Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

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Overview

“A powerful argument, swept along by Katznelson’s robust prose and the imposing scholarship that lies behind it.”—Kevin Boyle, New York Times Book Review
A work that “deeply reconceptualizes the New Deal and raises countless provocative questions” (David Kennedy), Fear Itself changes the ground rules for our understanding of this pivotal era in American history. Ira Katznelson examines the New Deal through the lens of a pervasive, almost existential fear that gripped a world defined by the collapse of capitalism ...

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Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

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Overview

“A powerful argument, swept along by Katznelson’s robust prose and the imposing scholarship that lies behind it.”—Kevin Boyle, New York Times Book Review
A work that “deeply reconceptualizes the New Deal and raises countless provocative questions” (David Kennedy), Fear Itself changes the ground rules for our understanding of this pivotal era in American history. Ira Katznelson examines the New Deal through the lens of a pervasive, almost existential fear that gripped a world defined by the collapse of capitalism and the rise of competing dictatorships, as well as a fear created by the ruinous racial divisions in American society. Katznelson argues that American democracy was both saved and distorted by a Faustian collaboration that guarded racial segregation as it built a new national state to manage capitalism and assert global power. Fear Itself charts the creation of the modern American state and “how a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security” (Louis Menand, The New Yorker).

2014 Bancroft Prize Winner

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Kevin Boyle
…a powerful argument, swept along by Katznelson's robust prose and the imposing scholarship that lies behind it.
The Washington Post - Robert G. Kaiser
…engrossing…It is an exhilarating pleasure to lose yourself in this old-fashioned example of original historical scholarship. Fear Itself is a sprawling, ambitious book that offers illuminating insights on nearly every page. Among Katznelson's gifts is the one most valuable to readers and most in danger of extinction in the American academy: He writes clear, energetic prose without a whiff of academic jargon or pretension.
Publishers Weekly
Katznelson revivifies an often shop-worn subject in this new history of the New Deal. Rather than seeing FDR’s brainchild as simply a great experiment in economic recovery and the enlargement of government responsibility, Katznelson emphasizes three often neglected aspects of that extraordinary era—which, it’s worth noting, he dates from 1933 to 1952 (e.g., through Truman’s White House years). The first is the fear—of poverty, totalitarianism, and atomic warfare—that hung over those two decades. The second is the pressure that the examples of Nazi and Soviet regimes put on American politics. And the third is the “southern cage,” a “Faustian terrible compromise” that held American government and the New Deal itself in the grip of racialist and militarily assertive policies. Emphasizing the long New Deal, putting it in its global context, and shifting the focus from the White House to Congress makes this book a major revision of conventional interpretations. But it’s the extent of the permeating influence of Southern Democrats on national politics that is the work’s revelation—Katznelson rues the New Deal’s surrender to special interests at the expense of the public good. Overall, a critical and deeply scholarly work that, notwithstanding, is compulsively readable. 24 illus. Agent: Gloria Loomis, Watkins/Loomis Agency. (Mar.)
Booklist
“Positing that the New Deal preserved liberal democracy, but at the expense of compromises with illiberal forces, Katznelson’s hefty history weighs other historians’ interpretations of the New Deal as it knowledgeably advances its own.”
Sean Wilentz
“Fear Itself is a monumental history of the New Deal’s greatest paradox, its connections with the Jim Crow South. Combining historical nuance with his clear eye for the big picture, Ira Katznelson contributes one of the most trenchant accounts yet of American liberalism at the height of its power in the 1930s and 1940s—a book of major importance in understanding our own political distempers and opportunities.”
David Kennedy
“Fear Itself deeply reconceptualizes the New Deal and raises countless provocative questions.”
Eric Foner
“With Fear Itself, Ira Katznelson accomplishes something almost impossible—making us think in entirely new ways about the New Deal and its complex and contradictory legacy for modern America, and about the long legacy of slavery in our politics and society.”
Alan Brinkley
“Ira Katnelson’s Fear Itself is an extraordinary book that will change our understanding of the New Deal. He has shown the ways in which racism has shaped American life in the age of the Great Depression, and among other things he has brought the U.S. Congress to the front of the New Deal. It is a remarkable work of scholarship.”
David Nasaw
“In Fear Itself, Ira Katznelson has taken up an old subject and given it new life. In vivid prose, he reinterprets the causes and consequences of the New Deal and its aftermath, putting new emphasis on the role of Congress and southern legislators in the construction of domestic and foreign policy and the fighting of a world war and a cold war. His arguments are compelling, his documentation thorough. Fear Itself will, from this moment on, be the place to go for an understanding of the making of the New Deal and twentieth-century America.”
Washington Post - Robert G. Kaiser
“Engrossing… It is an exhilarating pleasure to lose yourself in this old-fashioned example of original historical scholarship. Fear Itself is a sprawling, ambitious book that offers illuminating insights on nearly every page. Among Katznelson’s gifts is the one most valuable to readers and most in danger of extinction in the American academy: He writes clear, energetic prose without a whiff of academic jargon or pretension… Entertaining and enlightening.”
New Yorker - Louis Menand
“Ambitious, fascinating, and slightly dark… [Katznelson’s] account of how a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security.”
American Prospect - Scott Lemieux
“Brilliant… One of the many strengths of Fear Itself is that it brings Congress back to center stage in the New Deal era. American politics past tend to be retrospectively seen through the lens of the presidency, an impulse that is particularly understandable with respect to FDR, who almost certainly did more to shape the political landscape than any politician of the last century… One of the many virtues of this masterful book is that it rescues the tragedies and ironies of the New Deal from the facile "liberal fascism" taunts from the likes of Jonah Goldberg.”
Boston Globe - David Shribman
“Fear Itself is a provocative look at how modern America—created three-quarters of a century ago by the very Southern barons who were so important a part of the New Deal —was shaped. We think of history as a settled thing, tucked safely in a faraway past. This book is a reminder of how very surprising it can be.”
Kevin Boyle - New York Times Book Review
“A powerful argument, swept along by Katznelson’s robust prose and the imposing scholarship that lies behind it.”
Financial Times
“Katznelson's book stands out as the most original work on the New Deal to appear in many years.”
Nicholas Lemann - New York Review of Books
“All of Fear Itself is suffused with the same sense of pure terror during the Roosevelt and Truman years as, say, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. It’s easy to forget not just how dangerous the situation was, at home and abroad, during the New Deal, but how palpable were outcomes far worse than what we got…[Katznelson] has done something remarkable in Fear Itself in creating a large-scale, densely detailed tableau of the New Deal that feels fresh and unfamiliar.”
Library Journal
Katznelson (political science & history, Columbia Univ.; When Affirmative Action Was White) offers perhaps the most far-reaching and provocative treatment of the New Deal to date, carrying his impressively documented work well into the Truman presidency. He argues that faced with dire financial, political, and popular emergencies, which contributed to a national psychosis of fear, the New Deal’s architects were forced to navigate dangerous legislative and judicial shoals where personal freedoms and state control clashed. Katznelson reveals not just the New Deal’s reform achievements but the paradoxical costs (e.g., nonsupport of an antilynching bill) of preserving a broader-based liberal democracy and protecting its values. He persuasively connects FDR’s agenda to the Jim Crow South and a coterie of Dixie politicians who vigorously defended racial discrimination all the while bolstering Roosevelt’s efforts in rebuilding America’s economic vitality and extending her global influence. Through the author’s insightful domestic and international perspectives the reader grows to appreciate the two decades–long trials of a divided society, the intermittent dangers inherent in its laissez-faire capitalism, and the threats from competitive totalitarian regimes.

Verdict A significant contribution to New Deal historiography and, more important, a useful guide to a better understanding of our present-day societal and political discordance. Highly recommended.—John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Cleveland

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
A wholly new approach to the New Deal takes history we thought we knew and makes it even richer and more complex. In this deeply erudite, beautifully written history, Katznelson (Political Science and History/Columbia Univ.; When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, 2005, etc.) adopts an expansive view of the New Deal, extending it to the end of the Truman administration. He reminds us that, while anxieties and apprehensions attend every age, FDR assumed office at a time when a profound, abiding fear predominated: about the very survival of liberal democracy in the face of economic meltdown and competition from fascist and communist dictatorships abroad. The dread persisted through a brutal world war, the dawn of the Atomic Age and the beginning of the Cold War. By the time of Eisenhower's inauguration, a vastly different state had emerged, and its architecture would remain largely undisturbed by the first Republican president in 20 years. Katznelson distinguishes his history in two other important ways. First, in keeping with his theme about the survival of representative democracy, he places special emphasis on the role of Congress in helping to forge the policies and programs that came to define the era. Second, he is cold-eyed about the dicey compromises the New Deal made domestically with the legislature's dominant force, the Jim Crow South, and internationally by associations with totalitarian governments. An especially fine chapter illustrates the nature of these disturbing alliances by resuscitating the now almost forgotten stories of Italy's intrepid aviator Italo Balbo, the Soviet Union's Nuremberg judge Iona Nikitchenko and Mississippi's racist senator Theodore Bilbo. Although he sees the New Deal as "a rejuvenating triumph," the author unflinchingly assesses its many dubious, albeit necessary concessions. Some will quarrel with aspects of Katznelson's analysis, few with his widely allusive, elegant prose.
Robert G. Kaiser - Washington Post
“Engrossing… It is an exhilarating pleasure to lose yourself in this old-fashioned example of original historical scholarship. Fear Itself is a sprawling, ambitious book that offers illuminating insights on nearly every page. Among Katznelson’s gifts is the one most valuable to readers and most in danger of extinction in the American academy: He writes clear, energetic prose without a whiff of academic jargon or pretension… Entertaining and enlightening.”
Louis Menand - New Yorker
“Ambitious, fascinating, and slightly dark… [Katznelson’s] account of how a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security.”
Scott Lemieux - American Prospect
“Brilliant.”
Duncan Kelly - Financial Times
“An excellent work of synthesis about the political and economic terms of the New Deal. . . . Powerful and well-paced . . . anyone wanting an intelligent guide to the ideas that still shape its place in our own fractious times should begin by reading this book.”
David Shribman - Boston Globe
“A provocative look at how modern America—created three-quarters of a century ago by the very Southern barons who were so important a part of the New Deal —was shaped. We think of history as a settled thing, tucked safely in a faraway past. This book is a reminder of how very surprising it can be.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871404503
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 3/1/2013
  • Pages: 720
  • Sales rank: 425,801
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 2.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Ira Katznelson

Ira Katznelson is Columbia University's Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History. Having served as president of the American Political Science Association, he is a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He is also the author of Fear Itself and When Affirmative Action Was White.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2013

    Essential

    Fantastic historical perspective on the evolution of the New Deal, particularly the role of southern legislators. Makes you better realize the poignancy of LBJ's statement that the south would reject the democratic party for a generation or more after the passage of the civil rights bill.

    The south was not alone in discriminatory pratices, but the ingrained nature in the belief of racial superiority of southerners is brought out in this scholarly tome. One can easily see echoes of the old south in today's unified southern voting bloc stressing state's rights, promoting voter ID hurtles, anti-unionism, etc. See Paula Dean and Trent Lott's recent comments in recent years.

    Great historical read.






    Some of the language is 'high falutin', but the degree of scholarship displayed is impressively thorough and enlightening.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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