Jefferson Cowie on Deindustrialization, Trade, and the 2016 Presidential Election

About this Episode

Guests
Jefferson Cowie

On this episode of History Talk, host Patrick Potyondy interviews Jefferson Cowie, the James G. Stahlman Chair in the Department of History at Vanderbilt University. Cowie has written extensively on American economic, racial, cultural, and political history, and is the author most recently of The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics. In this interview, Cowie helps make sense of the 2016 presidential election by discussing the connections between the collapse of the New Deal exception, populism as the primary driving force of change in American politics, immigration as a key political pivot, the long-term movement of manufacturing jobs from place to place, and international trade like NAFTA and the TPP. He also explains why today's political climate looks a lot like the 1970s, not only in the electoral arena but in pop culture, too.

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Patrick R. Potyondy , "Jefferson Cowie on Deindustrialization, Trade, and the 2016 Presidential Election" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
September, 2016
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/jefferson-cowie-deindustrialization-trade-and-2016-presidential-election?language_content_entity=en.
September, 2016

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy 

This is History Talk the podcast where we explore what's really going on behind the news. I'm your host, Patrick Potyondy. International free trade and along with it, the movement of what are called, "American jobs," overseas have featured heavily in the presidential election of 2016. The label, "deindustrialization" has even been thrown around to highlight what has happened to places like Detroit, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana. At the same time, issues of race and nationalism seem to constantly swirl along with these economic processes. The movement of jobs from one place to the next, and the effects that movement creates are not new, however. On today's episode, we interview historian Jefferson Cowie, who holds the James G. Stallman chair in the Department of History at Vanderbilt University. He's the author most recently of the book, "The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics" from Princeton University Press.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Let me first start with this idea of the great exception leading from the late 30s and 19 early 1940s, up through the early 70s. Union density goes up and then it goes down, inequality goes down, then it goes up wages go up, and then they go down. So it's really this this exceptional period I'm arguing.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

He's also authored the book "Capital Moves: RCA's Seventy Year Quest for Cheap Labor", and "Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class". During this presidential race, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in particular proclaimed similarly staunch opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, free trade deal or TPP, that is one of President Barack Obama's key programs. Hillary Clinton, originally fully supportive of the TPP has been pushed by her party to qualify her position. Presidential candidates have been trying to leverage some type of opposition to international free trade, which they blamed for the loss of American manufacturing, and thus the decline of many US cities. For example, in March 2016, Bernie Sanders tweeted quote, The people of Detroit know the real cost of Hillary Clinton's free trade policies, and claim that quote, 43,000 Michiganders lost their jobs due to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, a deal that came into being through broad bipartisan support in the 1990s, but which is now being pilloried on the campaign trail. In July, Donald Trump tweeted quote, to all the Bernie voters who wants to stop bad trade deals and global special interests, we welcome you with open arms, perhaps sensing an opportunity with many anxious Americans. Trump has also entwined nationalistic and racialized rhetoric in his professed answers to the challenges faced in the United States. Our guest today, Jefferson Cowie unpacks all of this to help us understand our political moment.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

When I go to the heartland, and I talked to people there, they just hold up NAFTA as the worst thing that ever happened in the world and that's why that political rhetoric resonates so strongly, even though I think the process was well underway beforehand, it continued afterwards, and it may have more to do with China and now than Mexico.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

We discussed the political and economic shift, he calls the great exception define the process deindustrialization, explore the role of populism and American change, question the influence of labor unions and explore why he sees similarities between the 1970s and today, we've got a jam-packed interview for you today. So stay tuned to History Talk.

 

Jefferson Cowie, welcome to History Talk. political candidates of all stripes really seem to look back to some kind of idealized economic past, we hear a lot of this in the rhetoric of the current presidential candidates, for example, right, But the reality here is a lot more complicated than they make out. So to start, I'd like to begin with your newest book, titled "The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics", which I think can really help us understand the foundation of that idealized past that there are talking about. What were the core characteristics of the New Deal, and then maybe introduce us to what you mean by this, quote, unquote, great exception?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Well, there's, there's a lot going on, to during this period to really boil it down quickly, but,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Definitely.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

 I think the shortest version would be this period in which a large number of working people were economically and politically incorporated into American life. You had a set of economic rights through Fair Labor Standards Act, Social Security, and the National Labor Relations Act and you had a party, there was a democratic party that was explicitly making a pitch for the economic interests of working people.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

led by Franklin Roosevelt, right?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Franklin Roosevelt, then on through Truman, Johnson, Kennedy and Johnson, and then it begins to fall apart. And I think that's, that's the short version, but when people talk about it as sort of the glory days, we have to be careful because it was specifically the enfranchisement of white male industrial workers.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Okay. And what do you mean by that? who ? Did it did some of these programs leave out other groups,

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Sometimes explicitly, as in the case of many of the New Deal programs, in order to get them past, they had to exclude occupations that were dominated by African Americans such as agricultural work and service and domestic work. The reason being they needed to win the south, the solid south, the white Dixiecrats was it would be called later and to do that they had to exclude African Americans and that was part of the package. Right. And that's one of the reasons I see it as a very weak package because you had it was based on, on exclusion.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And was that part of this kind of a great exception idea, kind of, if we're going to put this kind of in a broader, even broader context of a larger American history. What part of this kind of constitutes that great exceptions side of your book here?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Right. So let me first start with this idea, the great exception, if you if you look at as I have in the book, a few graphs of economic indicators of the post war era, you see this really surprising hump or trough leading from the late 30s and 19, early 1940s, up through the early 70s, Union density goes up, and then it goes down, inequality goes down, then it goes up, wages go up in and they go down, the amount of wealth, the top 1%, gets goes dramatically down, then goes way back up. So it's really this this exceptional period I'm arguing. Now what went into that, if you want to be reductionist, you could say it was just, you know, the economic boom, but there's been plenty of economic booms in a world history and a quote from my question is, why was this one shared? Better than most? Now, I'm, again, we just made clear that black people were left out for the most part,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

So when I say shared, I'm not talking about some sort of, you know, social democratic paradise.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right. Yeah. Everyone equally, or something like that.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

 Right, exactly. It just means that when the state looked at a question, it wasn't just what's good for business was also what's good for working people. And then, so how does this graph How does the question of race map on to that great exception? Well, in order for that, to get passed, we had to exclude African Americans and then when it falls apart in the late 60s and early 70s, one of the key drivers of politics becomes race.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Okay, so that that racial question lingers, then and you're saying it's going to be kind of one of the key characteristics for how this kind of New Deal sort of type of government is going to kind of fall apart?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Exactly. So you have to basically, in order for the in order for like, what this what Richard Hofstetter called the social democratic tinge to come to American politics, to suspend this core variable American politics, race relations.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And you see that really, as kind of the maybe the key variable, would you say?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

 I, you know, the interesting thing is the degree to which it really required a whole set of things coming together.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

 Okay.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

And I think perhaps the easiest to grasp for most people is immigration. The question of immigration is animating politics today in a very, you know, very virulent way, I think. And it did, in the end of the 19th century, as well, all through the first decade of the 20th century but then in 1924, we shut down immigration. So when the economic crisis of the New Deal hit, we actually there weren't large numbers of immigrants in this country. There were there were some who have only been here for 10-20 year, but for the most part, most of them had been here for at least 20. So it was a very different political moment and I really want to emphasize the politics of this. So you have a culture of unity that emerges from these things, but that culture, unity is based on exclusion. We don't have immigrants, we're excluding African Americans. So it's like a double edged sword. On the one hand, we're sharing the wealth of the nation better than ever. On the other hand, the politics of that sharing is based on the exclusion of some of the key thing, some of these key people.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right, yeah. So sharing for some, and maybe not all, and I kind of wanted to ask you also about, you know, this idea of populism here and the great exception, it's, this is a word, you know, populism that's been thrown around a lot in this presidential cycle and it you know, it seems to be something that, you know, the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders camps shared in common and so would you agree, and do you think populism played a role in creating or destroying this great exception?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Well, yeah, I do. It's, again, it's sort of subtle, I think populism should come as no surprise to people. I think it's, it's the dominant political voice of change in American history,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Oh Interesting.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

It has been for a long time. And you know, I think, you know, well, there's two ways of defining populism, of course, one is the narrow definition of the agrarian populist movement of the late 19th century and if you if you use that as a "Capital P" populism, then what I'm going to say, isn't going to resonate, but I'm more with Michael Kazin on this. This is broad discourse in American politics. It goes from Andrew Jackson all the way up to all the way up with Trump.  

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right, more of a style or rhetoric, maybe

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Exactly. Right, that deposits the virtue of the people against the corrupt interests and it tends to be very mushy and it looks to a restoration of the past Golden Age rather than some sort of technocratic future. It's suspicious of the elites, it is a virtue of the common man, in some way, tends not to be very specific and questions of class at class, but more people and so, so you see this, you know, really running through American history in the 1930s. Roosevelt isn't really, he's very, very popular, but it's not really a populist. He's running against populists like Huey Long, and Father Coughlin, and these guys, and is able to defeat them, but he's able to deal with a very specific technical legislation that does the trick. It's not sort of this, you know, Donald Trump, "we're going to, you know, we have these crazy plans to do these crazy things." Now, it's like, okay, "here is, here's the National Labor Relations Act."

 

Patrick Potyondy 

More kind of specific policy sets then? Answers to specific problems.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Right.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Okay. Okay. So oh, no, go ahead.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

No, no, I was just going to say. So the interesting thing about this is, you actually see a muted populism is fairly muted, I think in the post war period. You have McCarthyism, and everything, but then we know who's the populace figure that the reemergence, it's George Wallace, right in 68, really 64-68 and 72, in particular, that that the New Deal system begins to crumble around and because he begins to sort of unleash that old populist energy unleash the questions of race, and other issues that I talked about.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And so I want to move us along on to some other major issues here that I think are related and so again, you know, during this presidential election cycle here, Trump and Sanders had other things in common, right and I'm thinking particularly when it comes to attacking free trade agreements, and so sometimes in different ways, right, they both claim that deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA of the 1990s, and the TPP, the Trans Pacific Partnership, but also places like China, we're taking away American jobs and then even Hillary Clinton here who has been for TPP, and is now kind of adopting more of a standard stance here has sort of changed her position a bit, but political candidates have also then thrown around this label, quote, deindustrialization when we're talking kind of both about free trade, but also places like Detroit, right and so as politicians are kind of want to do they make this all sound really simple, and also kind of a recent process and so I'm wondering, though, if you can kind of help us define this term, deindustrialization. On one level, it's a process. Right? But what has characterized that process? Can you kind of help us understand this term?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah, I wonder, you know, I think there's a great question, Patrick and because I think it, it opens up an even more complicated set of questions, which is, is this still a valuable term?

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Okay great.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

because it's, you know, I mean, I, I've written a lot using that term, but I began to think maybe it's time to, to move on, but here's the deal. The first sort of use of this is actually Africa, during World War Two, when Nazi occupying forces would  deindustrialize conquered cities, they would strip it of its industrial power. And then but really, we don't, we really don't begin to see this term invoked until the 1980s, late 70s, a little bit, and then the 1980s and then it was synonymous with core basic industry, steel, primarily, some auto, other some chemicals, some oils and things like that, but really, it was  when the steel mills started going down 78 through the early 80s and, and then, you know, there's a big fight against shutdowns and these sorts of things but it's, it is an ongoing process that we see, you know, there's these dramatic moments when they're blowing up a, you know, a steel mill, that looks like it defined it forever, and, you know, some place in Pennsylvania, but really, what we're seeing is a much quieter processes going on, really, throughout the 20th century of the movement of industry. Say the textile industry moved from New England to the American South, in the first part of the 20th century and into the 1920s and, you know, so in capitalism mogul forever, but we don't really see begin to see the massive impact on a broad scale, until the 80s 90s and then when NAFTA is passed under Clinton, and 93, implemented 94. That creates this symbolic moment, the symbolic weight in which the Democratic Party has sort of codified globalization, the moving of jobs over abroad, specifically to Mexico in this case, but it becomes a political symbol. When I go to the heartland, and I talked to people there, they just hold up NAFTA as the worst thing that ever happened the world. And that's why that political rhetoric resonates so strongly with, you know, the Trump campaign and others, and Sanders, even though I think the process was well underway beforehand, in continued afterwards, and it may have more to do with China now than Mexico, but NAFTA is such a, it's a political moment where they a lot of people felt like, okay, the elites don't care about us anymore.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Do you think part of that was because, you know, by the 90s, right, you said, you know, the democratic Bill Clinton administration is who ultimately signed this in the law, is it because both Democrats and Republicans are now kind of backing the sort of free trade deals that you know, it's, it's Yes, the elites don't care about us anymore.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Right. And, and then, but the Republican Party is still getting traction on cultural issues, both parties, right, have really abandoned these people. There's a famous moment, 2008 where Barack Obama said at a fundraiser, I think it was in San Francisco, he said, you know, you go into these towns in Pennsylvania, and, and, you know, they were told it was going to get better under the Clinton administration, they were told it's going to get better under Bush, they were told, you know, and on, but it never did and for 25 years, they've been looking to God and guns and, and, and things like this and he got in a lot of trouble. But I think it's, you know, essentially true, they, they're still in that situation, nothing has really improved. In fact, we now have just absolutely jaw dropping information, including the fact that white working class, mortality rates are up and they're dying earlier, there's a reversal of the historic trend of people living longer among white working-class men in the Midwest. It's just it's just, there's this demoralization that has happened, the Nobel Prize researcher who found this trend that he's he actually said, he couldn't account for why this is happening but he speculated that this is a group of people who have lost the narrative of their lives, which is just so profound and so when you see somebody like Trump coming along and saying, I'm going to make America great, I'm going to restore everything. It resonates.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right. That's an appealing message, right?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Right. Exactly.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Yeah. And I think, you know, you really kind of look at the deep history here behind this sort of process, in your book "Capital Moves RCA's Seventy Year Quest for Cheap Labor", about this process of, you know, as you say, kind of major manufacturing jobs moving from one place to the next. But before it moved, kind of internationally with, you know, NAFTA is kind of the big symbol here. It moved within the United States, right. Can you kind of tell us a little bit about that process? And you know, when that occurred?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah, that was a fascinating finding for me, because I went out to basically tell the story that as I thought I understood it, which was, we had this, you know, post war settlement, which everything was great. And then it all fell apart when things began to move to Mexico. Well, I was begin, actually began my research in at a plant in Bloomington, Indiana that once employed 8,000 workers and they said, "Well, you know, yeah, it's opened in the 1930s because they, they thought we were a better labor force than New Jersey," and I was like "Really?"

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Wait. New Jersey, right?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah, I went to Camden, New Jersey and they had an enormous strike there in the 1930s, under the New Deal and when that was settled, management began to move production to what was essentially the Mexico of the 1940s and 50s, which was rural India.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Because the workers had unionized there in New Jersey, right?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

That's correct. Right. Right. Now unionized, The Unionists of the United Electrical Workers, which was one of the most radical unions in the United States,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

 Okay.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

 is actually communist lead at the time and then the pattern repeats itself, and they have an experiment in Memphis, Tennessee, that doesn't really work and then finally, in the 70s, they,  they go to Mexico, and of course, they go to Mexico long before NAFTA, is passed, so NAFTA, again, has a lot of symbolic weight, but in terms of, of actual corporate strategy, they're already there.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right? Yes. And that kind of signals that maybe the presidency and even the federal government here don't necessarily have that much control over this kind of huge economic process. Would you agree?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Well, I think they have a couple a couple of levers one. I mean, I understand what you're saying, and I'm not disagreeing completely. One is tariffs, obviously, you know, we did lower tariffs from you know, Smoot Hawley levels in the 30s of, you know, enormous tariffs to almost zero and so that's one level lever. But the other and I think this is a conversation, that's never really happened in the United States, it happened a little bit around the Battle in Seattle in '99. But that is, what kind of globalization do we want to have, right? There's the, are we going to have a social dimension to globalization. It's not just about the movement of goods and services and capital, but it's also about people, labor rights, environmental standards, all this kind of thing.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Because it seems to me that yeah, these kind of pro free trade, you know, sides here, whoever they may be Democrats, Republicans kind of talked about this as an inevitable process, something that, you know, we just, we can't stop it no matter what. But you're kind of implying that, you know, we there, there's some ability to maybe shape this.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Exactly. And it's not a yes, no binary. You know, when I was in grad school, this is going to date me terribly. I was in grad school when the NAFTA debate was underway, and people kept saying NAFTA, yes or no, I'm like, well, look, here's what you need to do, we need to think about how trade can work for everybody.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

 Right.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

 It's, you know, because no one's going to turn the clock back on globalization. It's just, you know, we're not going to, I think, autarky at this point is just not going to happen. But I do think that we could create a social foundation for a more equitable system in which, you know, factories aren't, aren't crumbling, and Bangladesh and killing, you know, untold numbers of people, right. It's so under what conditions do we do this? And I think one of the, another symbolic moment, at least for me is when China was led into the World Trade Organization, without any sort of test about labor rights or even democracy, democracy more broadly.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And, you know, in a kind of related point here, I think, you know, here in the United States, you know, every so often this issue of unequal pay between men and women is brought up in the news, but it's not really ever kind of explained properly, it seems to me, but your book here, Capital Moves, kind of found some interesting historical evidence on kind of what's maybe created this process or certainly what sustained the process? What did you find here and your research on this kind of gender issue?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah, that was another surprise thing for me was the way gender works in this capital mobility situation, what would happen is when they opened a plant, in whether it was Bloomington, or Memphis, or Sierra Juarez, which are the three of the four sites I studied, they would open with a very simple wrote production, just basic, like soldering, and things like that and they would hire young women, they'd hire young women, teenage women, in Mexico, that higher them in the US, it was the same thing, no matter where they went.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Okay.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

This isn't really associated with, again, with globalization, having young women in this sort of global assembly line, it's been going on a really long time. But then as production would develop, they would begin to bring in men and give men movement into higher skilled occupations and things like this is very, you know, very much based on a traditional domestic division of labor, where women would go out into the workplace, but then they would, when they came of age, they would allegedly, you know, go back to the family and raise kids and whatever.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

The social norms, right? 

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Exactly, thank you. Yeah. And then, but then they would recreate the process, move, move again, hire more young women, and then and then as the plant was there longer, more men would come along, and they would be paid more, obviously, and their skills would be developed. And so it was a very interesting sort of constant resetting of the clock, the clock of industrial relations, turning back time, but using women, in every case, young women, as the instrument for turning that clock back.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And, you know, speaking here of unions, and you mentioned earlier that, you know, after the Camden, New Jersey workers organized, that, then then RCA picked up and move to its next location, would you say, is it a fair charge that unions have been more or less powerless in in the face of this sort of economic transformation change? Or is that an unfair, you know, charge?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Well, they've certainly failed to meet the challenge.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Okay.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Um, you know, whether other tactics would have worked? I don't know. But yeah, I think you're right, that that, you know, they have proved, proved powerless. Yeah, I think that's true and especially as the democrats shifted more toward a free trade neoliberal worldview in the 90s, that the unions had very little purchase on trying to create an alternative and I think it's emblematic by the fact that I look at four sites in that book, four different cities, and there are four different unions. Each site has a different meaning. So it's really hard to create what's called pattern bargaining. So the UAW is, United Auto Workers, for instance, has pattern bargaining where it can set the way rate for the entire industry across all places in all companies.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

So all car makers here, right in the US, right?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Right. Labor costs this much,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

In auto. But if you have a fragmented union presence, as you did, in the case of RCA, you can't, it's very difficult to create a pattern bargaining and taking basically trying to take wages out of competition.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right, which kind of then allowed our state to kind of reset the clock each time they move. Right, reset the wages down really low and so you know, bringing up NAFTA again, here in the 90s, would you say a lot of the same kind of economic processes that we've been talking about stayed in play as before NAFTA came into effect. That is, you know, the search for this cheap labor, a passive workforce. Just now, it was across international boundaries, right, instead of state United States, you know, individual state boundaries.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah. And well, I mean, even in the 70s, production was going to Taiwan is going to Mexico, it was going to Puerto Rico.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right, okay, good.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

So there are a lot of places it was going it becomes accelerated codified, the official seal of approval happens with NAFTA, and then the World Trade Organization and, yeah, and then it just accelerates right, then it becomes the norm. It's not new, it's the way we do business. The mobility of capital is a constant thing. And then then it gets the system of production gets rejiggered into these production chains, right in which you know, the label or the vendor, the retailer, becomes drives the ship, and they can get their product made wherever, but the shoes that are at the Nike store, or whatever it is, is really driven by the brand and the merchandising and the production end is just sort of the tail end of things, we can get that done wherever the reversal of the way used to be where General Motors used to make cars, push them out into the world and the salesman sold them. It's very different now

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Tt's kind of almost, yes, slightly reversed in a way you can be more complicated than that, but a little bit,

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Right, you pull those sneakers off the shelf, and a whole series of things click into place electronically, where okay you know, some sneakers are sold in Columbus, Ohio and then it's told all the way down, out to Vietnam where "Okay, make another sneaker" and eventually makes its way back to Columbus, Ohio,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right and so these economic shifts we've been discussing, right deindustrialization, these free trade deals, also held really profound political and cultural consequences for the nation that we've really been discussing a little bit already and you really dissect these in your book, "Stayin Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class." But surely, I kind of want to ask the, you know, flip question, here, we still certainly have a working class today, or do we, and what do you mean by "its last days"?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Not enough people asked me that question. I, I think it's such a great question. And the title is supposed to force you to ask that question. But the number of reviewers and interviewers who have not really attacked that specific question I think.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

 Oh, that's surprising, okay.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

It's been troubling to me. Yeah. So here's the here's my answer, though. You're right. There is a working class out there, we could measure it in a variety of metrics, and it's getting worse for them. Wages are stagnant, precariousness of employment is way up, people are very anxious and concerned, jobs are moving, people are moving to more jobs. So the, you know, "the working class" is right there. We could just sort of measure it. But what I mean by the last days of the working class in the 1970s, is it it's the last time the working class existed in the public imaginary. It was part of our civic life, that we, that we had a place for them and how we considered political questions. So, so it's like, you can measure a working class and say, yep, there it is, you know,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

By like income or something? Right?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Whatever, choose your non-college education, whatever you want. But unless we're talking about it, unless it's part of who we imagine ourselves to be. It doesn't exist.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Yea. This is really fascinating. I wonder if you might think, you know, agree with that you know, today, you hear politicians really endlessly talking about how we really need to support the middle class, quote, unquote, and that's the phrase, but I always listened for a politician to also include the working class and they don't.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah, well, this is of course, the great the greatness of America, right, to we're, nothing but the middle class,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

That everyone's middle class. Right, right. Right.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah. And it's, but it is also interesting, if you go back and listen or read about how people talk about themselves, presented themselves with the way reporters talk. They said, we're working class a lot, right? In fact, it's a good example, the guy on the cover of that book, the names Dewey Burton, and it opened the book opens a little series of anecdotes about him as an autoworker and his politics. He was on some talk shows and radio shows and this and I went back to look,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

In the early 70s, right?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

In the early 70s, right. And everyone-- the workers the working class -- it's all over the place, and now you'll see it, and even the AFL CIO, talked about the middle class, sometimes working families, but people seem to be afraid of this term working class. And if you look, if depending on if you want to take a really crude metric, which is essentially non college educated people who are, work for wages rather than salary, talking 50-60% of the country. So, you know, we're not looking at just sort of, you know, whether they own TV sets, but you know, how much power they have in the job and what the prospects are for upward mobility. It's a pretty large number of people,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right. And so just before and soon after Hillary Clinton's kind of historic nomination here, just recently, there was a lot of talk around that time about if Bernie Sanders supporters would, in fact, actually vote for Clinton, or if they go and vote for Donald Trump and on one level, that sounds completely strange, but on another, it doesn't, it seems to me that there's kind of really, you know, these multiple factors going on in this really unusual election. All of that has really made me recall a great quote from your book Stayin' Alive from 1972, from an unnamed trucker who referring to his potential support for the southern segregationist and populist presidential candidate George Wallace, who we mentioned earlier, the trucker said, referring to Wallace, "I'm either for him or the communists, I don't care, just anybody who wouldn't be afraid of the big companies," and right after that, you mentioned how working class whites put, "This family will not be bused," bumper stickers on their cars. Now, not to necessarily draw a really direct straight comparison between Wallace and Trump or Sanders and, quote, unquote, the communists, but is there a fair analogy here. Can you unpack what you see going on there in this kind of 1972 election, in this kind of 1970s moment?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah, I actually think there's a lot of parallels. You know, there's the obvious parallels between Wallace and, and Trump and, you know, Wallace's pin campaign slogan was "Stand Up for America," and Trump says, "Make America Great Again."

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Okay. Fascinating.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Quite similar. But I think the other thing, that's if you want to get down to a more nuts and bolts level of this is what you're in both cases, you're seeing a political party falling apart and in 1972 when Wallace, there's an attempted says there's an assassination attempt on his wife in Maryland and at that point, when he had to withdraw from the race, the Democratic Party was evenly split in the primary between Humphrey, Hubert Humphrey, the sort of old schools, or Johnson, you know, kind of Great Society level, McGovern, the kind of lefty, social democrat, antiwar guy who was, you know, making alliances and civil rights in the student movements and the women's and then Wallace, who is kind of representing this heartland and southern, white working class backlash, and so you have a fragmented party that's lost its narrative, it's lost its mission plus its direction and out of that in this case,  McGovern is able to, you know, a different kind of outside candidate a more Sanders candidate actually is able to gain control the party at a time that if the party were had any kind of coherence, he probably wouldn't have. Well, same thing. I think, now, mechanically speaking, that the Republican Party, it’s lost his narrative, its law. It doesn't quite know what it stands for anymore, can only you know, sort of pound this anti status message so long and obstructionist message so long? And it's kind of run out of gas. And so it allows a fringe candidate like Trump to sort of rise to the top.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And do you see a similarity here at all between, you know, you said, you do think there's kind of some similarity here between the 70s and today, do you see some kind of similarities in the racial politics going on today with the kind of Black Lives Matter versus quote, unquote, all lives matter? And then that issue in the 70s? Over, you know, busting for school desegregation?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah. And, and double down on that as the immigration question. Oh, great. I highly racialized which. So I, just to go back to our earlier part of our conversation, we mentioned that immigration was for the most part closed off in 1924, well reopens in 65. Slowly.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right. Okay.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

70s and 80s, we begin to see by the 80s under Reagan, it becomes politicized again, and now of course, it's hyper politicized and often racialized So, yeah, it's, it's all of these issues that have been underground are popping back up and, and, and really make it hard for a sort of a multicultural working class vote to emerge and I think that's the big challenge today, but race Yeah, it's defined politics since reconstruction. Right. I mean, and it's, I don't think is, you know, I think it's extremely urgent, it's a moral priority of our time, but it's not new. And it is still a lot of work to be done for a while. In the 90s, it looked like maybe re you know, William Julius Wilson wrote, you know, the declining significance of race, and it sort of looked like, okay, maybe economics is all that really matters.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

 Right.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

And maybe if, you know, everybody has a job, and that the things could be better. But, you know, I'm, I think now we see, okay, races sort of its own variable. I mean, when you're seeing police killing African Americans in the streets, it's like, okay, this is, you know, its own thing that needs to be dealt with, irrespective of economics. Now, I think I think everybody having in the post war period, when the economy was really doing well, working people's expectations were rising, wages were going up, that there was more of a chance that people were going to share and I think that's when you begin to see the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, the gay rights movement, because it's sort of Boyd by the rising economic hope. Now, people are very pessimistic. There's much more of a zero-sum attitude economically, I think about what's going to happen, I'm going to get into, you're going to get it.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

So that creates in the end, Staying Alive. I say, we moved from a republic of security to a republic of anxiety and I, and it’s really kind of, if you're anxious, very hard to share with people who are not like you.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

I guess, that really insightful point and so to move on to the last question, about Stayin' Alive, as well And I really wanted to ask you this, this for a long time. You focused a lot on popular culture in this, throughout this book, as you know, the title suggests. And so one of my favorites from the era of the 70s, and 80s, is Bruce Springsteen song, "The River," which is just crushingly depressing. But what are some of your favorite examples of pop culture from the period that you found really captured the spirit of the time? And then maybe if you know, if you're willing, what or do you see some kind of other similar pop culture pieces from our own time that are representative of this kind of time of, you know, maybe anxiety as you put it?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Wow, you know, the 70s is so rich in popular culture, you know, obviously cinema and music and it was really a fantastic time because it was a time of ferment and decline. And the questions of the 60s are bursting onto the scene in the 70s and nobody really knows where we're going and so that's a great idea.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And I think like our urban problems, too, in particular, really rise to the top you know, I'm thinking of like, “Taxi Driver” and things like that.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah, all the Scorsese stuff, all the, you know, yeah, it's all that urban decline and, and so yeah, so what am I? Well, obviously, I have for a long time been an unreconstructable Bruce Springsteen fan. So “The River” was actually the first tour I saw.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Oh, wonderful, great.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Of Bruce and then I took my son, actually, to The River Revival Tour.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Oh, that's great.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

 Yes, it was fun, but I digress.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Well, it sounds like that, you know, that tour there is leading your favorites here?

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah, yeah, this is the song "The River" in particular always felt like something I was personally escaping from my own background. But you know what, I think cinema graphically overlooked is Dog Day Afternoon, absolutely, love everything about that movie and you know, Pacino is, is brilliant and vulnerable in a way he isn't later, you know? He becomes kind of a blathering loudmouth, but there he's just such a great character and it's all based on an actual bank robbery. Like almost scripted, almost pulled right out of the actual events that happened. And just in an absurd set of circumstances with, you know, this ridiculous robbery was guy’s is trying to finance a sex change operation for his male wife, while his female wife is home. It's just, you know, it's just such a 70s kind of story. Everything is a ball of confusion, right and, and I’m particularly fond of that. And Saturday Night Fever, it's just a great film. You know, I really liked it.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Yes, solid. It definitely, you know, stands today still, I think.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah, yeah. Right. And, and I think what's interesting about a lot of those things, is this sort of this mixing in the 70s, cinema, this hope and despair, almost everything has this kind of, you know, are we going to get out of this place? Or we're going to be stuck here? And, and that's the defining question, the 70s I think, for a lot of people, and now, you know.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Is that a similar question for today? You know, I kind of think when you said that kind of hope and despair, and it makes the thing that I kind of point you for today is you know, The Wire the series. Yeah, from HBO is kind of representative and, you know, it's maybe heavier on the despair, but certainly offers some of those moments of hope as well.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Yeah, I, I love The Wire. I think The Wire is fantastic. And I'm a big fan of David Simon's work in general. And I the interesting thing about The Wire, and I well, I think it has a lot of ‘70s aesthetics, actually.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Okay, fascinating.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

I think it is sort of their kind of Scorsese elements of that updated, but the problem in terms of hope for The Wire, you sort of have this stalemate, where the cops are corrupt, the state's corrupt, the news anchors are corrupt, the unions are trying to do the right thing, but they're corrupt for the wrong reasons. You know, they're corrupt for the right reasons and the bad guys are corrupt. So it's all these sort of like corrupt institutions facing off against each other. But you have these moments of humanity in each group that are just, really, quite lovely, right? I mean, when somebody like Omar who's just comes across as a savage guy, at first becomes just this deeply humane person. It's, it just can't be beat. It's good stuff. The thing that worries me about pop culture today is just sort of apocalyptic stuff, you know, like the end of the world.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

You know, there's this, or the superhero stuff, which is kind of a constant, but it always looks for this, you know, outside force. It's somehow going to save something or, you know, I think we don't really have a narrative of how we deal with this is it's mostly fatalistic. I think we're here we're stuck. This is what it looks like.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

In the worst terms possible, really.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

Right. Exactly.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right. Well, that's a fun point to end on. I think so. So all our listeners have their homework set out, go find Dog Day Afternoon and go watch The Wire if you haven't seen those two already. Jefferson Cowie, thank you so much for appearing on History Talk.

 

Jefferson Cowie 

I had a great time. Thanks, Patrick.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Jefferson Cowie is the James G. Stallman Chair in the Department of History at Vanderbilt University. He is the author most recently of the book, "The Great Exception: The New Deal and The Limits of American Politics" from Princeton University Press. He is also author of the books "Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy Year Quest for Cheap Labor" and "Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class." And he has co-edited the volume, "Beyond the Ruins: The Meaning of Deindustrialization." This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the public history initiative and the Goldberg Center in the History Department at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle, our executive producer is David Staley, our audio technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer, our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcast and more at origins.osu.edu, on iTunes, and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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