhere."

2) Obviously the United States didn't get a Mussolini. But in Chapter 3 of Part I, Katznelson has a nice discussion of just how radical Franklin D. Roosevelt's early New Deal policies were from a legislative-process standpoint:

In all, the emergency legislation that Congress enacted in the administration's Hundred Days was marked by three unprecedented features. First, it was almost entirely drafted, in detail, by the executive branch. ... Second, while the form of lawmaking was preserved, and no formal institutional rules were violated, the legislative process was pushed forward in a highly abbreviated way.

Third, these measures were characterized by immense powers delegated from the legislature to the executive branch that dramatically expanded the powers of federal agencies, many of which were new.

Perhaps the most surprising thing here, though, is that this didn't degenerate into dictatorship. Congress managed to reassert itself in remarkably short order and "developed enhanced means to control the growing administrative system of the federal government, at least in domestic affairs." That seems to be just as important a part of this story as the early New Deal push itself.

3) We get a pretty concise statement of Katznelson's main thesis early on. "The New Deal permitted, or at least turned a blind eye toward, an organized system of racial cruelty," he notes. Southerners were allowed to steer benefits only to whites. Black farmers were excluded. Federal facilities were segregated. And so on. This was the bargain that Roosevelt struck to keep Southern politicians within the Democratic Party and preserve the New Deal.

Toward the end of Part I, Katznelson suggests that without the racist structure of the New Deal there might never have been a New Deal at all. But is that actually right? It's worth thinking through, as we make our way through this book, whether the New Deal's moral trade-offs were actually inevitable, or whether things could have gone differently.

There's a whole lot more to discuss, so what did you all think?

Related: As a reminder, here's our book club schedule.

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