Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Rethinking the New Deal

A preliminary rant: I hated listening to Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Columbia University political scientist and historian Ira Katznelson. My reason is trivial, nothing that should discourage anyone else from reading it. Just don't even attempt to absorb the edition from the Audible.com. The reader seems to think he is giving a staged performance, inserting what seemed to me random dramatic emphasis. The written text may be florid in places, but the reader makes it close to unfathomable. He also mispronounces nouns in the text, most notably "Manichaean" and John Maynard "Keynes." The effect is extremely distracting from a very interesting argument.

So what is Katznelson doing here? Something extremely ambitious: he wants to raise up the many illiberal facets of the long New Deal (including both the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, 1933-1952) that left the country with some of our continuing distortions of democracy and polity. The book is an argument with more sanguine historians who focus on progressive victories and, in Katznelson's view, underplay how fear of greater racial equality, of communism, and of the atom bomb shaped the postwar state.

From start to finish, the New Deal flourished with ethical compromise.

It was not news to me that FDR consistently allowed to the southern Democratic bloc in Congress to ensure that his economic agenda did not challenge Jim Crow. The Tennessee Valley Authority pioneering rural electrification, the Wagner Act legalizing union organizing, the Works Progress Administration creating jobs, and the Social Security system were all designed not to disturb the South's segregated power structure, either by excluding farm work and domestic work ("colored" jobs) from coverage or by leaving administration to the mercies of the states. There have been abundant studies of this: see for example Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton's American Apartheid. Biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as FDR's private ambassador to Negroes and lost just about every appeal to her husband to include African Americans in the benefits of his policies, also trace this story. (See for example Blanche Wiesen Cook's Eleanor Roosevelt.)

I was not as familiar with Katznelson's tale of how white southern power strove to ensure that the national mobilization for World War II did less than it might have to break down white supremacy and avert any gains for social equity after the war. Southern Democrats fought against voting measures for the millions of draftees (many of them black), against the industrial unions so central to war production, and against fair employment anti-discrimination regulations. Each of these measures might pose a challenge, however weak, to white supremacy. The war was a good time for blacks in the north, but the political class aimed to keep growing equality from leeching into the south. And it largely succeeded, although returning black veterans in the south became central to the emerging civil rights struggle of the later 1950s.

Counter-posed to this account of Truman administration failure to protect New Deal accomplishments -- most notably enactment of the Taft-Hartley act over a presidential veto, crippling aggressive union organizing -- I was surprised not to see any mention of Truman's most enduring blow for equality: Executive Order 9981 issued in 1948 outlawing racial discrimination in the military and eventually leading to desegregation of the army. This was not for nothing. It was an exercise of executive power in a different direction from what Katznelson emphasizes.

I was left wanting more, as ambitious works of history usually leave me:
  • Repeatedly, our polity has flirted with the promise of a powerful leader doing great accomplishments. Early New Dealers looked to Mussolini as someone who had "made the trains run on time." (Concurrently, the loathsome Robert Moses exuded the same aura and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been given a whiff of it over the last 12 years.) So far U.S democracy has not gone there; what stands in the way? Does a similar bulwark still stand in contemporary conditions of economic frustration and imperial contraction?
  • Southern Democrats seem to have been immune to the isolationism that Roosevelt pushed against in the run up to World War II. Keeping them on board with his economic legislation always required a balancing act and concessions. They seemed to have little fear of unintended consequences from putting the nation on a war footing, though they sure weren't about to help Ethiopia (invaded by Mussolini) or the Spanish Republic. In view of the increase in centralized federal power that accompanies war, why were they not more wary?
  • If the New Deal was really such a failure at bringing greater equality to African Americans -- most of whom still lived under Jim Crow in the South -- why did blacks move en masse from the Republican to the Democratic party in localities they were able to vote? I think I found part of the answer to that in Isabel Wilkerson's Warmth of Other Suns. Democratic party operatives worked hard to recruit southerner black migrants in the North. But mostly the Roosevelt administration offered more atmospherics than concrete benefits to this constituency. Apparently in those days, a verbal vision of greater dignity and equality was enough?
Often when looking at U.S. politics, I find myself asking mentally, "don't these idiots [whichever set I'm focused on that day] have any sense of the common good?" Katznelson's conclusion is that the political contradictions between southern economic populism and southern fear of racial equity which were intrinsic to the New Deal have left us with a state without a "common good" to appeal to. We are left with interest groups pulling and hauling -- and frequently failure of the state to act.

The social whole, and with it the idea of a common good based on shared goals, disappeared. There was no attempt to galvanize agreement about the ends of government. That orientation served democracy by building a barrier against excessive ambitions of those who rule and as a means to constrain any potential tyranny of the majority. With government possessing no inherent goals of its own, the potential to abuse power is moderated. This procedural state thus advanced a robust version of democracy….

But this particular type of democratic state opened the door to three kinds of deep problems that have persisted. First is a narrowing of politics to thin, confined, restricted, and potentially polarized interests. This contraction of civic sensibility to a politics without public purpose or norms can heighten conflict over limited matters and lead to gridlock or the rule of intense minorities.

Second is how putatively neutral rules favored those with more resources. Open rules can lead to the capture of key policies, agencies, congressional committees, even political parties, by outside interests with focused goals and concentrated means. A state without substance is a state ripe for special interests to grab hold of key elements of government. …

Third is how … the procedural state generates recurring crisises of public authority and civic trust. Disillusionment and cynicism result when a system declared to be impartial and just by definition is found to be unfair. The result is either too little political participation or episodic and volatile participation by enraged citizens who are convinced that the putatively neutral rules or the game are rigged. ...

Yes -- we live with all of that. Thanks to Katznelson for his exploration of some of the origins.

This is a big, detailed, demanding book. Do read it if you are struggling with these issues -- just read it in print or maybe Kindle if the footnotes are hyperlinked. Oh -- and don't expect much from the index. Harvard University Press accepted a poor job on this element of a scholarly book.

2 comments:

Rain Trueax said...

If you haven't already seen it, check out Oliver Stone and untold history of the US. Truman was not our friend and that means of any of us. The way he's been rewritten only serves to benefit extreme conservatives not the truth.

Hattie said...

I read the book and was very impressed. Now I've ordered the DVD, which will be available in mid October. It's $45.00 but well worth the money.
Unlike just about everyone else in the media, Stone is unbought and unbossed.

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