Postmodern Conservative

Book Notes, New Deal Edition

I’ve been reading up on the history of American liberalism this year, and so for you last-minute Christmas shoppers, here’s a few recommendations for books about one aspect of that, the New Deal. 

The first is The Forgotten Man:  A New History of the New Deal, Graphic Edition, by Amity Shlaes.  I’m ambivalent about graphic novels, but this one really works.  I found it hard to put down, and it similarly affected another reader I know, one with little taste for history books.  Plenty of conservatives and libertarians are saying it would be a good book to put into the hands of teenage readers exposed to the typical lionization of FDR in the schools.  

Shlaes’s original history (2007), whatever its other virtues, was well suited to this sort of adaptation, due to its weaving into its main narrative the stories of a number of interesting lesser figures, such as various New Deal captains, The Schecter brothers, and the Harlem leader Father Divine.   I wonder what other center-right historical or literary books would be good for this kind of adaptation—any ideas? 

Reading the original was one of the things that made me strongly suspect the whole “crisis/opportunity” response of Obama and co. to the 2008 downturn was going to keep harming the economy, since same as FDR and co., they were making move upon move that increased uncertainty about the future business environment.  If liberal accounts admit FDR’s unpredictability and ignorance regarding key economic decisions but suggest that his overall confident air and compassionate policy instincts got us past difficulties, Shlaes shows us more of the real cost.  For one, the so-called “capital strike” on the part of potential business investors was far less ideological than simply prudential in the face of the uncertainty generated by FDR and his men.

Also at the heart of her critical take on FDR’s New Deal is her underlining the severity of the “second wave” of the Great Depression felt in 1938—employment levels and stocks again went dramatically downward, and what was so devastating was that this was after all the legislation, experimentation, and modest economic rebounds of the previous four years.  This blow was within a year or so overshadowed by the coming of WWII, but Shlaes is right to insist upon its continued significance for how we assess FDR’s policies.

A feature of Shlaes’s book I particularly like is its dual focus upon FDR’s most attractive and ambitious social reformer, Rex Tugwell, and upon Wendell Wilkie, FDR’s only serious Republican challenger (1938), and a man who had regarded himself as a pro-New Deal business progressive in the early days—he had voted for Roosevelt in ’32.  Tugwell’s story-arc is an unhappy one, for various reasons.  Some of these have to do with conservatives and moderates successfully demonizing him, stemming from his having been part of a 1927 trip of naïvely-pro-planning professors to the USSR, but they more fundamentally have to do with the outright failures of FDR programs to deliver in key ways—one of the more experimental programs dear to Tugwell’s heart, the Casa Grande resettlement cooperative farms, conspicuously bombed. 

We wind up feeling more badly for Tugwell than we do scornful of his ideological blinders, and Shlaes is right to suggest that insofar as someone like him, one of the New Deal’s most significant architects and most enthusiastic champions, found its actual playing out deeply disillusioning, this tells us much about the whole project’s true nature.  The discouragement of a number of liberal true believers—Tugwell was only the most obvious case–was not simply about inability to enact  the full and pristine version of the desired program due to the clout of reactionary forces (according to the liberal understanding), but in many ways about failures of New Deal programs that were enacted.

Wilkie also serves as an example of this dynamic of liberal disillusion under FDR, since he was fairly pro-New Deal early on.  But his ideological story-arc is a happy one, since to Shlaes he was the progressive liberal who, in reflecting on what was going wrong with the New Deal, worked his way back to truths of classic liberalism.  He becomes a student of William Graham Sumner and the English Whigs like David Hume and Lord Melbourne.  This change parallels his leaving his unsympathetic wife for a soul-mate in Irita Van Doren.  In a sense, he finds himself.  And, he almost beats FDR.

I recommend both versions of Shlaes, but I’d say that you really ought to supplement her history with one of the usual liberal takes, particularly if it is the outstanding history Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1940, by William E. Leuchtenburg.  Shlaes’s biases and angles are ones I largely agree with, but her thematic economic focus and personal stories can keep one from grappling with the bigger picture, and particularly as that picture was seen by dominant liberal opinion at the time and thereafter.  If you’re going to learn about the patron saint of the church of liberalism, whatever revisionist history you study, you really ought to learn what that church says about him itself.

Not that Leuchtenburg is a preacher to the choir, in the way guys like Hofstader and Schlesinger verge on being.  Rather, he is such a good historian, providing you with ample documentation and elegant writing at every turn, that his (usually) consensus liberal view never comes across as heavy-handed.  He always gives you what you need to see past it, and the sentimentalism and personal adulation that have come to be common in liberal accounts of FDR are simply absent—rather, Leuchtenburg consistently focuses upon the political nitty gritty. 

He is also good at getting you to sense the fundamental fears and doubts about capitalism’s and democracy’s future in the early portions of the Depression, and getting you to see the various political responses that emerged to it.  We really did need a president who conveyed a sense of confidence, purpose, and action, for 1933 and 1934 were genuinely crucial years for the future of democracy in the U.S.  The chapters on foreign policy are also first-rate.  Published around 1960, it’s still the best book here, even though I’ll be saying less about it than the others.

If you get the recent (2013) Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, by Ira Katznelson, splurge for the hardback, since the paperback’s lightly-printed text is a strain on the eyes.  Katznelson is a political scientist, which makes a number of the features of his book more attractive to many of our readers here at Postmodern Conservative.  His extensive footnotes are a wonder of erudition, he is tuned to important debates in the fields of American political development, presidency studies, and congress, and he is quite open to various points of view.  For example, while he strikes me as basically liberal in his views, he is able to cite aspects of Shlaes in a fair manner, makes a sympathetic nod to Leo Strauss at one point, and even more impressively, cites figures and arguments from the iconoclastic and deeply anti-New Deal libertarian economic historian Robert Higgs

Katznelson tries a number or revisionist, or at least unusual, framings of the New Deal story.  To take one example, he says the full story has to go up to through the resolution of the Korean War.  We are not so focused on debates about the economy or the New Deal program, not so focused on the personality of FDR, and yet, we are often even more immersed in the nitty-gritty of politics than in Leuchtenburg. 

One blurb correctly says that the book is more than a bit “dark.”  Troubling ironies abound.  The good things the liberals did often came with disconcerting costs, or only came about due to disturbing political dynamics.  The correct fight against the Axis produces a dangerous military-industrial complex.  FDR’s most progressive period on the one hand saw large segments of the population responding to him in a cult-like and fascist-like manner, and on the other was most reliably supported in congressional votes by the segregationist Democrats. 

The book starts slowly—Katznelson puts too much weight upon, and spends too much time setting forth the importance of, his “fear”-oriented framing—but then it picks up a head of steam, providing telling detail after detail, generating insight upon insight, that it never loses until it hits the Cold War somewhere around the 300th page.  The very serious loss of confidence in liberal democracy of the 30s, exending from intellectuals to the man on the street, is more thoroughly explored and conveyed here than in the other books.  Unlike most historians, Katznelson is prepared to explore the roots of this loss in many progressives/liberals’ ongoing but intensifying suspicion (and sometimes hope) that liberal democracy might be surpassed by a more advanced form of government. 


Katznelson also excels in conveying the importance of the Southern Democrats to the entire shape of politics in this era.  A vivid sense of the political lock segregation had on the South is given, and Katznelson shows us that the earlier and more radical aspects of the New Deal were most reliably supported by Southern Democrats, even though they often inserted provisions that exempted the segregation system from the new rules—a minimum wage or organizing law, for example, would not apply to domestic help or agricultural workers, job categories that just happened to be the ones most typical of Negro labor in the South.  By the late 30s, this pattern became more one of Southern Democratic congressman constraining the New Deal than backing it up, a pattern which held through the 40s and 50s. 

For conservatives today, there is unpleasant irony in seeing many of these politicians employing anti-planning and anti-centralization rhetoric, largely in the service of protecting the segregationist system from federal meddling.  A wider and more radical New Deal really would have begun to unravel that system, particularly with respect to employment, had such been permitted.  One thus sees that by focusing on the Wilkie contribution to the opposition to FDR that became stronger from mid-1937 on, Shlaes downplays the less savory aspects of that opposition, or at least resistance, especially at it emerged on the Democratic side.  (I will add that reading these books together gives one little respect for most of the non-Wilkie Republicans of the time–the rhetoric of Herbert Hoover and the Liberty League carries a distinct odor of flailing reaction, and is often quite similar to the worst sort of rhetoric Obama has been attacked with.)  The real strength of the late 30s resistance to FDR in Congress came from the increasing willingness of Southern Democrats to join Republicans in votes. For liberals today, of course, there is the arguably even more unpleasant irony that virtually none of the New Deal would have been possible without the initial segregationist support, however one might hold that FDR and the northern liberals made the best of that situation as they could have.

And for both sides, there is the irony that the segregationist Southerners were the strongest congressional bloc in favor of shoring up Britain, and resisting German aggression in Europe.  It is becoming fairly well-known that Britain came close to falling (likely by treaty) in 1940, and that it may well have if we hadn’t had someone of FDR’s foreign policy views in office(see John Lukacs’s WWII books), but Katznelson shows us that perhaps as necessary as FDR’s (and Wilkie’s) concern about Nazi imperialism, was that of the Southern Democrats.  Our conservative forbears on the Republican side, outside the Wilkie camp, were usually awful on foreign affairs in the 1930s, and most of the northern and western liberals were little better or worse. 

Katznelson shows us that there were German Nazi efforts in the 1930s to find and cultivate political allies in the American South, i.e., ones willing to emphasize the similarity of their racial ideology to that of Hitler, and that these efforts came away entirely empty-handed.  Perhaps with the offense bred by a recognition of an unwelcome similarity, the Democratic South found Nazi Germany utterly repugnant.  This had something to do with greater felt kinship to Britain in the Southern states, and to stronger military traditions and hopes for federal military bases, but it goes well beyond those factors.  For whatever reasons, it seems the world might owe the survival of Britain in 1940 and then the defeat of Nazi Germany (42-45) to the South.  To that South. 

Just as Ralph Ellison suggests in his portrait of “Senator Sunraider” in Three Days before the Shooting, Katznelson shows how this 30s though early 50s era was the height of Southern Democrat power–and he causes us to see that this political power, when utilized outside the South and domestic policy generally, typically strengthened the international reach and military power of the American federal government.

I doubt you’ll want to read the whole 400 or so page monster, but there are parts of Katznelson’s book you don’t want to miss.  A few lesser recommendations then.  While I have not read it, I’m sure that the essay collection The New Deal and the Triumph of Liberalism, edited by Milkis and Mileur is worthwhile, simply based on the Sidney Milkis chapter I have read, and the quality of its companion volume on LBJ and the Great Society.  Milkis particularly focuses on FDR’s thinking about America’s constitutional and natural rights principles, especially as revealed in his important speech on the “Second Bill of Rights.”  A book not terribly strong on the New Deal itself, Cass Sunstein’s The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution–And Why We Need It More Than Ever is worth reading on the same topic, mainly to get a sense of how far some of our supposedly moderate and level-headed academic liberals would be prepared to go in our era if they get decisive control over the Supreme Court.  Finally, for those who want the devil-in-the-details conservative constitutional law perspective on the New Deal and are ready to sweat a bit, there’s Hadley Arkes’s The Return of George Sutherland.  Justice Sutherland is a fascinating figure, and Arkes’ perspective gives you the good points that the libertarian con-law guys like Barnett and Epstein make about the New Deal and the Constitution, while keeping you more grounded in natural rights philosophy. 

To sum up, I’m not with Arkes’s purism on all the constitutional matters, but I do think FDR’s most lasting legacy might unfortunately turn out to be the apparently innocuous but in fact quite dangerous example he gave the Democratic Party with respect to its rhetoric about the Constitution.  To me, the jury is still out on whether we should give FDR middling or poor marks for his handling of the Depression.  And no, economics-focused historians like Shlaes can’t be the final authorities on that, as there has to be acknowledgement of the way his overall tone and policy reassured a jittery nation in the crucial early days of his administration, and of the perplexity any president would have faced. With world affairs, there’s plenty to learn from FDR’s (and nearly everyone’s!) mistakes in the 20s-30s period, but I think we should thank God that an American like him was president during the hour of Britain’s greatest peril.  


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