Columbia University scholar Ira Katznelson joined host Melissa Harris-Perry on Saturday to discuss his revelatory new book, “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.”
The book examines President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, considered to be one of the greatest pieces of social legislation, through the fears the country faced at the time. It also looks at the deals behind the legislation that FDR and northern liberals had to make with southern Democrats. Katznelson maintains that those deals ultimately helped to preserve the South’s racial hierarchy.
Below is a brief excerpt from the book:
Intense uncertainty, the kind that makes the usual sense of the term status quo virtually irrelevant, became a source of fear. No one quite knew whether the era’s constellation of crises indicated “a state of greater or lesser permanence, as in a longer or shorter transition towards something better or worse or towards something altogether different.” The federal government proceeded in circumstances of recurring and escalating emergency without the benefit of an established starting point and without a fixed repertoire of public policies that were effective and legitimate. As Presidents Roosevelt and Truman sought to reduce such deep uncertainty to a more tolerable level of risk, they lacked fixed or sure preferences about public policy. As a result, the field of policy invention was uncommonly open but also largely uncharted.
Unusually unconstrained by existing public policy, the New Deal possessed a wider array of policy possibilities than any prior set of government initiatives in American history. It could learn from a store of initiatives tested both by liberal democracies and by illiberal dictatorships in Europe. It could emulate experiments the various states had initiated, and adapt policies developed under different conditions by progressives in both major parties, by democratic socialists, by the labor movement, and even by mainstream Republicans in the Hoover administration. It could draw on a wide array of options developed by policy intellectuals who worked in university social science departments, law schools, and recently established think tanks, and who sought to invent alternatives in the space that lay between an insufficient status quo and the designs offered by the era’s dictatorships. But could it succeed despite the self-seeking partisanship of politicians and the polarization inherent in the legislative process?