By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Ira Katznelson
Narration by: Scott Brick
“Fear Itself” has become cliché and authors of FDR’s administration are as plentiful as pixels on an HD screen. However, Ira Katznelson offers a sharpened image of a past and present that threatens the future of American democracy. The threat posed by the fictional “House of Cards” President, Frank Underwood, and the benighted pretender to the throne, Donald Trump, plays out in fiction and reality.
Katznelson argues that FDR’s New Deal to pull America out of depression would have never passed Congress without support of the segregated south. To assure the south’s support FDR ignores the lynching and degradation of black Americans during his first years as President. Because the south believes the New Deal poses no threat to their belief in white supremacy, they vote as a bloc to support FDR’s administration. Katznelson implies that FDR views murder and discrimination of blacks a lesser threat to American Democracy than failure of the New Deal. However, Katznelson notes that economic stimulus and the oncoming war accelerate recognition of black equality and an epic change in American Democracy.
Black discrimination and murder did not disappear then, or now, but the New Deal changes the course of history; bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice (a pronouncement in 1860 by Theodore Parker and made famous by Martin Luther King). Katznelson argues that the great depression and FDR’s response raises the power of labor through job creation and unionization. A consequence is to create a march toward special interests that influence public policy in a way that endorses the democratic ideal of free trade and competition. Unions eventually get a seat at the table of industrialization.
With that seat, the arc continues to bend toward justice. Of course, there are many other seats at the table that frequently out vote minority interests but the door is opened as a result of FDR’s administrations.
Katznelson’s point is that the principles of Adam Smith, promulgated for the private sector, are translated into the public sector as a result of the New Deal and America’s mobilization for WWII. The myth of the invisible hand is extended to government. (The invisible hand is a myth, but competition is real and as labor and minorities gain power, their seat at the table allows them to be heard. Being heard is a first step in bending the curve of moral universe toward justice.)
Of course, the addition of competition to the public sector is dual edged. Though it levels the playing field between public and private interests, it opens a Pandora’s box of problems. As the myth of Pandora’s box is told, only hope remains when emptied of its unloosed problems.
Money is power. Most special interests sitting at a public policy table are focused on singular; not general public interests. Government agencies can have their funding cut at the behest of elected officials. Katznelson notes how the southern bloc in the FDR years fails to support many social reforms because of their interest in separation of the races. A federal department of development is defunded by a vote of Republicans and southern Democrats that do not want federal government planning for the national economy. Only the fear of a common enemy seems to mitigate (not eliminate) discrimination in the United States. Even in that mitigation, the south continues to consider blacks mentally inferior to whites. During the war years, blacks are still being hung for looking at white women.
Southern Democrats begin siding with Republicans to combat unionization and legislation that implies equal opportunity for all. Many of FDR’s attempts to create jobs are sidelined because they compete with private sector manufacture or consequentially offer equal opportunity for employment to minorities. Katznelson explains how the Department of Labor is stymied by Republican opposition and Southern representatives. By insisting on State’s rights, the South can continue discriminating against minorities. Equally, private sector entrepreneurs, north and south, can subvert federal interference in employment law.
Katznelson goes on to explain how important a role the south plays in determining public policy. The seeds for the Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism are planted with the beginning of the cold war. Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in Truman’s home town sets the table for an American black list that ruins a number of American lives. Because competing special interests influence public policy, communist hunters like Senator McCarthy look for ways to exploit American fear of communism. It provides a populist subject for unscrupulous political leaders to seek fame, fortune, and public office. Katznelson’s theme is “Fear Itself” and how it is used to interfere with justice.
“Fear Itself” is Donald Trump’s hole card, his uncovered ace in a game of chance. Trump gambles with the fate of America by creating fear of terrorism, Muslims, Mexicans, and immigration. Terrorism is real but Trump’s use of fear is disingenuous. His ambition is the power and prestige of office; not protection of America from terrorism. Trump is the Senator McCarthy of our time.
Katznelson is another historian proving the irrelevance of history because we keep repeating ourselves. We forget the past and blunder down the same path, tripping and falling, leaving more blood and pain for the children of America’s future.