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Response to Review of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

On Analytical History: A Response to Jonathan Bell

Jonathan Bell’s engaged, appreciative, and critical consideration of Fear Itself thoughtfully raises three questions about the book’s architecture and content: the relationship of analysis to narrative; the relative place of Congress within the larger ambit of the New Deal; and the role played by southern members of the House of Representatives and Senate not only in shaping policy decisions during the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations but in fashioning what my subtitle calls ‘the origins of our time’. I welcome the chance to clarify my purposes when I made choices concerning these three issues.

In the introduction, I underscored how the book is ‘neither traditional history nor customary political science’. The sentence to that effect footnotes a 1956 essay by Richard Hofstadter on ‘History and the social sciences’. That short text served as my inspiration for how I wished to compose Fear Itself. ‘Authors of narrative histories’, he observed, ‘rarely hesitate to retell a story that is already substantially known, adding perhaps some new information but seldom in systematic fashion or with a clear analytical purpose’, while ‘many a monograph … leaves its readers, and perhaps even its author, with misgivings as to whether that part of it which is new is truly significant’. Seeking an alternative, he counseled more attention to the insights and creative possibilities proffered by the social sciences whose use ‘promises to the historian … a special kind of opportunity to join these two parts of his tradition in a more effective way’. By disturbing fixed historiographical routines and tendering a fresh stock of ideas, the social sciences, he believed, could offer historians access to concerns in the wider culture, a larger stock of methods, a concern for rigor in argumentation, and, most important, the ‘ability to open new problems which the historian usually has ignored’.

From this perspective, Hofstadter appealed to his colleagues to renew history as a vocation by developing what he called

a somewhat new historical genre, which will be a mixture of traditional history and the social sciences. It will differ from the narrative history of the past in that its primary purpose will be analytical. It will differ from the typical historical monograph of the past in that it will be more consciously designed as a literary form and will focus on types of problems that the monograph has all too often failed to raise. It will be informed by the insights of the social sciences and at some points will make use of methods they have originated. Without pretending to be scientific, it may well command more reciprocal interest and provide more stimulation for social scientists than a great deal of the history that is now being written.

17 years later, his posthumously published America at 1750 explained how he was following this advice. ‘What I hope to accomplish,’ Hofstadter wrote, ‘is a large-scale history that will deviate from the conventional general history of the past to the extent that a primarily interpretive focus will govern the inclusion of narrative material’. Narration, he continued, ‘will be included not for its own sake but in order to provide background, to pose the essential problems, and to illustrate through the exploration of decisive episodes the meaning of historical events’.

Analytical history of this kind – a particular genre quite distinct from a general survey of the sort that Bell thinks I was trying to accomplish – demands one or more sharply-etched puzzles to be accounted for and a manner of inquiry that willfully simplifies by focusing on key causal elements within a larger complex situation. The wager is that such model-building (something all historians and social scientists do, whether implicitly or explicitly, as we are not gods who can comprehend everything all at once) can, as I wrote, ‘illuminate features that otherwise might remain indistinct or might even disappear’.

It is this orientation to writing about the New Deal – a subject about which a vast literature exists – that informed how I treated the concerns Jonathan Bell identifies. He wishes the book had more of a narrative arc from start to finish, thus more of the chronological order that more fully informs, though not completely, the second half of the book; and he would have preferred a more balanced and comprehensive treatment of other institutions and processes, thus diminishing the role I attribute to Congress and the South. By contrast, I believe that the type of book I chose to write required different choices.

Though not lacking in particular narratives, parts one and two primarily develop and expose the central analytical tools the book utilizes in order to see the New Deal afresh. The chapters in part one thus deal with fear, understood as a journey without maps; with ethical ambiguity in a world marked by deep challenges to constitutional democracy that often compelled strange bedfellows into coalitions; and with how the perceived shortcomings and failures of legislatures lay at the heart of the era’s widespread concern, both among the enemies and friends of democracy, that only dictatorships without parliamentary representation could solve the big economic, social, and geopolitical problems of the day. It is here that I make the case for a primary focus on Congress, whose very capacity to govern was in question when Franklin Roosevelt took his first oath of office, rather than on the more traditional foci of presidency and the Supreme Court. Of course, there is a price to be paid by such a selective emphasis, but my goal was neither balance nor synthesis. Instead, I sought a distinctive vantage that necessarily would alter the more traditional balance of subjects.

My focus on Congress inevitably brought me to the representatives in Congress from the American South; that is, the persons selected from the 17 states that then mandated racial segregation and who had been chosen by a process characterized by racial exclusion, very low levels of political participation, and single-party dominance. No New Deal lawmaking could occur when they objected. Especially after 1938, when southern members of the House and Senate constituted a majority of the Democratic Party in each chamber, they more powerfully determined the contours of legislation about domestic and global affairs than any other political bloc. Part two thus analyzes the distinctiveness of the South in this era, and its privileged role in Congress.

To be sure, as Bell rightly notes and as his citations, also represented in Fear Itself, to James Patterson’s and Tony Badger’s pioneering work on southerners in Congress make manifest, I am hardly the first to notice what my book calls ‘the southern cage’. But I stand by the claim he thinks excessive to the effect that ‘southern power has always hovered at the fringe of most New Deal portraits’ (italics added here). Whether in the grand writing of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., William Leuchtenburg, or David Kennedy, or in the many hundreds of articles and books about this era, southern power and Congress more broadly do indeed hover at the fringe; certainly when compared to attention devoted front and center to the presidency and its occupants and, at times, to matters of jurisprudence and the Supreme Court. My implicit question was what can we see by shifting vantage, in full knowledge, as Bell notes, that my South-centered congressional analysis is only a part – though, I would claim, a privileged part – of what he calls ‘a more complex story’.

The narration in parts three and four that follows the more explicitly analytical discussions of the first two sections is informed and shaped by how considerations of fear, the crisis of democracy, the role of legislatures, and the particular position of the American South are deployed. Here, too, in the second half of the book, there is no attempt at synthesis, but rather an effort to write what Hofstadter called analytical narration. My goal was to explain the development of a new national state during the two decades of the Roosevelt and Truman years – a two-sided state I designate as both procedural and crusading – that had not existed when FDR first took office. The narrative arc of these chapters thus aims to apprehend the congressional, and thus southern, sources of this new American state, one whose advantages and potential pathologies still exist.