Stayin' Alive

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Jefferson R. Cowie. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New York: The New Press, 2012. pp. 488. ISBN-10: 1595587071 ISBN-13: 978-1595587077

Contents

Summary

In Stayin' Alive, Jefferson Cowie focuses on the fate of the working class, particularly the white working class, between 1968 and 1982. He starts by showing how organized labor had never seemed stronger than it did in the late 1960s and early 1970s; by the early 1980s, labor's gains were going into reverse. Meanwhile, he also tackles the question of why the white working class—solidly Democratic since the New Deal—went Republican, in spite of its economic interests. This transformation, as Cowie shows, came about largely from cultural factors and suspicions, exploited by the Republican Party and mismanaged by the Democratic Party. Indeed, Cowie argues that by the end of the decade, the idea of a solid "working class" was no longer accurate (18), as the coalition that Franklin Roosevelt had built for the New Deal—and its social contract—had crumbled.

Cowie begins the book by introducing readers to Dewey Burton, a Michigan autoworker who had "received [his] fifteen minutes of fame four times" through New York Times articles about his political views through the decade. Burton is a continuing touchstone throughout the work. Burton's political choices serve as a representative example of Cowie's argument.

Cowie periodizes the book into two eras: 1968-1974 (hope) and 1974-1982 (despair). The first period, the subject of the first four chapters, was marked by an initial wave of labor activism, including large strikes—sometimes without the blessing of increasingly sclerotic and out-of-touch union leadership. This period also featured the rise of George Wallace, who made great inroads among white working class voters who felt besieged by larger economic forces, threatened by the Democratic Party's emphasis on civil rights, culturally offended by the counterculture (somewhat embraced by the Democratic Party), and concerned that gains for minorities would mean losses for the white working class. President Richard Nixon made solid inroads with organized labor, while Democrats, especially in 1972, alienated many with the nomination of South Dakota Senator George McGovern.

Meanwhile, as the Nixon White House unraveled in the Watergate scandal, the postwar economic order unraveled in oil shocks and rising unemployment combined with inflation—confounding economic orthodoxy that argued the two were held in an inverse relationship. Cowie discusses the potential for another New Deal, especially with the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, promising full employment, but shows how, by that time, the day of gains for organized labor had passed. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, using cultural touchstones, brought much of the white working class into his coalition—and proceeded the next year to break the back of organized labor by firing striking air traffic controllers. This showed that cultural appeals had largely worked. By this time, as Cowie argues, the idea of a "working class" had fragmented into pieces of atomized individuals.

Cowie also uses chapters 4 and 8 to analyze the popular culture of this area, showing how, in contrast to the 1930s, messages about the working class emphasized individual escape and empowerment, rather than collectivism and pride.

Cowie concludes by showing how much the 1970s represented a political, economic, and cultural realignment in the United States—as he says, the bookend of the New Deal. Writing in 2010, he incorporated Barack Obama's surreptitious remarks about white working class people "clinging to guns and religion" as an example of the cultural divide that had grown between between people traditionally considered working class and the Democratic Party.

Commentary

David McKenzie, Spring 2015

Cowie's book provides an incisive, academic, and sympathetic answer to the question of why the white working class defected the New Deal coalition for the Republican Party amidst the hard times of the 1970s. Cowie is perhaps trying (without specifically saying) to complicate Thomas Frank's overly simplistic, unsympathetic, yet popular jeremiad What's the Matter with Kansas?. Although Cowie arrives at the overall same answer—indeed, cultural factors and alienation delivered the white working class into the waiting hands of the Republican Party—he gives a much more sophisticated and sympathetic analysis.

Cowie never loses the human element to the extremely broad story he tells; not only does Dewey Burton, whom Cowie clearly got to know well, make frequent appearances, but most of the protagonists—both the humble and the powerful—gain similar in-depth treatments. These make easy generalizations much more difficult, and show the sophistication of worldviews that led to the outcome Cowie discusses. This is part of the book's brilliance—never falling into stock, condescending views of working class individuals and giving them their due.

Popular culture provides another fertile set of stories for Cowie to analyze. These build on the narrative of increasing atomization and alienation of working class men like the television character Archie Bunker or Saturday Night Fever's Tony Manero—whose only hope is to escape his working-class existence (portrayed as bleak and a dead end) as an individual, rather than as part of a broader collective identity.

Stayin' Alive is a highly readable yet subtle and sophisticated analysis of this period, and should be recommended reading for anyone who desires to understand the importance of this oft-overlooked, yet pivotal, decade in U.S. history—one whose political realignment still holds sway in 2015.

Beth Garcia, Spring 2015

In Stayin’ Alive, Cowie cites the 1970s as a pivotal decade marking the decline of the working class. Arguing that the 1970s marked the end of the postwar boom, Cowie examines how workers attempted to combat this descent by trying to revive organizational power and to reestablish the authority that had helped win labor reforms under the New Deal. However, the 1970s were not the 1940s; the political, economic, and social climate was not what it had been under the New Deal. Issues of race (bussing, affirmative action), women’s rights, and class (Vietnam protests) overshadowed labor issues at the same time that the rank-and-file found itself increasingly at odds with labor union leadership. As Cowie argues and makes clear throughout his study, “The working class died of the many external assaults upon it, yes, but mostly of its own internal weaknesses” (18).

Cowie argues that the working class underwent a crisis of identity during the 1970s. To make this point most vividly, Cowie draws on popular culture, exploring working class depictions in film, music, and television. Though relying on popular culture to argue deeper ideological shifts is a difficult case to make, Cowie presents a compelling argument (while at the same time, providing perhaps the most intriguing piece of his analysis.) Examining country music (specifically the popularity of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” song) and popular television series such as “All in the Family”, Cowie argues that the very idea of a working class had shifted from one based in economics (wages) to one grounded in culture. The image of the worker in 1970s popular culture tended to depict a man wed to his more “traditional” values in a society that was defining itself as increasingly progressive (such as the bigoted working-class Archie Bunker.) “In the end, the major storyline of the seventies white, male, working-class identity was about how these centrifugal forces (youth movements, racial and cultural backlash, vigilantism, insurgency) led not to an image but a breakdown, not a unity but a social deconstruction, not an idea but a reaction” (199). This worker, as memorialized in popular culture, could not endure. And by the second half of the decade, popular culture was promoting not a working class but the individual workers who found a way to “get out” (i.e. Springsteen’s “Born to Run”).

In focusing on a decade often remembered (and teased) only for its cultural fads, Cowie presents a fresh perspective and an insightful study on the decline of the working class.

Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Spring 2015

Cowie's Stayin' Alive is a very enjoyable history that ties in the political, cultural, and labor experiences of the working class in the 1970s. Important aspects such as busing, economic issues with the oil crises of the 1970s, and the New Right's engagement with the working-class in providing "a soothing tonic for the injured pride and diminished material hopes of America's workingmen." (364) Cowie states that the legacy of the 1970s, and also the tragedy, is that anxiety in the Republic overtook the security before it, and that the 1970s marked the end of the ideal of the working-class working as a significant agent in political, social, and economic life. (368-369) The weakness of the working class in the US brought about their own downfall. (18) Cowie engages in the same idea as the authors in Rightward Bound that the 1970s were pivotal, rather than purely a gap between the 1960s and 1980s.[1]

Race and gender are also constants in Cowie's work, including arguments by Robert Kennedy that it was necessary to emphasize class as opposed to color, while George Wallace gained voters through the segregationists in the South that were afraid of African Americans in their neighborhoods, in addition to the idea that white men worked, while "others" (women, minorities) were not. (75, 79, 77) Racial tensions were also prominent in culture, including the dominant racial views of Archie Bunker in 'All in the Family." (193-194)

Culture, including television and music, were also indicative of the life of the working-class in the 1970s, with the title even invoking a popular 1970s song. Through the use of country music and popular television shows, such as "All in the Family" and "Dukes of Hazard," engaging in an premise of cultural rebellion or even the crisis of living in a crisis of the working-class life. (193)

Andrew Salamone, Spring 2016

One of Jefferson Cowie's objectives with Stayin Alive is to reframe the 1970s as a crucial decade in American history. The demise of the working class resulting from greater collusion between state governments and big-business, the revitalization and politicization of American evangelism in the "Third Awakening," and the working class tilt away from their nearly uninterrupted four decades of support for the Democratic Party combined to make the 1970s "pivotal" in his estimation. He explores these developments in settings ranging from the coal mines and steel factories of western Pennsylvania and Ohio to the floor of Congresss to movie theaters and popular music. Not surprisingly, he argues that economic downturns, a growing sense of national apathey or malaise resulting from Watergate, the Vietnam War, and a perceived weakening of the nation's moral fabric offered fertile ground for change on the political front. Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, thanks in large part to his ability to mobilize support from the historically left-leaning working class, embodied this change. His working class supporters were quickly disappointed, however, as Reagan pursued policies inimical to their concerns, stoking the despair that pervaded this segment of America since the mid 1970s. Cowie also explores the interaction between race and class during this period. He asserted that civil rights and labor rights largely remained separate issues confined to separate government agencies and separate court systems. He argued that the south, in particular, operated outside the regulatory framework of the New Deal that sought to protect all workers. The result was the creation of what he termed a "dual labor market," in which white men were seen as Americans and workers. Women, African-Americans, and other minorities were largely left out. By the 1970s, employers and the Federal Government turned their attention to improving diversity and equal opportunity in the workplace. Cowie argues that these policies produced gains in terms of a more inclusive and equal workplace, but they did not address the issue of economic inequality. Thus, people, not the resources to improve housing, education, or other services, was the focus. This economic inequality continued to be a source of contention between white and black communities and prevented a unified front against big-business or a single constituency politicians could count on.


Stephanie Walters, Spring 2016

In Stayin' Alive, Cowie examines the working class from the 1960s to 1980s in order to examine the transformation of values across the country, but specifically among lower and middle working classes. Since the New Deal, democratic support of the working class being pro-unionization, and the party's stance on stronger federal intervention meant that many in the working classes identified as democrats. However, during this time period the Republican party was on the rise and gained support across the United States by spreading more conservative American values. By going into the Bible Belt, the Mid West, and from coast to coast Republicans established themselves as the party that would better care for the working class. The Republican party played on the ideas that the working class was the backbone of America and did not need federal intervention. Additionally, religious undertones in rhetoric made many working class Americans more interested in Republican values.

With the rise of Reagan as governor and then president in the 1980s, Reagan served as the face of the of the new conservative movement and was influential in gaining the support of working class white men in particular. While women and minorities were forgotten by the Republican party, the strength of the Republican party for white men meant equality shrank in working class environments. At the end of the book, Cowie argues that throughout this time period there was a missed effort by the working class to unify--which Republicans actively kept from happening.

Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

In his work Cowie traces the disintegration of the working class in the 1970s. He begins by focusing on 1968-1974. During this “era of hope” the working class had the potential to become stronger and more unified. Unfortunately, the internal strife within the working class, compounded by external forces, resulted in the “years of despair” (1974-1982). Combining the study of music, movies, and popular culture of the 70s with the labor politics of the era Cowie uncovers confusion as well as a growing complacency within the working class during the 1970s. As the once precariously unified working class became fragmented by race, gender and politics the promise of the era of hope faded, resulting in the death of the working class as a single bloc. Cowie traces the trajectory of this transformation through individuals, groups, politics and popular culture. He explains how members of the postwar working class became dissatisfied with their traditional party and their lot in life, eventually supporting more conservative (often somewhat anti-labor) politicians with whom they agreed on the social and cultural issues.

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