For those who missed it, the September 26th NYRB—which I read a couple of months late—had a very interesting review essay by Nicholas Lemann, of Columbia University political scientist Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. Here’s a description of the book via the publisher’s website
A work that “deeply reconceptualizes the New Deal and raises countless provocative questions” (David Kennedy), Fear Itself changes the ground rules for our understanding of this pivotal era in American history. Ira Katznelson examines the New Deal through the lens of a pervasive, almost existential fear that gripped a world defined by the collapse of capitalism and the rise of competing dictatorships, as well as a fear created by the ruinous racial divisions in American society. Katznelson argues that American democracy was both saved and distorted by a Faustian collaboration that guarded racial segregation as it built a new national state to manage capitalism and assert global power. Fear Itself charts the creation of the modern American state and “how a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security”
A Faustian collaboration with the Jim Crow South, which saw its national political power increase during the Roosevelt administration. The South was, of course, not a democracy: it was a reactionary authoritarian order—and that ruled by terror over a sizable portion of its population. But there were also authoritarian impulses among members of northern elites, as Lemann writes: an attraction to Mussolini and, with WWII, an indulgence toward Stalin and the Soviet Union (and to which one may add a certain benevolence toward Hitler and Nazism during the 1930s; on the American romance, as it were, with Mussolini, see also John Patrick Diggins’s Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America). The 1930s and ’40s were lousy decades in the history of the world. At least democracy was saved in America and (northern) Europe.
Reading Lemann’s essay on Katznelson’s book reminded me of the latter’s When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, which was the subject of a review essay by George Fredrickson in the November 17 2005 NYRB, “Still separate & unequal” (which may be viewed by non-NYRB subscribers here). Katznelson is a brilliant social scientist. I took a course with him at Chicago back in ’81, in which I read his City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States; a book that changed the way I thought about American politics. In other words, I learned something from it.