Katznelson summarizes the main currents of established New Deal histories while adding a new, convincing hypothesis of his own. The "southern cage" hypothesis places Jim Crow Democrats, devoted to the continuation of white supremacy in the south, as the gatekeepers of New Deal legislation. This "single party system" could torpedo any bill they felt threatened racial dominance, and southern Democrats used this leverage to shape the legislation that defined the period. This meant excluding African Americans from many of the New Deal's benefits, and, more enduringly, stripping as much power away from unions as possible. The south could not abide a union movement that sought to organize blacks alongside whites. The coalition between southern Democrats and northern Republicans that enabled this "southern cage", prefigured the conservative movement that was to begin in earnest a short generation later. Katznelson describes the state that emerged from this process as "Janus-faced", with one face defined by special interests, and the other defined by a crusading military enthusiasm.
This is a masterful work by political historian Ira Katznelson, the one book to read on the done-to-death topic of the New Deal. Its originality is in how Katznelson persuasively ties together several separate strands of contemporary American history: southern segregation, expansion of the federal government under FDR, Congressional logrolling, and Cold War foreign policy. By widening his lens to take in the 20-year period of the 1930s to the 1950s, Katznelson shows how America was saved from economic ruin by the New Deal, but at the cost of a "rotten compromise" with the Jim Crow south and the betrayal of equal black citizenship. Another legacy of the New Deal is a "two-sided state," one with both democratic advantages and "antidemocratic pathologies" both at home and abroad. Katznelson's book isn't some simple critique or contrarian revisionist take on the New Deal. His prose is full of admiration and analysis of how it literally saved American democracy and society. Instead, Katznelson tells a deeper story about the inevitable political costs and dark underside of the huge national transformation that was the New Deal.
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