The Age of Fear: Ira Katznelson Re-examines the Foundations of the New Deal

Volume 5, Issue 1, Winter 2015

By Raphael Pope-Sussman

Ira Katznelson does not do one thing at a time. As the Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, a position he has held since 1994, Katznelson maintains appointments in both political science and history, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses and advising doctoral candidates. For the past two years, Katznelson has also served as the president of the Social Science Research Council, an independent multidisciplinary organization that fosters social science scholarship both nationally and internationally. At the same time, he has maintained a robust research and publication slate, including his landmark 2013 book Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.

A 700-page tour de force that was awarded the 2014 Bancroft Prize, Fear Itself peels back the veneer of nostalgia and treats the New Deal from a novel, expansive perspective, considering its domestic reforms in light of global diplomacy and examines the extent to which it relied upon a series of Faustian bargains, including an alliance of necessity with Stalin’s Soviet Union during the Second World War and a more durable dependence on the Jim Crow South in Congress, whose legislative skill, leadership, and votes shaped the full range of New Deal programs, often in ways that reinforced racial segregation. Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, praises the scope and depth of Fear Itself, noting that it is both a “deeply researched and strongly interpretive” work that serves to “complicate our picture of the New Deal by detailing the compromises FDR had to get legislation passed.”

Although Katznelson clearly admires many of the goals and achievements of the New Deal, writing that it “proved to be a rejuvenating triumph,” which “organized political life at home … [and created] an assertive state that crusaded almost without limit for American power and values,” Fear Itself is no hagiography. Instead, Katznelson provides a clear- eyed, textured analysis of the political program that created the modern American welfare state as we know it, that brought electricity and jobs to the most desperately poor swathes of the rural South, that defeated fascism, that gave hope to the hopeless, yet excluded Southern blacks from much of the region’s economic gains, segregated the U.S. armed forces, and ensured that reforms would effectively not extend to black Americans in the South or threaten the reign of Jim Crow.

Fear Itself, which took Katznelson some three years to write (he notes that he has “been reflecting on the New Deal for some time”), provided an opportunity to delve into the nature of the phenomenon during a signal moment in American democracy but does not mark the end of his engagement with the period or its political tactics. “One is never done with the New Deal,” Katznelson said. “The New Deal is one of these protean moments.”

His forthcoming book Southern Nation, which he is writing with John Lapinski (Ph.D. ’00, Political Science) of the University of Pennsylvania and David Bateman of Cornell University, will explore the notion that the American South functioned for almost a century as a quasi-autonomous state. “Between 1877 and 1965, the South was left to its own devices to define racial order,” Katznelson said. “We are asking for this period: ‘After the South had come back into the Union and before the civil rights revolution … when and with respect to which issues did Southern members of congress have preferences sufficiently distinctive that they were still acting as if they were a separate nation?’” These distinctive preferences, expressed in a solid voting bloc in Congress, have helped to shape the political direction of the United States, which adds another inflection to the book’s title—“Southern Nation,” Katznelson emphasizes.

Both Fear Itself and Southern Nation pick up a common thread in Katznelson’s scholarship, the relationship between “liberal democracy and liberty on the one hand and systems of exclusion on the other,” he notes. He is further exploring these themes in a third book, currently in the early stages of research, about the treatment of Jewish minorities in the United States and England. The book, he says, will examine models of liberty, as well as minority rights and representation in two countries with long histories of liberalism and religious tolerance. Jews as a minority group are a particularly fertile area of study, he explains, because they are “the longest-running minority in the Western world.” In its current formulation, the book will begin with a look at 18th-century England and America, then jump back to 13th-century England, and then pick back up with 18th century going forward. It’s a lot of ground to cover, both chronologically and conceptually, and will require the sort of interdisciplinary inquiry that characterizes his work.

Fear Itself was informed by Katznelson’s discussions of the project with colleagues in the Departments of Political Science and History, which he notes is marked by an “uncommon intellectual curiosity and unusual degree of collaboration,” and in the workshop on American politics and society that he has led for nearly two decades with Alan Brinkley, Provost Emeritus and Allan Nevins Professor of American History. The statistical analysis and research into legislative history that underpin the book were conducted through the American Institutions Project of Columbia’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy.

While Katznelson has long been working in an interdisciplinary vein in his own scholarship, he  began serving as president of the Social Sciences Research Council (SSRC) in 2012, which has given him a new platform to advance the broader cause of cutting-edge research in the social sciences. Since its founding in 1923, Katznelson says, the Brooklyn-based SSRC has been dedicated to a four-point mission: to deepen scholarship across disciplinary lines; galvanize social scientists to work on big public issues; help build capacity, especially of young scholars through fellowships, internships; and communicate to the public the nature and purpose of the social sciences. Because it is an independent organization, rather than a unit of a larger institution, the SSRC can move nimbly, constantly adapting to developments in the social sciences and in the world at large by shifting the direction of its programs or adding new voices or minds to its intellectual community. And it is uniquely positioned to draw upon a global network of scholars— to whom it can offer a flexible space within which to work and collaborate—transcending “not only the boundaries of any university or sets of universities...but different kinds of institutions...and countries.” The global outlook of the SSRC runs all the way back to its inception, Katznelson says, and indeed, a majority of the organization’s work today has an international focus.

Katznelson, then, is in an incredible place for a social scientist: he can draw upon the resources of both Columbia and the SSRC. At Columbia, he has access  to world-class departments and a great library in the heart of New York City. He also has the chance to work with a student body that he describes as “diverse in every possible dimension, from which one can learn an enormous amount.”

His students, for their part, express tremendous admiration for Katznelson, as both a scholar and a teacher. Suzanne Kahn, a doctoral student in history  for whom Katznelson has served as thesis adviser, speaks glowingly of his teaching and mentorship. Kahn says her work with Katznelson has been a highlight of her time at Columbia. “He is the most generous and creative commenter on other people’s work,” she notes. “His comments engage with your work on its own terms while pushing you in new, and always productive, directions.”

What Katznelson also offers his students, of course, and what continues to distinguish him as a teacher and a scholar, is his deep grounding in both political science and history. “He is one of a kind. His strength is that he is so knowledgeable about history and all political science,” says Lapinski, his collaborator on Southern Nation. “He is able to work across disciplines, and has such a nimble mind. This type of scholar has always been rare, but is near extinction in political science.”

The good news, though, is that Katznelson has mentored so many in the next generation of political scientists, people like Kahn and Lapinski (another advisee). They carry with them that crucial emphasis on interdisciplinary work. The field, and Columbia, are the better for it.