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