Jefferson Cowie holds the James G. Stahlman Chair at Vanderbilt University. In addition to the The Great Exception, Cowie is the author of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of The Working Class.
It is difficult to imagine that in the last big Democratic primary back in 2008, people were talking about the possibility of passing the Employee Free Choice Act. Now they are fearing the rise of what some are calling the American Mussolini.
Perhaps the hopes for EFCA were always overblown and the simmering cultural resentments more powerful all along. Remember this quote from from candidate Obama?
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
As I explain in my new book, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics, the real problem is not Obama. It is the divided vote of a historically fragmented working class. Some working people choose economic policies to address their problems and will vote for a figure like Bernie Sanders. Others will choose to unload their anger on immigrants and minorities and vote for Trump. Both sides feel left out of the two party system. Both are still out in those towns in the Midwest and are rightfully angry.
It makes one wonder how the heck the big bang in labor and employments rights—the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act—ever got passed (1935-38). Despite messy populist challenges from Father Coughlin and Huey Long, the Supreme Court, and the solid white South, Roosevelt somehow persevered.
I argue in The Great Exception that the New Deal was the product of an extraordinary respite in working class divisions that is unlikely to be repeated. Everything pushing Trump’s numbers today, for instance, was largely in check. There was no immigration to speak of (having been closed off in 1924). The Democrats were largely committed to Jim Crow in order to get the Southern vote and (mostly) left African Americans out of the New Deal. The ideology of anti-statist individualism that seems to push everything in screwy directions in American history was limited during the crash. Even fundamentalist religious values were at bay for a host of reasons. Most of all, those reforms happened six years into the deepest economic crisis anybody knew.
If the New Deal was a bit of an aberration, then rebuilding labor rights will be a long and difficult, but necessary, struggle. In the meantime, as the 2016 primary season suggests, we may be fortunate to occasionally just get a rational leader.