Destiny v. Democracy

David Runciman

  • BuyFear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson
    Norton, 706 pp, £22.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 87140 450 3

Casting around for kindred spirits in the blighted international landscape of the 1930s, Hitler looked fondly towards Dixie. What was not to like? The South was effectively a one-party state. In the 1936 presidential election, FDR’s Democratic ticket won 97 per cent of the vote in Mississippi, 99 per cent in South Carolina. In some counties no votes at all were recorded for Republican candidates. The figures compare very favourably with the 98.8 per cent the Nazis secured in their own national elections the same year. The difference was that Hitler used the coercive power of the state to secure an artificially high turnout (99 per cent of the German electorate was reported as having voted) whereas the Democrats used coercion to keep the turnout low. 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. This remarkably limited franchise was achieved by means of elaborate rules – including a poll tax – designed to make voting both difficult and expensive; it was backed up by threats of violence to anyone who challenged the status quo. The aim, of course, was to make sure the electorate remained exclusively white. Of the residents of Mississippi nearly half – roughly a million people – were black.

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