Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.blog

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

Written by: Ira Katznelson

Narration by:  Scott Brick



“Fear Itself” has become cliché and authors of FDR’s administration are as plentiful as pixels on an HD screen.  However, Ira Katznelson offers a sharpened image of a past and present that threatens American democracy.  Don’t succumb to panic. Life is life. It demands compromise.

The Biden/Trump differences in governance are legion. Today’s political climate is reminiscent of America’s civil war and great depression. Though Biden may or may not be up to the task, the nation needs a healer and leader more like Lincoln or FDR, than Andrew Johnson or Jackson.


Katznelson argues that FDR’s New Deal to pull America out of depression would have never passed Congress without support of the segregated south. He implies that FDR views murder and discrimination of blacks a lesser threat to American Democracy than failure of the American economy.

The threat posed by the fictional “House of Cards” President, Frank Underwood,
plays out in fiction and reality. One might argue that FDR sacrifices black America to gain political clout. America’s benighted pretender to a throne, Donald Trump, seems to endorse a similar morality.

Katznelson suggests economic stimulus from the New Deal accelerates recognition of black equality.

Maybe, but that is similar to President Trump’s rationalization for Saudi Arabia’s assassination of Khashoggi.

To assure the south’s support FDR ignores lynching and degradation of black Americans during his first years as President.  Similarly, President Trump willfully disregards the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Because the south believes the New Deal poses no threat to their belief in white supremacy, they voted as a near unanimous block to support FDR’s administration.  Black discrimination and murder did not disappear then (or now) but the New Deal changes the course of history.


Some argue the New Deal bends the arc of the moral universe toward justice (a pronouncement in 1860 by Theodore Parker and made famous by Martin Luther King). Other’s may argue it prolongs discrimination.

Katznelson argues that the great depression and FDR’s response raises the power of labor through job creation and unionization.  A consequence is to create a march for labor’s special interests that influence public policy in a way that endorses democratic ideals of free trade and competition. 

Unions eventually get a seat at the table of major corporations and public policy boards.  With that seat, arguably, the arc bends toward justice.  Of course, there are many seats at the table that frequently out vote minority interests. However, as Katznelson notes–the door for Union influence is opened as a result of FDR’s administration.

Katznelson’s point is that principles of Adam Smith, promulgated for the private sector, are translated into the public sector as a result of the New Deal and America’s mobilization for WWII.  The myth of the invisible hand is extended to government.

Of course, the addition of competition to the public sector is dual edged.  Though it helps level the playing field between public and private interests, it opens a Pandora’s box of problems.  As the myth of Pandora’s box is known, only hope remains when emptied of its content.

The invisible hand is largely a myth, but competition is real. As labor and minorities gain power, their seat at the table allows them to be heard.  On the one hand being heard is a first step in bending the curve toward justice. On the other, the mythical invisible hand favors industry over labor.


Money is power.  Most special interests that sit at a public policy table are focused on singular (usually corporate); not general public interests. 

Government agencies can have their funding cut at the behest of elected officials.  Katznelson notes how the southern bloc in the FDR years fails to support many social reforms because of their interest in separation of the races.

Only the fear of a common enemy seems to mitigate (not eliminate) discrimination in the United States. The “common enemy” trope is two edged. It is as likely to mislead as lead to moral and/or ethical decisions.

As an example of misleading the public, President Trump uses the “common enemy” trope to exaggerate immigrant criminality.

Southern Democrats begin siding with Republicans to combat unionization and equal opportunity for all.  Many of FDR’s attempts to create jobs are sidelined because they compete with private sector manufacture or offer equal opportunity for employment to minorities. 

Katznelson explains how the Department of Labor is stymied by Republican opposition and Southern representatives.  By insisting on State’s rights, the South can continue discriminating against minorities and private sector entrepreneurs can subvert federal interference in employment law.


Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in Truman’s home town sets the table (a common enemy trope) for an American black list that ruins a number of American lives. 

JOSEPH McCARTHY (1908-1957)

Now that government policy is influenced by special interests, communist hunters like Senator McCarthy look for ways to exploit American fear of a communist takeover. 

The seeds for the Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism are planted with the beginning of the cold war.

Katznelson’s theme is “Fear Itself” and how it is used to interfere with the moral universe’s curve toward justice. Katznelson explains how important a role the south plays in determining public policy. 

“Fear Itself” is Donald Trump’s hole card, his uncovered ace in a game of chance.  Trump gambles with the fate of America by creating fear of terrorism, Muslims, Mexicans, and immigration.


Terrorism is real but Trump’s use of fear is disingenuous.  His ambition is the power and prestige of office; not protection of America from terrorism.  Trump is the Senator McCarthy of our time. 

Katznelson is another historian proving the irrelevance of history because we keep repeating ourselves.  We forget the past and blunder down the same path, tripping and falling, leaving more blood and pain borne by the children of our future.

America needs to invest in its future. A 3.5 trillion dollar investment today will raise the standard of living for all those who have lost their jobs in manufacturing. They are not just tech jobs. They are jobs for infrastructure repairs, helping working families cope with the rising costs of child care, jobs for care of ageing parents’ health, work force’ retraining jobs, and jobs in education for future generations.

The world is adjusting from an industrial to a technological revolution. That transition requires investment in those who have lost their jobs in industry. Child care, elder care, and training for new jobs in a changing employment environment is worth much more than a 3.5 trillion dollar investment.

Author: chet8757

Graduate Oregon State University and Northern Illinois University, Former City Manager, Corporate Vice President, General Contractor, Non-Profit Project Manager, occasional free lance writer and photographer for the Las Vegas Review Journal.

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