GLENN ALTSCHULER: Hello. And welcome to the Faculty Forum of the Cornell University CyberTower. My name is Glenn Altschuler. And I'm the host of a monthly discussion with a faculty member about a subject that he or she is interested in. My guest today is Jeff Cowie, who teaches in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. Good afternoon, Jeff.
JEFF COWIE: Good evening, Glenn.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Jeff, we're going to talk today about your current research, which concerns the decade of the 1970s in the United States. But I'd like to take a moment before we do that to talk a bit about a new position that you've taken at Cornell as house professor and dean of the soon to be opened Keeton House on campus. This, as many of our viewers know, is part of our residence initiative on the West Campus. It is the fourth residential house. Why don't you talk a little bit about what you're planning and what you're looking forward to? The Keeton House will open formally in the fall of 2008.
JEFF COWIE: That's right. And we're just in the process of making plans on how we're going to proceed with our agenda there. I say we, because it's really going to be a partnership with my family. And I'm working with the other house professors and deans from the three houses in existence. And we're really excited about trying to meld intellectual and residential life in new and exciting ways.
And one of the things that's always in the back of my mind with taking over this job that I'm really thrilled to try and do is to challenge students a little bit to explore their lives a little bit more creatively. It feels like they come in with a set template. And it begins to look more like a rut after a while. And I'd like to help them see the world in broader terms. That would be my big agenda.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And so you and your wife and your kids will move in this summer.
JEFF COWIE: That's right.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And you'll be doing a lot of planning, will you not, both with student and staff and faculty? Because it's my understanding that in Keeton House, as in all of the other houses, there are 25 or 30 of faculty Fellows who are not living in but who are connected to the house.
JEFF COWIE: That's right. One of the central goals of the West Campus initiative is to increase faculty-student interaction in small settings-- not the big lecture halls, not in office hours, but in small groups. And so one of the major innovations of this initiative is to have not just faculty living there, faculty setting the temper, the mood of the place, and having students govern it as much as possible, but also having a wide array of faculty from around the campus be affiliated with it-- dining with them, having small seminars, talks, outings, a whole group of interactions that will allow students to faculty as intellectually but as human beings as well. And I really find from previous experience that it's those day-to-day, casual interactions where a lot of real exchange happens. And I'm really excited about helping to build the foundation for that.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Well, as you know I'm a faculty Fellow myself in Hans Bethe House. And I have a sense that the house system, which has only been in operation for a few years, is already making a significant difference in breaking down that divide, that 4:30 or five o'clock divide, where faculty and students go their own way. And now more and more, there's a more normal and I think a more interesting set of interactions and relationships between faculty and students.
JEFF COWIE: Yeah. I started out as a house Fellow with Alice Cook House. And I already stumble-- I was just in Olin Cafe the other day. And I sat down next to a student who I had sat down next to at a dinner there. And we ended up talking politics. And it's exactly-- the plan is unfolding exactly as we had hoped. And it's a great initiative. But it's a real challenge, too. Because I think it's not going to unfold naturally. I think we're really going to have to be very conscious in how we proceed with this.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah. The culture has to be changed.
JEFF COWIE: Exactly.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And that culture involves students as well as faculty and their assumptions about what they do and what they are interested in and how they spend their time. And we should mention that Keeton was a legendary professor of biology, famous for a large and wonderful introductory biology course and a textbook that he wrote that was used around the country. All of the houses in the West Campus initiative are named for great and deceased professors, we should say.
JEFF COWIE: Yeah, and which is reflective of the broader sensibility of this initiative, and that is these aren't named after donors, as important as they are to this initiative, but faculty members that really made a difference in people's lives. And that's one of the exciting things about that. And Professor Keeton was also-- among the traits you mentioned-- he's also famous for something that I think is interesting, is he studied pigeons and why they come home, which is something I had never really considered that much, not being much of a biologist myself. But I've since listened to his lectures, which are available online. And they are very fascinating. Yeah.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah. All right. Why don't we turn now to your own research? You are an historian. You also deal with issues connected to labor, working class, and politics. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your background? And how did you come to identify those interests?
JEFF COWIE: Well, I think it was Jackson Lears, among others, who said that all history is autobiography. And for me, that's certainly the case. I grew up in a little bit of a blue collar town, little side of the town. And sort of class inequalities grew to become a key marker in our town and in my awareness of how the place worked.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: What was your town?
JEFF COWIE: It was a little town in the Midwest called Crystal Lake, Illinois. Yeah. And it's now sort of been absorbed into Chicago land. And it tended to inform how I began to think about things. And then the more I began to actually study it a little bit academically, and I became fascinated with both the contradiction in some ways between the abstract sort of traditional radical ideal of the working class and the multitude of contradictions that are contained within that at the same time, right, and fostering a bit of a discussion in the conflict between those two problems.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And your first book, Capital Moves, was about dislocation and relocation in a major American industry.
JEFF COWIE: Right. I studied one firm, the Radio Corporation of America, and its relocation strategies throughout the 20th century. And it's basically a comparative social history of capital migration, why the firm chose one community, what changed in that community, and why it selected another community-- and across North America, three cities in the United States and one in Mexico. And it was, in some ways, the exact opposite of the type of study I'm trying to do now. This was a sort of guerrilla research, crawling around in people's attics and pulling out old documents about what happened in these communities a long time ago, and really trusting the memory of a lot of oral history and things like this, whereas trying to tell the story of an entire decade is a different challenge, where I have file drawers and file drawers on one piece of legislation.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And now you've decided to look at the 1970s. Now why the 1970s, Jeff? My generation-- I'm just a tiny bit older than you are.
JEFF COWIE: No one's counting.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Of course is a generation for whom the 1960s is usually regarded as seminal. Many of us also think about the era of Ronald Reagan and the 1980s as also pivotal in American history and in American development. So why the 70s, which is, if not a forgotten decade, one that we don't quite have the same easy handle on?
JEFF COWIE: That's exactly right. I mean, it's more often mocked than anything else than taken seriously. But I think you set it up perfectly. On the one hand, you have the 1968 Democratic Convention and 1968 [INAUDIBLE] conceived this decade of radical change and potential on the one hand and then the rise of Ronald Reagan on the other end. And we often fail to stop to think, well, what happened in between?
And that's what I'm interested and that's what I'm attracted to in the 1970s, is it's a decade of transition. It's a time of transition. I'm not even sure it's a decade. But it's a period of transition, where the nation-- a lot like it did in the 1930s-- pivots in a new direction. And I think it's really the foundation of our own time.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Let's talk about an inside baseball historians' dilemma--
JEFF COWIE: Uh-oh.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: --which is the dilemma of periodization of redefining a decade. Now, when I teach my courses in American popular culture, I tell the students that the 1950s began in 1946 and ended in 1963. And the 1960s began in 1963 and ended in 1975. Am I eating away at the 1970s too much by doing that?
JEFF COWIE: Well then I'm guessing that your 1980s began in '78, which means the '70s were three years.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: That's right.
JEFF COWIE: Yeah. This is a common problem. I basically think to consider decades as a sense of periodization is close to ridiculous. They're a shorthand that we throw around for a set of ideas that rarely match the 10 years of 1960 to 1970. And in fact, this study works more or less from '68 to '82. And I'm less worried about trying to define a decade than I am this social political rupture that happens. So I often refer to the '70s as half post '60s and half pre-'80s.
And the decades you just mentioned, you have a cohesive narrative for what happened between '46 and '62 or two or whatever it was you said. The narrative I have of the '70s is actually putting the rupture in the middle, the breakage in past political traditions right in the middle of it.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: So is it then-- would it be fair to say that the 1970s begins in hope and ends in disillusionment?
JEFF COWIE: I think that is a very fair assessment. This book actually has naturally evolved into two parts or two books within one book. And the first one is called Hope in the Confusion. And the second one is called Despair and the Order. And my son asked, are those Star Wars movies' titles? And I think that actually gels with the era as well, was Star Wars was really an attempt to build a little bit of hope in the late '70s.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: But Jeff, now we think about 1968 as in many ways a catastrophic year for the United States. It's the year of assassination of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It's the year of police in the streets of Chicago and the disastrous Democratic Convention. It's the year that just precedes the Tet Offensive and the debacle in Vietnam. So how do you get from there to hope in the first half of what you're calling the 1970s? What's the nature of the optimism or the hope that is generated? And who are the hopeful people in that period?
JEFF COWIE: That's a very fair question. The '60s happened for most working people in the 1970s. It moved away from the key battlegrounds of Berkeley and Ann Arbor and Columbia and Memphis and Selma and those iconic locations in the 1960s to the proverbial Peoria in the 1970s. And so now the issues of race and gender and what is the government about have moved into communities of working people. And there's a bit of a delay. And of course, that's layered in with a shrinking economic climate.
So on the one hand, you have sort of a sense of an expansive cultural moment happening in the context of a shrinking economic period. And it makes for a very volatile time period. And I really think that the nation as a whole is in a very deeply conflicted mood in the early '70s. And one of the places I look is the labor movement. And what we often don't know about is the biggest strike wave since 1946 happened in the early '70s-- massive democratization movements within the labor movement that had grown a little stale by then and a lot of insurgencies around race and gender and public sector organizing, other forms of organizing, organizing the South. And all this was sort of moving on at the same time that more or less collapses by '74 with the oil shocks.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Are those strikes born of optimism or--
JEFF COWIE: Are they more defensive?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Despair. Or are they more defensive?
JEFF COWIE: I think there's a great deal of hope. There are people actually saying in the early '70s that-- let me back up a minute. The degree to which things change mid decade is extraordinary. I didn't realize this at all until I started reading the documents, in that you can feel the mood of the nation switch between '73 and '75. It's really palpable. And prior to that, you heard people talking about melding the energy of the '30s and the energy of the '60s into a new synthesis. And it was really going to take over and really march through these blue collar communities, and that the new social movements and the old labor unions were going to create a new shared agenda. And like I said, this falls away very rapidly.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: A brief autobiographical note which I think supports what you're saying-- I graduated from college in 1971. And I was also in the first cohort that got a draft lottery number. But the observation I would make that's relevant to what you're saying is that for my buddies in the class of 1971, not one of them was worried about a job. Not one of them had what I would call the kind of employment anxiety that certainly now is such a fixture of the college generation but that may also be an artifact of the oil shocks and the ensuing period that is the second half of your 1970s.
JEFF COWIE: That's right. Inflation is beginning to creep in-- '70-- Richard Nixon basically begins to say inflation is now our number one priority. It's more important than unemployment, which is a shift. It had always been unemployment in the Keynesian logic. It's more important than inflation. And that post-war expansive perspective is still very much alive in the early '70s. That's why I think it's still sort of post-'60s in a way. It's part of the '60s.
In 1969, Lyndon Johnson's Council of Economic Advisors basically say prosperity is the bedrock of the American economy for the foreseeable future. And five years, later Gerald Ford is wearing Whip Inflation Now buttons and worried about the misery index, the combined unemployment and inflation figures. So it's amazing how quickly things changed.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: You're doing something that is a little bit different from the approach that many people have taken to recent American history. You're focusing on class-- social class, workers, labor unions. You're also focusing on popular culture in American politics, too. And we'll talk about that in a moment. Most of the attention that historians have lavished on the 1970s really focuses more on race and gender issues. So explain that. Explain that focus. And how does your focus, your lens, make us look at the 1970s in a different way?
JEFF COWIE: You're absolutely right, that gender and race are sort of the touchstones of how the successes and the social movements of the 1960s become institutionalized in the 1970s-- the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, things like this-- open up employment opportunity for women and minorities. You have really a transformation in the complexion of the wealth pyramid. It's not egalitarian by any stretch of the imagination. But people are incorporated in a way they had been excluded before.
But what's happening at the same time is the general notion of equality is shrinking. So what's happening is 1973 is really the apex of earnings for wage earnings. It continues to fall indefinitely for the rest of history to the present day. There's a little blip where it pops back up in the late '90s during the tech boom. But by and large, working people never had it as good as they had it in 1973.
So what happened? On the one hand, you have the victories for previously excluded groups-- very important. But then that came hand in glove with a decline in a general notion of how we are going to share the wealth that this country creates. And I think that's connected to a decline in how we think about class, how we think about workers.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Now when we-- often, we all have our images of hardhats and of hardhat resistance to feminism, of hard hat resistance to affirmative action. And behind that, at least it seems to me, Jeff, are zero sum assumptions-- in other words, that one can conclude that white working men mostly are making the assumption that, OK, Mr. African-American, or OK, Ms. Feminist, your entry into the work place is coming out of my pocket. Is that simplistic? Is that accurate in terms of both perceptions? Is it also accurate in terms of the reality?
JEFF COWIE: I really go to great lengths to complicate the backlash hardhat idea. It's there. It's absolutely there. George Wallace won the Michigan primary in 1972-- a segregationist governor from Alabama, which had been shot at about same time. So you cannot deny that this exists. And I don't intend to do that. But what I do emphasize-- this is a very conflicted movement. Me give you an example. In the early '70s, the press referred to two events as the workers' Woodstock consistently-- of course, playing off the upstate New York festival, peace, love, and music.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: In 1969.
JEFF COWIE: 1969, right-- so one was the hardhat protests in Manhattan in 1970, where after the killings at Kent State, the hardhat, the construction workers descended from the World Trade Center that they were building at the time and beat the heck out of a whole bunch of anti-war protesters and chased them through the streets of Manhattan and bloodied them with big, heavy tools, and throughout the month of May continued to have protests in favor of Nixon, in favor of Agnew, against Mayor Lindsay. So that was one Woodstock, one festival, one.
The other was a place called Lordstown, which still exists. It's an General Motors auto plant in Ohio. And there was a different workers' Woodstock, which was a young, working class, interracial, sort of hip cohort of workers who came together and refused to work, went out on strike-- not for better wages but for a more humane workplace. And the press poured into this and just made a really big deal out of it, talked about alienation, and look at these workers. They're the obverse of the hardhats. They're the hip, cool, new future worker, and made a great deal out of their goatees and their afros and their beads and all the rest and the smell of marijuana along the lines.
But here they were making a stand, really not for the great material struggle but for a better way of working. And so both of these include white male working class figures. And both were signaled as pivotal events akin to what Woodstock was. And they're in conflict.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: But is this, nonetheless, is the '70s the story of the disempowerment of American workers?
JEFF COWIE: Yes, absolutely-- and at least materially. There is a struggle for the cliched hearts and minds of workers that goes on in the early '70s and one that Richard Nixon goes to great lengths to win. Nixon, who was one of the shrewdest politicians that I've ever studied, looked at what was unfolding before him and said, you know what? The way we can create what he called a new majority, a post-Rooseveltian majority, is to tap into workers' cultural conservatives and really move in on that.
And I dug through the tapes in the archives and all this. He had a very masterful strategy with regard-- is stumbling-- but really saw that moment, whereas the liberals had a much harder time tapping into this. They were-- and the McGovern fiasco is sort of part of that. But they were never able to tap into the other Woodstock, whereas Nixon was very good at that. Of course, his presidency ends in a disaster. And we this Ford, Carter interregnum. But it's Reagan who really ends the decade by giving voice to the cultural and social concerns of white male workers. It really builds upon that cultural backlash in a politically effective way. So it's a lost opportunity [INAUDIBLE].
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah. But why is labor-- why are workers unable to protect their own interests?
JEFF COWIE: It's a wonderful and complicated question, Glen.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: That's why I'm here, Jeff.
JEFF COWIE: One of the elements in an answer to that question is labor proved to be its own worst enemy. In 1968, organized labor almost single handedly was responsible for the campaign of Hubert Humphrey. Because the party was in disarray, as you mentioned. And labor stepped in. They had the phone banks. They had the locals. They had the money. And they loved Hubert Humphrey. Four years later--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And they almost won.
JEFF COWIE: And they almost won, right. Exactly.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: It was a razor-thin margin.
JEFF COWIE: That's exactly right. And so labor is saying, we're king of the roost. We almost won. We did this by ourselves. We didn't do it with the students. They hate us. They hate Humphrey, because he was saddled with the war.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Associated with the war.
JEFF COWIE: And so labor thinks it's king of the roost. Then the McGovern reforms, the post '68 McGovern reforms and the party come along that require a certain diversity in the delegates. And labor basically pouts. They don't get the nominee they want. They try to hijack the '72 nomination. They sabotage McGovern. They are terrible. And they are very pro-war, of course, the leadership.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: George Meany, certainly.
JEFF COWIE: George Meany. Lane Kirkland, Al Barkin, the [INAUDIBLE], the political director of the AFL-CIO. And so they pour a tremendous amount of resources into basically undoing this, rather than sort of adjusting to what was called then the new politics, which is really about race and gender. And they looked down in horror in the '72 convention-- all the hippies and the women and minorities. And they basically did their best to win back the old guard rather than try to find a path to accommodate to the new day.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: So labor is fractured by differences over the war in Vietnam.
JEFF COWIE: Right.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: They're fractured by differences-- by workplace issues related to race. And they're also fractured by broadly-defined cultural issues.
JEFF COWIE: That's right.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Talk about that a little bit, those cultural issues and the ways in which workers are both divided and to a certain extent undermined by some of those concerns.
JEFF COWIE: I guess I'll start with an anecdote. In 1973, I think it was, Richard Nixon invited Merle Haggard to play the Nixon White House. And he did not do this because he was a fan of country music at all but because Merle Haggard had written "Okie From Muskogee," one of the great backlash anthems of the day. And that song really resonated. It was number one in the country hits. You know, we don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee. It's a place where squares can still have a ball. Football is still the roughest thing on campus, these sorts of things. Kids still respect the college dean. Those are the days.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: I love that.
JEFF COWIE: But there was this sense of assault on the values of working people, and not just white working people, actually. A lot of African-American workers who had been in the auto plants since the great migration of World War II, or even World War I-- were very skeptical of the new generation of African-Americans who are coming into the plants, in their plants. So the new politics began to revolve around a defensive tradition. And that was often coupled with the fact that here's a group of people, barely a generation and a half out of poverty. The distance between 1936 and 1966 is 30 years. It's really not that much.
And so for these people to have-- take this for an example. In the early '50s, the average steel worker was still technically in poverty, according to the federal government. So there's a fragility. There's a sense of fragility to what these people have. And there's a sense that it's under attack. And it's under attack often by their sons and daughters, who they feel are not always as grateful they could be. But that makes them politically ripe in a variety of ways. And then you saddle on top of that the Equal Rights Amendment-- Roe versus Wade, affirmative action, busing-- a whole basket of very controversial issues, many of which are very significant gains for different groups. And they feel like their world is collapsing. And sometimes when I look at that, I'm surprised that the backlash wasn't more vicious.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Even greater than it was.
JEFF COWIE: Yes, exactly-- because these people's world was falling around them. If you are a Catholic, what we would call then blue collar ethnic worker, living on the edge of a city in an industrial suburb and you see this unfolding before you-- sometimes it's surprising it's only Richard Nixon.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: So, Jeff, does that mean that in some sense, many American workers begin the decade with a level of class consciousness and end the decade no longer conscious of themselves, no longer defining themselves in terms of social class? And I know that those are kind of academic terms. But put that in language that simple-minded people like me can understand.
JEFF COWIE: Well, the hardest thing for an academic to do, of course, is to speak simply. So that's why we created jargon. But broadly conceived, I think you have the thrust of the book, that at the beginning of the 1970s, an economic identity for workers who saw their politics broadly as material interests-- collective bargaining, minimum wage, Fair Labor Standards, these bread-and-butter issues. End the decade, especially white male workers, which are center of the book more or less, see their interest as a defense of cultural standing. And what has happened, both for a whole host of reasons-- everything happening from social history to elite politics-- is that cultural, political interests have been culled very effectively. And the economic interests have largely been quashed in various ways.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Now, Jeff, I admire you for many things. But one of the things I think that's wonderful about your work is that you're able to draw on labor history, political history, and also popular culture. How does popular culture play into this? This, of course, is a decade with a lot of iconic films, with a lot of iconic music. Help us a little bit by tracking American popular culture across that decade to show the evolution of some of these trends that you've identified.
JEFF COWIE: Well, to believe my wife, it's all an excuse to write about Bruce Springsteen. Of course, she's wrong, although Bruce does play a significant role. But what I try to do is look at a narrative unfolding in three different dimensions-- in the social history of workers, what's going on in the shops, the unions, the communities, politics, what's going on [INAUDIBLE] politics, how are people responding to this, and then how that is simultaneously playing out in popular culture, and sometimes off the exact same issues. Because this is the age in which popular culture is becoming so much more central to people's lives.
And artists are given-- this post '60s. A lot of the youth of the '60s are now entering into the cultural production realm. They're-- excuse me-- very creative, very attuned to what's going on, doing some very innovative production. It's the auteur cinema age. And it is very, very interesting to trace this. And there's all sorts of examples. But if we go back, say, to the hardhat revolt we just talked about, I mean, I can have Richard Nixon talking about that same event and then talk about Archie Bunker of All in the Family or Peter Boyle's character Joe in a movie, Joe, about a famous nasty, backlash sort of character. And there are multitudes of examples of this-- one of my favorites, Saturday Night Fever.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Yeah. I was going to ask you to talk about that. And people often confuse me with John Travolta.
JEFF COWIE: I can see that.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: So I have a particular interest in this. And talk about Saturday Night Fever, the disco phenomenon. What the heck could that have to do with working class concerns?
JEFF COWIE: Everything-- it turns out everything. Who knew?
GLENN ALTSCHULER: I thought you might say that.
JEFF COWIE: Well, there's the phenomenon of disco. And then there's Saturday Night Fever, which are connected, obviously. But Saturday Night Fever provides specific narrative. So I'll start there. And if we have time, I'll talk a little bit about disco. But Saturday Night Fever really is for me a microcosm of the last half of the '70s because what happens? You have one guy who's super talented who hangs out with this sort of seamy, violent group of guys who mostly want to fight, beat up gay guys. And basically, they want to brawl, drink, and have sex.
John Travolta rises above, is very talented, and gets the adoration. But even that's not enough. And he realizes there's something empty in his life. And the whole thing ends with him leaving. And the future is John Travolta in Manhattan. He's no longer in Brooklyn. And he's having a platonic relationship with a woman. It's not just a sexual relationship. He's sort of a new age male, right? He's adjusted to the new day.
And actually, if you look at the ending scene very closely, there's a Matisse print on the Jazz is playing. It's a whole different world. But what I'm interested in is what happened to the rest of those guys, right? And I think that really is analogous to how the nation dealt with class in general. We accepted those who could get out. We gave them a place. And we pretty much forgot all those losers back in Brooklyn or wherever.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And is the implication of that that if you didn't get out, that America provides you the opportunity to get out? And if you don't, we don't really have to do much for you.
JEFF COWIE: That's right. That's right. I mean, again, if you look at the measures of inequality, they are more or less-- they go way down in the 1940s, where more or less the bottom of the nation in the top and they are closer together in the 1940s. That continues to bump along at a fairly close proximity throughout the post-war period. And then in the early '70s, it begins to separate. And then by the '80s, it really separates.
And so in terms of policy and politics and popular culture, we decide to kind of forget those people. We become, well, two nations, to quote somebody. And whereas somebody like Archie Bunker is the totem for the '70s, it's JR Ewing, the quintessential oil baron--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: In Dallas.
JEFF COWIE: --of Dallas, the great TV show of the 1980s. So I think that really kind of balances the way we thought of ourselves as a nation.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And we think of Dallas as a kind of Reagan trope show.
JEFF COWIE: That's right, yeah, a guy who will do what he has to to his grandmother to get a barrel of oil, right? And that's-- yeah.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Now since I know how much you love Springsteen, I want to give you an opportunity to talk about Springsteen, and again, his treatment of class and workers and how that fits into these 1970s themes.
JEFF COWIE: I'm trying to curb my Springsteen problem with this book. So you're not going to help this out. There's a throwaway line in an early '70s Springsteen song. And it says, "dockworkers' dreams mixed with Panther schemes to someday own the rodeo." So who's it going to be-- the dockworkers or the Black Panthers? What is this nation about?
And he saw this conflict. He comes out of a pretty rough couple of towns-- Freehold and Asbury Park. He was no stranger to the-- his father was a very kind of down-and-out working class guy. His mother, on the other hand, provided the stability for the family. It's not uncommon. But as he unfolds "In Born to Run," what's the message? It's John Travolta. It's a town full of losers. I'm pulling out of here to win.
It's Huck Finn lighting out for the territories. But it's with a vengeance. It's the classic American trope. I'm going to get out of here. There's a brighter day ahead. But there's a desperation to it that I don't see at other points in American culture. It's leave or be forgotten. And then after "Born to Run," he looks at another album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, which he goes back and looks at the people left behind. And it is, indeed, a very bleak, dark portrait of that time period.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Let me move back to politics for just a moment. Does the Democratic Party abandon workers? Or are they ineffective in fighting for workers?
JEFF COWIE: It's again a wonderfully complicated question. In 1972, the McGovern insurgency wins the Democratic nomination. And the most pro-labor Democrat ever to be nominated by a major party in American history wins the nomination. He's the only Democrat never to get the AFL-CIO's endorsement because he is so associated with those new cultural issues and the war, of course--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And the war.
JEFF COWIE: --which is part and parcel.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Sure.
JEFF COWIE: So there is a chance to get labor's full agenda. I mean, if-- I'm not saying they would have won if labor. But McGovern's biggest problem was reaching out to working people. He lost. Nixon got a majority of working people's votes.
So then there was that debacle. In 1976, though, when Carter is elected, there's a new hope, I guess. And organized labor throws all of its energy into a couple of things-- full employment, the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill and labor law reform. And again, the conflicted nature of the '70s comes out, where Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill, the bill that would promise employment to all, actually passes but is gutted by the Carter administration because they're afraid of its inflationary implications-- reasonably so. And then also labor law reform, which would have made it easier to organize the new service industries. Because this is when all the industry is beginning to collapse-- the steel industry and the rest after '78 begins to fall apart. And so that fails because they're two votes short of being able to shut down a filibuster.
So these near misses suggest the potential of the decade, the conflicted nature of the decade. And unable to overcome these, burdened by inflation, because the Democrats didn't know how to govern under inflation. Their traditional methods had been to redistribute, to provide more access. These were all things seen as inflationary. And they were--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And they had this phenomenon called stagflation at the time--
JEFF COWIE: Stagflation-- that's correct.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: --which economists thought was--
JEFF COWIE: Impossible.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: --something that couldn't happen. And so they didn't know how to deal with it. Now how-- just in the moment or two we have left-- so how did Reagan-- or did Reagan essentially end the 1970s? What does he do that makes the 1980s fundamentally different or that in essence signals a new era?
JEFF COWIE: Well, it starts with stagflation, where you have high unemployment and high inflation, which are supposed to be working in opposites. And Carter doesn't know what to do. Because if he tames inflation, he's going to make unemployment worse. Reagan doesn't have that problem. And I remember Charlie Schultz, Carter's chief economic advisor, saying, he's free. He can put the economy through the grinder and stop inflation and allow unemployment to rise, which it did-- 12%, 14% in places, in some places very, very high, well beyond that, without doing any harm to his base constituents, which the Democrats couldn't do. And so that was the first thing. And then he coupled that with deregulation, new tax policies, all the rest, which exacerbated the division of wealth in this country and made a lot of people rich. But it also stratified the nation's wealth in what I find uncomfortable ways.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: So is class consciousness now basically no longer relevant in America?
JEFF COWIE: Class consciousness-- or class awareness as I prefer to call it, because class consciousness is a little--
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Old Marxian.
JEFF COWIE: --yeah, a little loaded-- is in rough shape. The iteration of it, of the New Deal era, largely centered on white male working people is all but gone. I mean, you only have to watch the Fox News phenomenon to sort of see the direction that politics has gone for a lot of those folks. But if it's going to be rebuilt, it'll be, I think, the new immigrants that we see all around us and debate it every day. And the immigration march of last May, I think, is suggestive of some possibilities. But it's an immensely complicated thing. It's now a transnational question. It's now racialized in very complex ways. And it would require the creation of a sort of multicultural transnational identity that is very elusive. As I suggested in my RCA book, Capitol Moves, working class identity tends to be very local. It tends to be very here and now. And it's a bit of a struggle to say, hey, your identity is-- your destiny is connect to this other person who lives in El Paso.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: And the so-called cultural issues and social issues are now so hotly contested that they have seemed, at least for quite some time, to be trumping the kinds of issues that are most often associated with class.
JEFF COWIE: That's exactly. I mean, a classic example is you might see a Million Man March for African-Americans on Washington but you won't see a million person march for health care on Washington, right? I mean, that would be the distinction. And there's also a political manipulation, to be honest, that I think happens with some of these things, where cultural values and religious values are used by politicians for other economic interests. I mean, not consistently and not always, but I think it's certainly there, where you might use the politics of abortion to get a capital gains tax reduction.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Well, Jeff, it's always exciting to me to talk to somebody who's so wonderfully enmeshed in an important research topic. And I've looked at some sections of the book. And we didn't get a chance to talk about how effectively you tap the voices of real Americans in conveying many of these tendencies and many of these conflicts. And I think that's one of the great strengths of this book. So I'm certainly looking forward to its publication.
And I'm also looking forward to working with you and dropping in on Keeton House. And I think we've gotten a real sense today why you're such a perfect choice. You are a great teacher in the tradition of Bill Keeton. And your commitment to undergraduates, the commitment of somebody who is such a wonderful scholar, is part of what makes Cornell so wonderful. So thanks for coming in today. And I hope we'll have other occasions to talk on the Faculty Forum about other research interests of yours.
JEFF COWIE: Well, I'm honored to be here. And I'm flattered by everything you've said. And we'll hold a place open for you at Keeton House to sit in the dining room anytime.
GLENN ALTSCHULER: Thanks, Jeff.
JEFF COWIE: All right.
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Jefferson Cowie, professor of labor history and the Dean of the William Keeton House at Cornell, is both a terrific teacher and a fine scholar. Cowie discusses his research and writing on American culture, politics and work during the 1970s.