Ira Katznelson, “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time”

On March 4, 2013 Jonathan Fanton introduced Professor Ira Katznelson who discussed his new book, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, with Professor David Nasaw. These two distinguished scholars spoke on a wide range of issues including the development and limitations of the American social welfare state, U.S. foreign policy, the role of Congress in furthering social reform, and the nature of liberal democracy in the mid-twentieth century. The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute hosted this event. For more information on The Roosevelt House, click here.


March 4, 2013

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. It is my great pleasure to welcome you to our discussion on Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.

How appropriate we gather today, the 80th anniversary of FDR’s first inaugural address. Hear his words: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly … 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.”

Fear Itself tells a fresh story about the development and influence of the New Deal both at home and abroad. The New Deal is, in Katznelson’s words, a “rejuvenating triumph” in its reaffirmation of representative democracy and its ability to create more expansive notions of citizenship rights. Yet, as he notes, representative democracy also meant that progressive forces often had to compromise with their more reactionary, often southern, counterparts who hoped to maintain racial discrimination within New Deal legislation, perpetuate the segregation of public places, and offer American support to repressive anticommunist regimes.

In looking at Congress’s – not just FDR’s – role in shaping the New Deal, Professor Katznelson offers a fine-grained analysis that allows us to see the inner-workings of American politics.  “Of the New Deal’s many achievements,” he writes, “none was more important than the demonstration that liberal democracy, a political system with a legislature at its heart, could govern effectively in the face of great danger.” Both domestic and international.

FDR understood the process of democracy could be frustrating, involve compromises, produce uncertainty, enable reactionary forces bent on resisting change.

Hear his words at the Democratic Victory Dinner on March 4, 1937:

“My great ambition…is to leave my successor… a Nation which has thus proved that the democratic form and methods of national government can and will succeed…Democracy in many lands has failed for the time being to meet human needs. People have become so fed up with futile debate and party bickerings over methods that they have been willing to surrender democratic processes and principles in order to get things done. They have forgotten the lessons of history that the ultimate failures of dictatorships cost humanity far more than any temporary failures of democracy…In the United States democracy has not yet failed and does not need to fail. And we propose not to let it fail…Nevertheless, I cannot tell you with complete candor that in these past few years democracy in the United States has fully succeeded. Nor can I tell you, … just where American democracy is headed … . I can only hope.”

Both FDR and Ira Katznelson see democratic progress and reform as a continuous process in search of a more just, fair and tolerant society.

Professor Katznelson, the Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia and President of the Social Science Research Council, is a distinguished scholar who has written extensively on American politics, political theory, race, class formation, urban affairs, social movements, European studies and more.

Among his books are: When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America and Desolation and Enlightenment: Political Knowledge after Total War, Totalitarianism, and the Holocaust.

Ira Katznelson and I made common cause thirty years ago to rebuild the New School’s Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science. There I came to admire his capacity to listen, to appreciate complexity, to embrace intellectual puzzles, and to construct narratives that advance our understanding but also stimulate further discussion and debate. He is a master at putting public policy in historical perspective and I am pleased that he has just joined the Board of the Roosevelt House.

It is also my pleasure to introduce tonight’s moderator, Professor David Nasaw, the Arthur M. Schlesigner Jr. Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center. Professor Nasaw received his PhD from Columbia University, where he studied French intellectual history. But his scholarly work has focused on American History, publishing, most recently, award-winning biographies on William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Carnegie, and Joseph Kennedy – examinations of some of the most powerful and complex men in our nation’s history. He has been chair of the CUNY Center for the Humanities and is currently Chair of the Advisory Board for the Leon Levy Center for Biography.

Let me close with a passage Professor Katznelson quotes from Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution: we “are far enough from the Revolution to feel only fleetingly the passions that troubled the view of those who made it” but “we are… still close enough to be able to enter into and comprehend the spirit that brought it about.” That could just as well be said about those of us in the room that stand at about the same distance from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

It is a special honor to have these two distinguished historians here with us tonight to help us understand the competence, compromises, courage and complexity that characterized the New Deal.

Ladies and Gentlemen, David Nasaw and Ira Katznelson.

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