Earlier this month, an important date in American history quietly slipped by unnoticed by most. March 4 marked the 80th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, the occasion when a newly installed president counseled a battered, beleaguered nation that the only thing it had to fear was “fear itself.’’
Those two words are more chilling standing alone than they are in the complete Roosevelt sentence, and they constitute the arresting title of Ira Katznelson’s chronicle of the America that fear, and its uplifting handmaiden, the New Deal, made.
The New Deal, and fear itself, are still with us, though the zeitgeist of the former is in a slow fade and the jolt prompted by the latter waxes and wanes with the economic and national-security seasons and their recurrent crises. Also with us is the Solid South, though in the last few decades of the old century and the first two of the new, the 11 states of the Old Confederacy have turned away from the Democrats and become solidly Republican.
But it is the days of the earlier Solid South that Katznelson makes the centerpiece of his imaginative chronicle of the origins of modern America.
Historians and political scientists always understood the primacy of the South in our national life, but seldom has it been sketched with such clarity and its implications explained with such power. Here is the Katznelson thesis in brief:
Because of the region’s influence in Congress and in the Democratic Party — twin phenomena that persisted through the years of Lyndon Johnson, himself the personification of that power — the South held a virtual veto over the New Deal and thus shaped it as intimately as did FDR. The South gave the New Deal running room — as long as it ran from issues of race. It assured that the New Deal would produce no legislation that would alter the social or racial hierarchy of the region.
“The New Deal permitted, or at least turned a blind eye toward, an organized system of racial cruelty,’’ writes Katznelson, who holds an endowed chair at Columbia University in history and political science.
“This alliance was a crucial part of its supportive structure. The New Deal thus collaborated with the South’s racial hegemony as it advanced liberal democracy at home and campaigned to promote liberal democracy abroad.’’
Yet there was, in this period in the South, no sense of incongruity between liberal democracy and brutal racism. At the center of the region’s politics was the strong appeal of regulation, especially of the railroads and banking interests, along with Southern support for legislation to rein in monopolies and provide federal aid to agriculture. In short, the very foundation stones of Southern Democrats were also the pinions of the New Deal.
This was really not a new development, just an unrecognized one. A decade and a half earlier, Woodrow Wilson had combined what Katznelson calls “progressivism with aggressive racism.’’ By the time FDR was elected in 1932, Southern Democrats were committee chairmen, and their numbers were artifically inflated because House seats were apportioned by population, even if many of those in the population were barred from voting by virtue of their color.
As a result, Katznelson points out, two of the signature New Deal agencies, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority, were headed by avowed racists.
But increasingly, northern New Dealers began to push antisegregation legislation, and the wartime debate over soldiers voting, which all agreed undermined Southern laws limiting the ability of blacks to vote, suggested that vast changes were to come.
Katznelson’s book also puts the New Deal in global perspective. At a time when dictatorships in Italy and Germany were exercising extraordinary powers, Roosevelt signaled, from the very start, that he might need extraordinary powers himself.
In his inaugural address — the very forum in which he made his famous remarks about fear — FDR spoke of perhaps needing “as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.’’ This indicated that, as Katznelson put it, “American liberal democracy, with Congress at its center, might falter, or at least require a substantial, if only provisional, modification to the distinction between legislative and executive power.’’
The early New Deal was characterized by a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the capital, with the White House eclipsing the Congress and setting the Washington agenda. The action was intended to be temporary, but the implications were permanent.
Indeed, that shift in power grew more pronounced as war neared and only accelerated after war was declared in 1941. The president believed he had the power, or perhaps the responsibility, to circumvent Congress, and the legislature barely rebelled. The result was what Katznelson calls “the wartime national security state’’ — the remnants of which we live with to this very day.
“Fear Itself’’ is a provocative look at how modern America — created three-quarters of a century ago by the very Southern barons who were so important a part of the New Deal — was shaped. We think of history as a settled thing, tucked safely in a faraway past. This book is a reminder of how very surprising it can be.
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.