Sunday, June 30, 2013

Roosevelt and the "Southern" New Deal

In attempting to understand the polarization that has characterized our political process, it is critical to recognize that the United States was created by merging two separate nations together: the nation of non-slave states and the nation of slave states. Such a marriage was destined for hard times. The Civil War put an end to the formal institution of slavery, but it did not change the political, social, and racial attitudes of the former slave states. Much of subsequent national history has concerned their continued attempts to maintain as much as possible of their race-based social order.

David Runciman has produced an excellent article in the London Review of Books that discusses how the polarized politics of the mid-twentieth century shaped our policies as we struggled to emerge from the Great Depression: Destiny v. Democracy. Runciman’s article is a review of the book:

Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson
Norton, 706 pp, £22.00, April, ISBN 978 0 87140 450 3

While Southern politicians were interested in economic recovery, they were also interested in maintaining their racial caste system and their Jim Crow laws. Their political power provided them an excessive amount of influence in policy making, and, in Katznelson’s opinion, this was to the detriment of our country.

"Katznelson persuasively argues that the core features of the New Deal were fashioned out of Northern acquiescence and Southern intransigence. The give-and-take was highly asymmetrical. Roosevelt needed the votes of Southern representatives in Congress, above all in the Senate, to get his legislative programme for reviving the American economy passed. Though in a permanent minority, Southern senators wielded disproportionate influence."

A little historical perspective is required in order to fully understand the political dynamics involved. The South was effectively a one-party nation. By restricting the vote to economically well-off whites, politicians were able to control elections and guarantee the desired results.

"In the 1936 presidential election, FDR’s Democratic ticket won 97 per cent of the vote in Mississippi, 99 per cent in South Carolina. In some counties no votes at all were recorded for Republican candidates."

"The population of Mississippi in the late 1930s was more than two million. Yet the number of people whose votes were counted in the 1938 congressional midterms was barely 35,000."

What provided Southern politicians their undue influence was absolute loyalty to their segregated ways. They formed the most consistently coherent voting bloc in congress.

"....they were more united than any rival grouping. What united them was race, and a shared sense that they represented the final bulwark against the destruction of the white order. Any local differences were put aside when segregation was on the line. Unity made them disciplined but also highly adaptable: Southern representatives would forge whatever alliances were needed to keep the South intact. If that meant doing deals with Republicans, so be it. Roosevelt knew he couldn’t rely on the Southern politicians in his party if they had any sense that their way of life was under threat. So he was loath to put them to the test."

Having absolute control over elections allowed the Southern states to return the same politicians to office over and over. Seniority rules favored the long-serving Southerners for important committee chairmanships.

"There was no way for a Democratic president to legislate without letting the South get its fingerprints all over his bills."

Our country essentially had a three party system consisting of a socially and politically conservative bloc of Democrats, a fiscally conservative Republican bloc, and a liberal Democratic bloc. These three groups would form alliances as necessary. Roosevelt had little leverage over his own party.

Katznelson provides another bit of insight into the constraints Roosevelt faced, and indicates why he might hesitate to be perceived as bullying Congress.

"....he arrived in office in 1933 at a moment of acute danger, not just for his country but for democracy worldwide. A widespread feeling had arisen that only dictatorship could tackle the chaos and misery that the Great Depression had unleashed. Mussolini, Stalin and now Hitler were all being cast as men of action; the indecisive democracies seemed to be trailing in their wake."

There was considerable sympathy for strong executive action that might bypass the normal workings of Congress. Consider this advice attributed to the respected and influential Walter Lippmann:

"The pre-eminent columnist Walter Lippmann wrote that ‘strong medicine’ was needed. He advocated a large increase in presidential powers, and a temporary suspension of Congressional checks and balances. In a private visit to the president-elect in February, Lippmann told him: ‘The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers’."

Roosevelt recognized the danger such notions represented for a Democracy and chose not to pursue any additional powers not explicitly granted by Congress. This wise decision insured the ability of the Southern bloc to manipulate legislation in accordance with their goals.

The marriage of the liberal and Southern wings of the Democratic Party worked because they needed each other. The economically dysfunctional South needed the public largesse that a Democratic administration could provide, and the non-Southerners needed the South to win the presidency. This provided an uneasy alliance that could be broken by any attempt to change the social structure of the former slave states.

"If the Democrats controlled Washington, the benefits for the South were enormous, as resources were reallocated from more affluent parts of the country. After 1933, this was the lifeline on which the South depended to survive the Great Depression. The price paid was the uncertainty that came with having Northern and Midwestern politicians pulling the purse-strings. These men (and the occasional woman) were answerable to electorates very different from those of their Southern counterparts; indeed, many of them represented districts in which black voters, even in small numbers, could swing an election. Southern Democrats could never be sure what might be required of them in return for all that federal largesse; they had to be perpetually vigilant for signs of slippage on the race question."

The game the Southern politicians played was to use the poverty of their constituents to gain public funds, but to insure that those funds did not alter the conditions created by segregation.

"But the Southerners were playing a double game. They wanted to maximise the help the federal government provided to the worst hit parts of the country, while at the same time minimising the amount of control the federal government could exercise over the way the help was distributed within individual states."

The calls for a small federal government and state control that are bellowed by Southern politicians to this day were born not out of political idealism, but out of racism.

"When it came to drawing up the legislation that underpinned the New Deal, Southern members of Congress made sure that segregation was not simply recognised: it was reinforced. So the NIRA [National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933] codes that established minimum wages and maximum hours for workers explicitly excluded domestic and farm labour, thus ensuring that the vast majority of African Americans in the South would not be covered by their provisions."

One of Roosevelt’s embarrassing collapses before southern intransigence involved the exclusion of "traditional" Southern industries.

"Roosevelt also agreed to exemptions for various Southern industries, including citrus packing and cotton ginning. He knew what he was doing. ‘It is not the purpose of the administration,’ he announced in 1934, ‘by sudden or explosive change, to impair Southern industry by refusing to recognise traditional differentials.’ In order to count as ‘Southern’, an industry needed only to show that the majority of its workers in a given state were black."

Any industry that predominantly hired black workers was excluded from laws designed to protect workers’ rights. The underpinnings of the New Deal were thus blatantly racist.

One of the hallmarks of the South is the hostility to unions and collective bargaining. This tendency did not arise from political or economic theorizing, or from a sense of individual freedom or responsibility, but from racism. Unions might treat blacks and whites equally; therefore they must be suppressed.

"The focus of Southern fears was labour legislation. Plans to strengthen the bargaining position of labour unions and extend the minimum wage were fiercely resisted by many Southern Democrats, who rightly saw that organised labour posed the greatest threat to segregation (unions were almost the only public bodies of the time that welcomed black and white workers together). A 1938 labour standards bill, which would have brought Southern agriculture within the ambit of New Deal regulations, was defeated in the House, despite its overwhelming Democratic majority. ‘Unworkable’, ‘un-American’, ‘impractical’ and, above all, ‘dictatorial’ was how Southern representatives characterised it. They allied with Republicans, who had their own reasons for wanting to curtail the unions, to pass a much watered-down version, which kept the important exemptions intact."

Other accommodations to Southern sensibilities included a segregated military and the inability to declare lynching to be a federal crime.

Katznelson views these compromises with a sense of "regret" at the lost opportunities for greater social and economic justice, and suggests that more could have been done. Runciman is less judgmental and is comfortable with the notion that Roosevelt did what he had to do.

It is arguable as to the extent of the compromises with the Southern racists. What is not arguable is the level of their power and influence.

The Civil War was fought to end slavery as an institution. In its aftermath, slavery was replaced by segregation and other forms of subjugation. The civil rights turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s succeeded in overturning laws supporting segregation and discrimination. Given that this movement also included forms of invasion of the South in order to attain its goals, this might be considered a second Civil War.

With the passage of civil rights legislation by the Democrats, the Democratic South soon became the Republican South. The goals of this political bloc are little changed; limiting workers rights, suppressing the vote of racial minorities, and limiting the ability of federal regulations to modify state behavior are still the focus of its activities.

Will we require a third Civil War before these issues are finally settled?

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