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.
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?
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.