The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

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.

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1 Comment

  1. Dymphna

    A detailed review. I commend your ability to make your way through all those pages espousing ideas so at odds with your own.

    May I recommend Fred Siegel's new book? I'm only on Chapter 2,, but it's fascinating. I had no idea the dour Mencken was a devout Nietzschean.

    The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class

    I'm just getting to the backstory on Wilson's entry into The War, how on the day he announced our entry, he gave a shout-out to the Russian Revolution and those lovers of democracy…

    …with a straight face.

    A boyhood friend of Mr. Siegel's sent me the book – he knows our book budget is nil and that I love history.

    This particular view through the kaleidoscope is a bit different from the one my husband got from his intensive A-Level history studies in England and even he has met with some surprises in Siegel's work…- e.g., that Wilson loathed the English and French…

    I hadn't realized the extent to which the Progressives (and then Liberals) admired the German ideal. They thought Anglo-Saxon ideas were dead and needed to be jettisoned. I do recall that Bismarck's proto-welfare state was conceived as a way to draw Germans away from the new Communism arising in Russia…

    Anyhow, this would be a good antidote – though even less cheering – to the book you just finished. I am hoping someone at City Journal is going to review it.

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