Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time” as Want to Read:
Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  443 ratings  ·  77 reviews
Redefining our traditional understanding of the New Deal, Fear Itself finally examines this pivotal American era through a sweeping international lens that juxtaposes a struggling democracy with enticing ideologies like Fascism and Communism. Ira Katznelson, “a towering figure in the study of American and European history” (Cornel West), boldly asserts that, during the 193 ...more
Hardcover, 720 pages
Published March 1st 2013 by Liveright
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Fear Itself, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Fear Itself

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
3.94  · 
Rating details
 ·  443 ratings  ·  77 reviews

More filters
Sort order
There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny. -Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Speech to the Democratic National Convention, 1936

In political conversations with progressives, I have often heard the complaint that President Obama should have instituted another New Deal. Today, the New Deal is held up as a triumph of liberalism and reformist politics, and a major contribu
Peter Mcloughlin
This book is a general political history of the United States from 1933 to 1953 when New Dealers dominated the politics of the U.S. It was also the heyday of Totalitarianism from Hitler's Germany to Stalin's Russia. It was a time when most intellectuals doubted the ability of liberal democratic states to be viable systems. The New Dealers had to contend with these authoritarian currents and remake capitalism after the crash of 29. The transformed our government giving labor a place at the table ...more
Aaron Arnold
May 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
The South has had an oversized influence on American history, rarely for the better. For a number of reasons (the culture of the initial Scotch-Irish founding population, the more aristocracy-friendly agricultural economy, the harsh system of racial apartheid), the South has remained stubbornly distinct as a society, and its representatives in the federal government have been ferocious about opposing any initiatives they saw as counter to the South's interests and values. Katznelson's focus here ...more
Jun 03, 2013 rated it it was ok
I'm probably judging this book too harshly—it's clear that Katznelson is a brillant historian and I definitely learned a lot while reading this book. Much of his argument centered on how much of the New Deal was shaped by the motivations of Southern segregationists and how many of the policies enacted were more beneficial to white Americans than they were to black Americans.

But he also examines America's place in the world at a time when it was less clear that democracy was the way. Fascism, co
Apr 01, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Although flawed, I really enjoyed this book, a look at the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman from two perspectives: the influence of fear on government policy and the need for what Katznelson calls "dirty hands" to accomplish the government's goals.

The fear portion, though, is weaker and doesn't always blend as well with the "dirty hands" theme. I think the book would have been stronger had the author focused on one or the other.

The first dirty hand we learn about is the relian
May 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This fascinating account of US political history between 1931 and 1951 looks at events from the perspective of the elected political class in Congress and Senate, and produces a very distinctive impression compared with histories focused on the actions of presidents Roosevelt and Truman. It was a period of radical changes, in the forms of the New Deal, the conduct of the Second World War and, later, the evolution of the “Security State” as a product of the Cold War, but the executive did not ach ...more
Jan 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a complex book that was not what I expected when I started reading it. Still, it is a very good book, even if it is oddly structured.

The book focuses on the New Deal, defined rather broadly as lasting until the Eisenhower Presidency. Roosevelt is not mentioned much however and this book is actually a congressional history more than anything else. It is a rich argument and at times it is hard to tell the author's feelings towards Roosevelt and his legacy. The basic premise is that the New
Gordon Hilgers
May 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Finally, a book that details how Congress helped Roosevelt both save the liberal democratic tradition in America and face-off and beat the holy hell out of four "anti-liberal" one-party totalitarian states. Katznelson's book is heavily-annotated in that almost one third of the total pagination is devoted to citations and additional notes, but the writing itself is impeccable. The author, an esteemed professor of history at both Columbia and Cambridge, really plumbs the sheer necessity of Liberal ...more
Jun 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
Thoroughly researched political history of the New Deal. Katznelson focuses on the politics of how the form of the New Deal was formed and its symbolic and material shaping of the United States. His centralizing of Congress and of political contestation reveals the central importance of Southern politicians and institutionalized white supremacy in New Deal lawmaking and mythmaking. This book shines when it unravels how the New Deal marked the apotheosis of the South's reintegration into national ...more
Joseph Stieb
Aug 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
A challenging and interesting book that took h*ckin forever to listen to (yes I did that).

Katznelson brings all kinds of new perspectives into this non-linear history of the New Deal. Two of them are particularly worthy of mention. The first is Katznelson's global framing of the New Deal. The Great Depression and the interwar period were probably the lowest point in 20th century history for liberal democracy and liberal ideas of progress. The fascists and communists had their own answers to the
Dec 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
I read Katznelson's other book, When Affirmative Action Was White--which was fantastic. But after that one, this was repetitive. It's still good.
Aug 31, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Revisionist history of the New Deal that illustrates a couple of little known elements that affected the establishment of the New Deal and its aftermath into the early 1950s. Indeed, in Katznelson's view, the New Deal extended through World War Two and into the early days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The little-known elements were how the high degree of fear in the general population and among political leaders created by the Great Depression led to the questioning of the legitimacy of ...more
Jonathan Bradley

From American Review issue 14

The advantage any student of history has over the objects of her study is that she already knows how their story ends. The actors under scrutiny, however, are operating blind. This lack of precognition provides a critical context for Fear Itself, Ira Katznelson’s sprawling account of the United States during the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman presidencies.

“The only thing we have to fear”, in Roosevelt’s inaugural formulation, was fear itself, and it’s tempt

Fear Itself is an examination and explanation of effect that Dixiecrats (southern democrats) - with their all-pervasive focus on race and keeping the 'southern racial order' (of the pre-Civil Rights Movement) intact - had on New Deal era politics, and how the foundation of New Deal era politics have in turned laid the foundation for twenty-first century politics.

This was an interesting read. I had heard a bit about how the political platforms of the two major parties in the US used to be pretty
Joshua Buhs
May 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
History on the grand scale.

Ira Katznelson hopes to give us a new view of the New Deal, one that is both vast and intimate. And he succeeds.

Katznelson wants us to understand the New Deal as on par with the French Revolution in redefining the powers and objectives of a modern state—The New Deal saved capitalism from itself, and also saved liberal democracy, even while having to make compromises with illiberal forces, compromises that also went in to the redefinition of the state. We are still livi
Robert Owen
Dec 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
“Fear Itself” is a retelling of New Deal history from a perspective of social, political and economic context, power politics and race. With certain caveats, I found the book contributed significantly to my understanding of America as it was and, by historical extension, how it is now.

Katznelson defines the New Deal as the period bookended by the onset of the Great Depression and the beginning of the Roosevelt administration on the one side and the dawn of the Cold War and the end of the Truman
Adam Maxwell Goch
Wonderfully discomfiting

This book traces the long and difficult path to creating a better America. It was a path marked with horrendous trade-offs — with Stalin, with racist southern politicians, and with backwards Republicans who lacked an understanding of the role of the state in a modern economy. It helped me understand how we arrived in our absurd political moment, but also what’s possible when we think beyond the narrow confines of dominant political norms.
Jan 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
I thought I knew quite a bit about the new deal from reading books about the executive branch--bios of FDR and Eleanor and also Frances Perkins. This book really deepened my knowledge and gave me a new perspective. Ira Katznelson is a political scientist (not a historian!), and his focus here is largely on Congress. The oversized personalities and styles of famous new deal leaders are not of primary interest to him. A big part of the story is about about how southern Democrats--again and again-- ...more
Jun 16, 2013 rated it it was ok
I really wanted to like this book but found that it ultimately was fits of fantastic insights largely interspersed with dense and uninteresting argumentation. The basic thesis of the book is a fascinating one--about how the fears related to race, global warfare and violence, and the ability of democracies to compete with dictatorships ultimately shaped the New Deal era especially through the effect of those three things on Congress. Some of the later chapters talking about how these characterist ...more
Jul 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
"Fear Itself" is an excellent book that will make any fan of American history or public policy think differently about a pivotal, if increasingly distant, era in history. Written by a political scientist at Columbia, "Fear Itself" traces the history of the "long" Neal Deal, defined as spanning from the election of FDR in 1932 to the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. The central argument is that the events of that period called into question the very future of liberal, legislative democracy. ...more
This history places FDR’s New Deal program in the context of a broader post-Depression global system in which authoritarian Fascist and Communist political regimes were presenting themselves as uniquely well-positioned to respond to the era’s economic and political crises in a way that democracy was not. New Deal architects borrowed economic planning techniques from these regimes to build a new American regulatory state that was further strengthened by the onset of World War II, but did so in a ...more
Apr 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Simply brilliant. Not a straightforward history of the Roosevelt-Truman era - David Kennedy remains the go-to source for the Roosevelt years - but a reconceptualization of the New Deal that argues that the survival of liberal democracy ultimately depended on alliances with deeply illiberal forces in the American South, the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, Nazi scientists spirited away from Europe at the end of the way (mentioned in passing but Katznelson could have made more of this). Katz ...more
Apr 19, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Look, this guy (the author) did some research - A LOT OF RESEARCH. Unfortunately, I was apparently not his target audience. I would say "My Bad," but it's more the publisher's bad, because this was promoted at a Barnes and Noble along with mainstream history books for he general public, but it belongs in a college bookstore. It is Academia through and through. For serious Poli Sci readers. It was way too dense for a poor lay reader like myself. My apologies to the author for being a little too l ...more
Charles Stephen
Mar 22, 2013 rated it liked it
reexamination of the New Deal Era with detailed analyses of the voting records of the Southern bloc of Senators and Congressmen. In the main their votes were the mainstay of FDR's initiatives to cope with the Depression and World War II. They withdrew that support whenever they felt legislation would threaten Jim Crow in the South.
A very good book if you are interested in political economy, and how the US arrived at the present time. Terribly sad in places, however.
Oct 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Katznelson's book is a history of how the New Deal was crafted and the compromises made in order to get its programs into law. Those contradictions both limited the potential of the New Deal and ultimately set up later destruction of the New Deal coalition. However, Katznelson argues that the survival of liberal democracy seemed very much in doubt when FDR took office, as it seemed unable to deal with the breadth of the Great Depression's economic devastation on the United States in particular. ...more
Jun 30, 2018 rated it liked it
Author Katznelson puts the New Deal in a greater context than what is taught (certainly bigger than I was taught) in US high schools. The international and national stage, the time period of history, what it was like for people in the United States, the work it took to get it through Congress and more. We learn exactly how much "fear" in its various forms played a role in how the New Deal was shaped.

Katznelson takes us through the story by theme: from what was going on in other places around the
Dan Gorman
Nov 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Thought-provoking but somewhat disjointed, this book reads like a collection of incisive essays about the New Deal Era. Ira Katznelson succeeds in showing how racism and moral flexibility on the part of American politicians (especially Southern Democrats) compromised the New Deal's promise. American foreign policy during and after WWII reflected this willingness to put the balance of power before moral positions such as racial equality. Some of the events discussed here seem like they would be b ...more
Dec 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I bought this book because Ta-Nehisi Coates mentioned it in a Twitter thread of recommendations for reading about race in America. There was a lot in this book to absorb. At points it made me feel sad and hopeless but it also reminded me that progress is slow, halting and not without setbacks. It helped me further understand the historical context with which people are speaking when they say racism is institutionalized in this country. In addition to being an excellent source of information it w ...more
Oct 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
When we learn about the New Deal, A lot of details get pushed aside. How was FDR able to pass such legislation for a nation that while it wasn't as divided as we are now, still had a lot of differences, regionally. Katznelson gets into the Faustian moves that FDR had to do in order to pass the sweeping legislation. Did the US have to sell it soul to make things happen? It's hard to say, and I'm not sure if cats Nelson also completely answers that question, but in this book we find a lot of roots ...more
« previous 1 3 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War
  • Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History
  • The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
  • Age of Fracture
  • Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940
  • Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class
  • River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom
  • Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War
  • Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860
  • Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right
  • The New Deal: A Modern History
  • War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865
  • Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty
  • What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America
  • Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877
  • Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy
  • Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America
See similar books…
“political life came to be dominated by a pattern of interest-group politics that the era’s political scientists came to call “pluralist,” a form of democracy marked more by competition among organizations and lobbyists than by a sense of the public interest.” 1 likes
More quotes…