“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)