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Book Review: “Fear Itself”

 “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, first inaugural address, 4 March 1933.

The standard interpretation of this inane statement is that we shouldn’t allow our fears to overcome a commitment or determination to act. This was a tidewater year for the Progressives, who wanted to turn their “retreat” into an “advance.” Roosevelt was their political point man, and a host of economists and academics acted as his “bandstand” backup chorus. A literal construction of the statement is:

We shouldn’t allow a knowledge of the consequences of our proposed statist policies to stop us from enacting those policies. Whether or not those policies accomplish their ends, it is important that we “advance” and not be terrified of the certain outcome. We shouldn’t be afraid of turning the country into a fascist/socialist slave state. It is for the “public good,” and the “public good” justifies any action the state may take to secure it. If that means abrogating, rescinding, or abridging individual rights, if that means crippling the economy, and redirecting Americans’ wealth and efforts in a more public-spirited direction, so be it. We must all pull together. Anyone caught slacking at his oar, or mumbling against the whip-wielding overseers, will be isolated, vilified and punished. Possibly even tossed overboard.

Never mind that it was the federal government’s fiscal policies that caused the Depression and perpetuated it. More “needed efforts” are imperative to convert a free country into a minimum security prison.

A new book has been published which partly explains why today we are burdened with an arrogant federal government (and its state-sized copy cat minions), one endlessly expanding the scope of its powers, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, by Ira Katznelson.* Katznelson is Ruggles professor of political science and history at Columbia University, president of the Social Science Research Council, and research associate at Cambridge University’s Centre for History and Economics. He is a dyed-pink Progressive and liberal and advocate of precisely the welfare state and command economy we are enduring today. His book covers the beginning of the New Deal up to the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.

The Progressive – read socialist – antecedents of The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) are impeccable. A Wikipedia account of the SSRC names many of the usual suspects. Founded in 1923,

To support its work, the SSRC turned not to the U.S. government, whose support seemed more appropriate for the natural sciences, but to private foundations. For the first fifty years, well over three-quarters of the SSRC’s funding was provided by the Russell Sage Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and two Rockefeller philanthropies, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The SSRC was part of a wider Progressive Era movement to develop organizations of expertise that could dispense disinterested knowledge to policymakers. These organizations would tap leading thinkers in various fields to think creatively about how to rid the nation of the social and political ills brought on by the Industrial Revolution.

The knowledge gathering was not so “disinterested” – it was knowledge collected to “prove” the necessity of a planned economy and a regimented society. And the “ills” of the Industrial Revolution were inherited from conditions prevalent in the pre-Industrial Revolution. If there were any societal “ills” left once the Revolution got into full swing, they were a consequence of statist policies in America and in Europe.

But, enough of focusing on the ideological familiars of Progressivism. Katznelson’s book, while a friendly and commodious history of the New Deal’s origins at a daunting 720 pages, focuses on one aspect of the New Deal and FDR’s policies: the Democratic Party and its continuing tradition of racism. He makes a very strong and credible argument that FDR’s New Deal and its swollen progeny were largely made possible by members of Congress, especially from the southern states, who were outspoken racists and who were able to “whip” the votes to pass New Deal legislation. It was a quid pro quo trade-off, a matter of horse-trading and logrolling between the executive and legislative branches of government.

In short, FDR and his brain trust wanted to pass welfare state legislation and economic controls over the whole nation. The southern states wanted to preserve their Jim Crow legal structure and societies from interference from Washington, under the guise of “states’ rights.” The southern states controlled the voting blocs in the Senate and House. The arrangement was amenable to both sides as long as no one paid it much attention. FDR did his best to scratch the backs of vociferous bigots in Congress, and the bigots scratched his back and surrendered the right of their states to remain economically independent from Washington.

The Democratic Party has a history – nay, nearly a tradition – of racism and keeping blacks on the federal plantation of dependency and electoral servitude. Ronn Torossian, in his April 14th FrontPage article, “The Racist, Discriminating Democratic Party,” reminds us that:

The Republican Party was born just prior to the Civil War for the sole purpose of combating slavery and it fought against the party of slavery.  The Republican Party is the party of freedom and economic liberty and prosperity – as it was then and now. The Democratic platform of the 1860s was a pro-slavery policy that sought to keep people enslaved. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Democratic Party was the enforcer of “Jim Crow” laws and segregation. In 1964, there was a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act by Democrat Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) which lasted 14 hours. The Act was crafted and supported by a vast number of Republicans in the Senate, while opposed by southern Democratic senators (including Al Gore Sr).

I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that the Republicans are still pro-freedom. I doubt very much they know anymore what they ought to be for. And the Civil Rights Act is a usurpation of the right of free association and assembly. In a truly free country, racists and bigots would be marginalized and not fare well, either socially or economically. However, this much is true:

Today, the Democrats continue to keep people in place and pursue centralized government, as a further way for more government control, particularly over the poor. The Democratic Party seeks to tell people how to eat, raise their families, and in this administration, how to have healthcare.

And the coin has been reversed since Senator Byrd and George Wallace’s hegemony. Now it is black Congressmen and white-guilt liberals who dominate the Democratic Party.

Katznelson’s book is an unapologetic apologia for how the current federal behemoth came into being. To his credit, he pulls no punches while discussing not only how FDR was able to get his statist legislation passed and implemented with the help of southern politicians, but why the arrangement also contributed to the U.S. making the totalitarian Soviet Union its chief ally during World War II, with Roosevelt and his political allies knowing full well the brutal truth about the Soviet Union: that it was a dictatorship with the blood and deaths of millions on its hands.

Katznelson’s thesis, which he thoroughly documents throughout (there are 181 pages of lengthy end notes), is that:

The South was singular. There, a racial hierarchy and the exclusion of African-Americans from the civic body were hardwired in law, protected by patterns of policing and accepted private violence, which created an entrenched system of racial humiliation that became everyday practice…

…[T]he farther South one went in the United States, the greater the influence in shaping the content of the New Deal. We will discover the central role played by the once-slave South in Congress, where representatives from the seventeen states mandating racial segregation were pivotal members of the House and Senate. Democrats, nearly to a person, they were the most important “veto players” in American politics. Both the content and the moral tenor of the New Deal were profoundly affected. Setting terms not just for their constituencies but for the country as a whole, these members of Congress reduced the full repertoire of possibilities for policy to a narrower set of feasible options that met with their approval. No noteworthy lawmaking the New Deal accomplished could have passed without their consent. Reciprocally, almost every initiative of significance conformed to their wishes. (pp. 15-16)

Katznelson describes the “”question” faced by Roosevelt and his political allies of how to rescue the country from the government-perpetuated Depression but at the same time “save” capitalism:

During the period from the rallying call by the new president to confront fear itself on March 4, 1933, to the Nazi invasion of Poland six years later [in September, 1939; Katznelson omits mention of the co-invasion of Poland by the Soviets two weeks later, per the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact], the New Deal was concerned, above all, with questions of political economy. Could capitalism be rescued? On what terms? With what degree of public support? The core policymakers in this initial phase of the New Deal never thought the USSR or Nazi Germany could provide workable models. But they were drawn to Mussolini’s Italy, which self-identified itself as a country that had saved capitalism….

Desperate for tools and itself in an experimental mood, the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s did not so much adopt a pro-Mussolini stance as seek to associate with Italian Fascism, of course on American terms for America’s own purposes, seeking to find policy models that could be put to use under democratic conditions. (pp. 92-93)

So much for the “grand” vision enunciated by FDR. His agenda was clear, but how to follow it remained a coin toss. The PR image of FDR as a walking vehicle of wisdom and perfect solutions is a lie. He was a pragmatist looking for a way to “save” capitalism by fitting it into the least offensive chains available. He looked abroad for answers.

And when the U.S. entered the war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, suddenly the Soviet Union became a “workable model” of an ally. The heinous Soviet policies of starving millions, incarcerating untold numbers of Russians in Gulags, a secret police rivaled in its brutality only by the Gestapo, the show trials, were all forgotten. FDR wished Americans to forget what they knew about Stalin and the nature of his Communist dictatorship – much as Barack Obama wishes Americans to forget what the Muslim Brotherhood is and represents. Katznelson does not dwell on that subject, either. For a description of how duplicitous FDR was about our relations with the Soviet Union, see Diana West’s American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character.

By 1945, the Roosevelt/Truman New Deal administrations had learned how to get things done. They emulated Otto von Bismarck and established the country’s first permanent welfare state program:

On August 14, 1935, the president  signed the historic Social Security Act. By establishing federally managed old-age pensions and unemployment insurance, it considerably altered the contours of America’s labor markets….(p. 258)

Katznelson argues that on the surface, the cooperation of the southern states was not crucial to the passage of the Act; however, southern blocs in the House and Senate deliberated on key elements of the Act at critical junctures in the legislative process, and allowed it to move ahead to the White House.

 …Social Security was approved nearly without opposition by crushing bipartisan votes of 77-6 in the Senate and 372-33 in the House…

A crucial vote to recommit the bill to the House Committee on Ways and Means attracted all but one Republican. The amendment failed, 149-253, because southern Democrats stuck with the party position, voting at a high level with fellow Democrats. Had the 141 Democrats in the chamber from the seventeen southern states resisted the legislation, it well might not have passed. (pp. 259-260).

After Roosevelt died in 1945, the “spirit of Yalta” evaporated and relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union chilled. National security became the watchword in Washington. However, again, the definition of national security depended on the perceptions and cooperation of the southern “Jim Crow” states.

Faced with insecure support from the left side of his party and with complex divisions among Republicans, Truman and his administration came to rely heavily on southern legislators, especially in congressional committees and, where needed, on the floor of each chamber, to lead coalitions that would advance their preferred policies. The policy steadiness, seniority, and party leadership of southern representatives placed them in a pivotal role when the content of national security bills was crafted, when the amending process had to be controlled, and when votes had to be won when there were divisions on the floor. (pp. 425-426)

From the very beginning of his terms as president, FDR and his advisors cast about for some “middle ground” between the fiat power necessary to advance the Progressive cause and checks and balances enumerated in the Constitution, and some way to preserve freedom by diminishing it and seeming to be champions of “democracy.” But there were those who had FDR’s ear who had no illusions about what was necessary to implement an American version of Fascism.

Writing a series of widely noted articles for The New Republic under the rubric of “A New Deal for America,” the economist Stuart Chase offered “a survey for a third road” between violent Fascist or Communist revolution…and a “business dictatorship” whose road…has mud holes and soft shoulders.” He called for a “third and last road,” a path that “may entail a temporary dictatorship,” though one that “will not tear up customs, traditions and behavior patterns to any such extent as promised by the Red or the Black dictatorship.” (p. 118)

Walter Lippmann, the arch-Progressive journalist and political commentator who nurtured a contempt for the “public” and Constitutional principles (remind you of the current president and his Attorney General? In his 1925 book, The Phantom Public, he argued that Americans should be governed by a self-perpetuating elite of “insiders”) was more forthright about what he thought was necessary to correct the doldrums that America was experiencing. In a series of columns about the Depression and the ongoing economic crisis in the New York Herald Tribune in January and February 1933, before FDR took office in March, he opined:

“The situation,” he wrote, “requires strong medicine.” In advocating a grant of “extraordinary powers” to the incoming president, he insisted that “the danger we have to fear is not that Congress will give Franklin D. Roosevelt too much power, but that it will deny him the power he needs. The danger is not that we shall lose our liberties, but that we shall not be able to act with the necessary speed and comprehensiveness.” Extraordinary authority, he proposed, should give the president, “for a period say of a year, the widest and fullest powers under the most liberal interpretation of the Constitution.” (p. 118)

“Temporary extraordinary powers” granted to any nation’s executive as a rule become set in cement and are permanent. After all, there is no warranty guarantee on the length of a crisis. Ask Rahm Emanuel. Katznelson continues to quote Lippmann without flinching:

Concurrently, Congress should “suspend temporarily the rule of both houses, to limit drastically the right of amendment and debate, to put the majority in both houses under the decisions of a caucus.”  (p. 118)

That would work. After all, when Hitler took power late in January 1933, he persuaded the Reichstag late in March to cease functioning as a parliamentary entity with the Enabling Act. The “temporary” cessation of Germany’s parliament became permanent. Lippmann was proposing that Congress gag itself.

This supersession of normal politics, he concluded, “is the necessary thing to do. If the American nation desires action and results, this is the way to get them.” Lippmann directed the same advice to his good friend, the president-elect. During a February 1 visit to Warm Springs, Georgia, he counseled how “the situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” (p. 118-119)

Lippmann deemed necessary the suppression of normal politics – read individual rights and the rule of law. Roosevelt was all too agreeable to assume dictatorial powers. The only thing he likely feared was that Congress would not consent to gagging itself and placing its functions under the thumb of a caucus of a pro-Roosevelt clique.

Katznelson then proceeds to eulogize Roosevelt’s inaugural address.

[Roosevelt] went on to voice confidence that it would be possible to find a way within the Constitution of the United States to respond effectively. “Our Constitution is so simple and practical,” he reassured with a high degree of ambiguity, “that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form.”….

Should Congress not act promptly and decisively, [Roosevelt] warned, “I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will confront me. I shall ask 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.” (pp. 121-122)

We can all remember how Chief Justice John Roberts changed the “emphasis” and rearranged the Constitution when he upheld Obamacare, without losing the Constitution’s “essential form.” However, remove the engine from a car, and the car has not lost its “essential form.” But it is otherwise powerless and useless.

The powers Roosevelt was asking for were hardly “ambiguous.” Failing to get the cooperation of Congress, he wanted it to allow him to declare war on the domestic crisis. Sound familiar? How many “wars” have been declared on something or other by Congress, the federal government ,and the White House since then? On drugs? On obesity? On smoking? On guns? On crime? On Wall Street? On poverty? On racism? On crime itself? The crises have never ended. They have been consecutively bumper-to-bumper. Dictatorships cannot thrive on peace. They need crises to justify their rule.

Anne O’Hare McCormick, writing for New York Times Magazine on May 7th, 1933, wrote approvingly of FDR’s power grab:

The American people, she observed, “trust the discretion of the President more than they trust Congress.” Rather than a seizure of power of the kind that had brought the Bolsheviks or the Italian Fascists to power, the New Deal, she reported, rested on mass popular consent that “vests the president with the authority of a dictator. The authority is a free gift, a sort of unanimous power of attorney…all the other powers – industry, commerce, finance, labor, farmer and householder, State and city – virtually abdicate in his favor. America today literally asks for orders….Nobody is much disturbed by the idea of dictatorship.”  (p. 123)

Katznelson concludes his work in an Epilogue with a fearless, Pollyannish hope that America may continue on its Progressive path of statism to consolidate a “new national state,” one founded by FDR and the New Deal. Have Americans consequently lost many of their liberties? Yes, answers Katznelson. But, C’est la vie.

But, is it life? No. Americans should realize that dictatorships and statism are, at core, profoundly anti-life. They ought to be fearful of and disturbed by a government that regularly, daily, as a matter of policy, robs them of the sovereignty of their own lives.

* Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, by Ira Katznelson. New York: Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2014. 720 pp.

 

  • Donald Dool

    The Social Security Act was signed on August 14, 1935 by FDR not 10 years later by HST. That was the day Japan surrendered.

  • writeby

    August 14, 1935, correct; the day America surrendered.

    Irony can be pretty ironic; and, in this case, also tragic.

  • DogmaelJones1

    I quoted directly from Katznelson’s book. Not my error.

  • DogmaelJones1

    Actually, it was my error. I checked the cited page and saw that my finger had slipped. I’ll go stand in a corner.

  • DogmaelJones1

    That was a good retort, and very appropriate.

  • DogmaelJones1

    By the way, I sent a link to this article and the one on Rule of Reason to Katznelson at SSRC. No response yet, none expected.

  • Hector Henry

    South Africa (which is the ONLY place in Africa anyone here would consider living) is on it’s way to becoming Zimbabwe. And the US is now on its way to being South Africa. We are destroying the future for our children. They will have nowhere to run. But we can pat ourselves on the back for being “anti-racist”. Pathetic.

  • DogmaelJones1

    Professor Katznelson has not responded. I thought he’d appreciate another book review!