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

May 31, 2013

Okay, after an unfortunate delay last week...  we're back! With any luck, everyone's read Part II 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 highlights from the book to kick things off:

1) Katznelson takes time to set the scene in the South in the 1920s and 1930s. There's Jim Crow, there's segregation... And there's also the Southern economy — which was much, much poorer than the rest of the United States, "with depleted land, a quasi-feudal tenure system based on debt and fear, and many bankruptcies and foreclosures."

Part II describes just how much of the New Deal was focused on modernizing the region and bringing its economy up to par with the rest of the country's. As economist Penelope Hartley has detailed, these were essentially giant fiscal transfers from North to South. (Note that when experts say that the euro zone needs to become a fiscal union to survive, this is basically the sort of thing they're talking about.)

2) Partly because of that wealth gap, economic progressivism was quite rampant in the South during the 1920s. A number of Southern Democrats were big supporters of public works projects and collective bargaining for railroad unions. They also "sustained much more 'progressive' voting records than their Republican colleagues from New England."

A major theme of Part II is how that progressivism eventually came into tension with racism in the region. Early in the 1930s, many southern Democrats in Congress thought they could embrace both by explicitly tailoring New Deal policies to benefit only whites — say, by excluding maids and farm workers (who made up two-thirds of southern black workers). Institutions like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority were "directed by explicit racists who limited black participation."

But eventually, this strategy proved unworkable — particularly as black voters entered the Democratic coalition. The tension was particularly visible with regards to unions, which grew from 500,000 members in the South to more than 1 million between 1938 and 1945. Many unions were signing up more and more black workers, and many Southern politicians shifted from supporting the Wagner Act in 1935 to outright hostility toward organized labor by the 1940s.

3) We also see how Franklin Roosevelt explicitly ignored the South's racial problems in order to keep southern Democrats voting for the New Deal. A key moment came in 1934, after Colorado's Edward Costigan and New York's Robert Wagner (both Democrats) introduced an anti-lynching bill in response to a renewed wave of lynchings in the South.

FDR refused to support it: "If I come out for the anti-lynching bill, [the southerners] will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing," he told his advisers. "I just can't take that risk." In the end, the bill died.

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

Related: As a reminder, here’s our (modified) book club schedule. The next discussion will be June 14.

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