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Fear Itself

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Four separate themes are woven together in this impressive volume. The first is the pervasiveness of “fear” throughout the 20 years under consideration. This included the fears surrounding the Great Depression; the rise of totalitarian dictators and the Second World War; and the emergence of the Cold War; and the possibility of economic annihilation.

The second is the extent to which the New Deal, with its expansions of public policies to benefit individuals, depended on the votes of southern Democrats, all of whom insisted on protecting racial segregation.  Another theme is the extent to which the New Deal and World War II dramatically and continually shifted the locus of government policy making from Congress to the Executive Branch.  Finally, Katznelson underscores the rise of the national security state in the years immediately after the war – a development that was largely complete when President Eisenhower took office. 

At the core of the book is the New Deal’s heavy reliance upon “partnerships with discomforting individuals” – mostly notably racist members of Congress from southern states.  When the New Deal began, Katznelson notes, the South was by far the poorest region of the country and southern Democrats were quite happy to vote for the economic benefits that Roosevelt sent their way. 

But they were unwilling to do anything that might undermine the pervasive racial segregation in their states.  So they made sure that New Deal legislation carved out exceptions.  In the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937, for example, Southern support was obtained only after agricultural and domestic workers – mostly African Americans – were excluded from coverage.  Later, southern Democrats insisted on returning the US Employment Service (which had been housed in the US Department of Labor during World War II) to the states to permit the continuation of separate offices for black and white workers and to avoid any federally directed movement toward equal employment opportunities. 

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