In March 1933, with the United States deep in the throes of the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address, warning of the power of fear -- or, more specifically, the danger of “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Those efforts were the “new deal” that Roosevelt had promised during his campaign, a sweeping reformation of the U.S. economy that would define his first two terms in office and create the foundations for the contemporary American social welfare state: federal aid to the unemployed, stiffer regulation of industry, legal protections for workers, and the Social Security program, among other major innovations.

Today, Americans tend to understand the New Deal in a few standard ways. The consensus view is triumphalist: the New Deal was the first step in the United States’ muscular emergence from the Great Depression and the beginning of the country’s rise to become the undisputed “leader of the free world.” Then there are the more ideological interpretations. Liberals see the New Deal as a vindication of Keynesian economics, strong labor unions, and a secure social welfare state. In the liberal view, Roosevelt confronted the fear spawned by the cruel and crushing hardships of unfettered capitalism during the 1920s. Conservatives hold, meanwhile, that the New Deal left a legacy of unrestrained government intrusion into the private sector and quasi-authoritarian limits on liberty and the free market. In the conservative view, Roosevelt is himself the source of fear, standing in for the menace of unbridled executive power.

The New Deal era portrayed in Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself contrasts sharply with all those conventional accounts. According to Katznelson, the fear invoked by Roosevelt persisted well beyond 1932, defining a Zeitgeist that extended into the Cold War era and ushering in an executive branch that behaved, even in peacetime, as if the United States had been “invaded by a foreign foe,” in Roosevelt’s phrase. By the time of Roosevelt’s death, in 1945, the prospects of total war, genocide, and nuclear annihilation had thoroughly supplanted the kind of measurable and manageable risks that ordinary policymaking sought to address. But Katznelson argues that even before those fears emerged, the Depression and the New Deal marked the entrance of existential terror into modern American political life. “Surrounded by wild and intense insecurity,” Katznelson writes, “American political institutions and processes could not look to fixed points or a guiding status quo.”

These existential fears, Katznelson argues, derived from three sources. First was the possibility of democracy’s demise, a sense that the problems of the day were simply too big and urgent for a system defined by the separation of powers, popular consent, and a marketplace of political ideas. Second was the growing sophistication and lethality of technologies of warfare, which encouraged Washington’s preoccupation with national security. The third and, for Katznelson, most overlooked source of fear was the systematic subjugation of African Americans in the South. In Fear Itself, these three sources merge, portraying the New Deal years as less an era of bold action than one of fraught compromises -- especially on the part of northern liberals, who had to abandon their pursuit of racial equality, and hard-line southern Democrats, who found themselves embracing big government.

Ib Ohlsson
By casting fear as the linchpin of politics and policymaking in the New Deal era, Katznelson tackles a big topic and makes it even bigger. “I ascribe to the New Deal an import almost on par with the French Revolution,” he writes, describing it as “not merely an important event in the history of the United States, but the most important twentieth century testing ground for representative government in an age of mass politics.” European readers will likely find the comparison to the French Revolution overblown, but Katznelson is surely justified in seeing the New Deal as a turning point in the history of liberal democracy.

Many histories of the New Deal cast Roosevelt as a hero, quashing fear and winning the day for democratic principles, remaking the nation’s social contract, and committing his country to the cause of global peace. Katznelson eschews this formula, focusing instead on the southern Democrats in Congress who emerged as the pivotal characters in the New Deal’s transformation of the American state. Katznelson painstakingly details how Roosevelt’s agenda would not have been possible without the endorsement by southern representatives of a massive expansion of federal power at home. “Without the South,” Katznelson asserts, “there could have been no New Deal.”


The South in the 1930s was defined by what the historian C. Vann Woodward has called “the paradoxical combination of white supremacy and progressivism.” The progressivism had its roots in a southern economy that depended on agriculture and, as a result, suffered an unusual degree of penury during the Depression. Those dire circumstances fueled an appetite for generous social welfare policies and large infrastructure projects. Hard times also pushed southerners to accept the sweeping regulation of capitalist industries, especially those associated mostly with the North, such as banking, railroads, and utilities.

But an even more powerful factor in southern politics was the strict racial hierarchy that placed whites above African Americans and that imbued the South with what Katznelson calls “powerful authoritarian tendencies.” Indeed, when it came to white supremacy and Jim Crow, the South’s congressional representatives displayed an unusually fervid and disciplined unanimity. By dint of their sheer numbers and their seniority in Congress, they wielded an effective veto over every major legislative effort of the Roosevelt presidency. Katznelson terms the result a “southern cage,” which resounded with an “obbligato -- the deep and mournful sound of southern political power determined to hold on to a distinctive way of life.”

Fear Itself follows the twists and turns of the struggle that pitted southern Democrats against liberal Democrats from the North who hoped to use the New Deal to advance the rights of workers and minorities and against Republicans who fiercely defended the interests of capital and opposed any expansion of the federal government’s authority. At each point, Katznelson masterfully documents the extent to which southern Democrats decreed as a nonnegotiable precondition to any legislative action the prevention of African Americans in the South from benefiting from the New Deal in any way. The segregationists supported the Tennessee Valley Authority, but only so long as the cheap electricity it produced flowed only to communities that were strictly segregated. Likewise, African Americans were specifically excluded from New Deal legislation that set minimum wages and secured benefits for farm laborers and domestic servants.

A Works Progress Administration poster showing a segregated pool.
Same old deal: a Works Progress Administration poster showing a segregated pool.
Library of Congress / Poster Design by John Wagner
Katznelson plunges much deeper than most historians of the era into the lives and careers of the South’s Jim Crow New Dealers. He profiles well-known figures such as Louisiana’s Senator Huey Long but also reveals the instrumental roles played by others, including Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, and Hugo Black, who served as a senator from Alabama for ten years before Roosevelt appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1937. Katznelson does not spare the reader the vivid, revolting details of the unreconstructed bigotry of many southern Democrats toward African Americans. (Bilbo, an ardent New Dealer, was also an enthusiastic member of the Ku Klux Klan; while filibustering an anti-lynching bill in the Senate in 1938, Bilbo warned that “one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculty.”)

But Katznelson also chronicles the acquiescence of well-meaning liberals in the North who were complicit in denying black southerners both the benefits of the New Deal and the prosperity generated by the U.S. victory in World War II. The Roosevelt administration and its northern liberal allies often looked the other way while southern Democrats excised any elements of New Deal legislation that might have benefited southern blacks and thereby threatened the existing racial order. Katznelson calls this Roosevelt’s “strategy of pragmatic forgetfulness.”

While Katznelson’s mastery of historical detail is at times spellbinding, this is not an entirely original analysis. In fact, Katznelson himself already put forward some of its key elements in his 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White, which demonstrated the preferential treatment offered to whites by legislation such as the GI Bill and federal programs such as Social Security, whose benefits are often mischaracterized as “universal.” And other observers, including the sociologist Anthony Chen and the political scientist Eric Schickler, have also written -- arguably with greater empirical precision and analytic specificity -- about the links between race, New Deal liberalism, and legislative politics in the 1930s and 1940s. But in Fear Itself, Katznelson goes further than anyone else in establishing the full context of these compromises and linking them to the fears that motivated the politics of the time.

Ultimately, the power of southern Democrats in the New Deal era proved unsustainable. By agreeing to expand the role of the federal government and by later embracing the bright Cold War lines separating democracy and freedom from dictatorship and repression, the southern Democrats laid the institutional and ideological groundwork for their own undoing. The interventionist federal government that emerged from the New Deal set the United States on a path to sweeping changes in the country’s racial order, codified by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The New Deal, Katznelson writes, “ultimately undermined Jim Crow’s prospects.” The very legislation embraced by southern segregationists created “at first mere chinks, then whole openings for social change that were grasped by an incipient, soon powerful, movement for equal rights for blacks.”


Thus, the lesson of the New Deal, Katznelson suggests, is that well-formed democratic institutions can self-correct. This was not a forgone conclusion at the time; indeed, during the 1930s, democracy was widely viewed as an outworn political form. In February 1933, as the Depression grew ever deeper, no less of an authority on U.S. politics than the influential columnist Walter Lippmann publicly called on Roosevelt to apply “strong medicine” and “enlarge the powers of the President and reduce the powers of the Congress.” In a private visit with Roosevelt that same month, Lippmann was far blunter. “The situation is critical, Franklin,” he warned. “You may have no choice but to assume dictatorial powers.” This advice fell on ears that were not quite deaf. Katznelson notes that later that year, Roosevelt praised the Italian despot Benito Mussolini as an “admirable Italian gentlemen,” telling the U.S. ambassador to Italy that he was “much interested and deeply impressed by what [Mussolini] has accomplished and by his evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy.”

Of course, whatever Roosevelt might have thought of Mussolini, the United States did not devolve into a fascist country and instead used the dual crisis of the Depression and World War II to defend and champion the cause of liberal democracy. Katznelson argues that had Roosevelt used the Depression to secure the kind of supreme power that Lippmann and others urged him to seek, the subsequent Allied victory over the fascist powers would have come at too high a cost. Instead, Roosevelt safeguarded a form of government whose imperfections were on display in the South but that would later prove itself capable of razing Jim Crow and winning basic freedoms for African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.

But Katznelson also wants to show a downside of the New Deal: the arrival of fear as the master narrative of U.S. politics. While many readers will be enticed by the idea that existential fear has its origins as a leitmotif in American politics in the New Deal era, the book does not make a wholly convincing case. Katznelson is never quite clear enough about what produced this fear, how it operated in political discourse, or how it changed the institutional dynamics or strategic calculus of southern Democrats, northern Democrats, Republicans, or the Roosevelt administration. Nor does he explain whether elites ginned up existential fears to exploit the masses or whether leaders and policymakers actually fell prey to such terrors themselves.

Katznelson also clearly wants to say something about the defining role of public fear in the post-9/11 political era. But in trying to connect the New Deal era to the present, he leaves puzzling gaps, failing to explain why the kind of existential dread he observes at work in the New Deal era disappeared after Dwight Eisenhower replaced Harry Truman as president and how it then reemerged after the 9/11 attacks. Or, to work backward in time, it seems likely that comparable forms of terror arose during World War I, the Civil War era, and even the initial years of American independence and constitution-making. As the political theorist Judith Shklar argued, it is best to understand fear (and its moral handmaiden, cruelty) as sewn into the fabric of liberal democracy itself and not so easily located in one historical moment, however defining it might be.

Another problem stems from the unavoidable ideological bent of any one person’s rendering of history. As the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once observed, “All historians are prisoners of their own experience. We bring to history the preconceptions of our personalities and of our age.” Katznelson tries to avoid counterfactual reasoning; Fear Itself makes no grand claims about alternative histories that might have been if only the southern Democrats had not stood in the way. Yet Katznelson’s account of the New Deal era remains suffused with a heavy sense of regret for a road to social justice not taken.

In the end, as a work of sprawling ambition and nervy iconoclasm, Fear Itself does not always hit its marks crisply or properly account for its author’s own political predispositions. Nonetheless, the book is an extraordinary achievement. Katznelson has permanently discredited selective, nostalgic impressions of the New Deal era. By taking readers back to a time of perpetual crises, doomed moral compromises, and ill-begotten political alliances, Fear Itself is an urgent reminder that, in Katznelson’s words, “not just whether but also how we find our way truly matters.”


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  • TAEKU LEE is Professor of Political Science and Law at the University of California, Berkeley.
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