The Disco Pall

The mirage inspired the working class and their tenuous allies toward distant horizons of hope, unaware that only predators awaited them in the night.

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The mirage inspired the working class and their tenuous allies toward distant horizons of hope, unaware that only predators awaited them in the night.
A review essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

Discussed in this essay:

Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. By Jefferson Cowie. New York: The New Press, 2010. Pp. 464. $19.58

*****

Jefferson Cowie illustrates in Stayin’ Alive a sad era of American labor’s political and economic strife. The book recounts 40 years of corporations, political figures, and labor’s own leaders undermining, defusing, or ravaging the postwar economic opportunities of working-class Americans, who gradually lost every ally gained during the New Deal era. The working-class identity at the beginning of his story captures their pride and belief in a better future. Their identity at the end is strangled, stabbed, and ground down into a pitiable symbol of social irrelevance, political isolation, and self-absorbed psychic catatonia.1

Cowie divides his story into two sections: “Hope in the Confusion, 1968-1974” and “Despair in the Order, 1974-1982.” He begins with vivid accounts of labor’s role as “junior partners” in a New Deal coalition to re-engineer American capitalism and of a younger generation’s struggles against calcified labor leaders in the 1960s to improve their economic standing. He then moves into the chaos of the 1968 presidential campaigns. Public uproar over the Vietnam War left President Lyndon B. Johnson exhausted. He refused to run for another term, leaving the desiccated corpse of the presidency for Democratic contenders to rip apart like starved hyenas. Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged from the violent Democratic nominating convention as the last man standing, with only the labor machinery at his side, Cowie writes, making labor the “big boss in the Democratic Party.”2

Labor’s support of the Vietnam War, Cowie explains, meant no alliance with anti-war Democrats. Patriarchal labor leaders rejected civil rights and social movements, which poisoned any relationship with social liberals, women, and minorities. Humphrey’s nomination triumph and labor alliance amounted to little more than a Pyrrhic victory when Richard Nixon, leading a Republican resurgence against divided Democrats, won the election. The cracks in the Democratic lines would also lead to complete political failure in 1972 when Democrat George McGovern challenged then-President Nixon and was obliterated.3

The tragic and foreboding theme of division overshadows every working-class ambition, and Cowie highlights its importance at every turn. The compromised aspirations of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act are two of his best examples. Both aimed for “occupational justice.” The former enabled union formation and opened economic opportunities to immigrants. The latter ensured non-white, non-male, and non-Christian workers would not face workplace discrimination. The former was rooted in the hopes for economic equality. The latter was rooted in the hopes for cultural and gender equality. Some victories required the exclusion of black rights.

Others required the exclusion of women’s rights. Inherent tensions between the governmental and political forces that achieved both victories doomed the unity needed to face foes in the 1970s and 1980s, who exploited “an unbridgeable chasm” between allies fighting over race or over class. Cowie is at his best when he explores these key flaws in the coalition the unions depended upon throughout the postwar decades.4

Nixon cynically targeted that central cultural-vs.-material dichotomy in the workers’ outlook. He lured them into his New Majority, his own coalition of Republicans, conservative Democrats, and white workers disgusted by the civil rights or other social movements. He emphasized his empathy with their frustrations, and he shared their disgust for “effete” Northern elitists and antiwar protesters. He anesthetized their doubts or shame over their support for a Republican with dazzling themes of shared patriotism. Once working-class Democrats were numbed to their own political transformation and suffocated by the rhetorical American flags in which he wrapped them, Nixon added their votes to his victorious totals, laughed at their seeming blindness to his manipulations, and then subsequently did little to justify their support.5

Cowie ends the book’s first half with the convincing contention that in 1973, after years of high earnings and low unemployment, labor’s prospect for further prosperity began to fade. That year was a turning point, he writes, when “a troika of disasters” began to unfold: an oil embargo, the spread of suffocating stagflation, and the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Nixon, Cowie argues, “was the last [postwar president] to court labor seriously.” Instead of playing on the old New Deal chessboard, Nixon simply invented a new game with new rules. After 1974, labor faced threats it was no longer armed against, on battlefield on which it had no effective allies, and fought for a place in an economy that no longer valued its contribution or importance.6

If the book’s first half sees the working class feel the unstable shoreline crumble under their feet, the second half sees them slide helplessly into the shark-infested water. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, defeated Ronald Reagan for the 1976 presidential nomination. Democrat Jimmy Carter then defeated Ford in the general election. Nixon’s and Ford’s defeats emboldened Democratic liberals, and their triumph blinded them to Carter’s limitations as a labor ally. At first, liberals and labor saw new hope in the new president, who could potentially fuse old George Wallace supporters, Southern Democrats, Northern workers, and minorities into a new coalition. Cowie points to hopes for new legislation that would generate more jobs, improve labor laws, and begin a national health insurance. But Carter had little regard for liberal dreams, and his career was not beholden to labor’s support. His narrow and principled vision focused only on particular priorities, and his stiff rudder rarely moved to accommodate labor’s needs.7

Labor needed help more than ever before. Companies laid off workers and moved production overseas. Plants closed. Industries gravitated to regions that rejected union activism, instituted right-to-work laws, and promised tax incentives and low regulation. The general economic malaise acted like a drought, drying up what little hope remained for labor to find economic or political rejuvenation in the Democratic Party’s empty and neglected fountains. By 1980, Cowie explains, “a unionized manufacturing job … had become a rare and coveted source of security” -– a stale scrap from the corporate table crowded with conservative allies.8

Cowie’s pursuit of working-class identity throughout the postwar decades is a powerful intellectual feature of the book. He also argues that working-class identity found itself reflected in TV shows like All in the Family, in ballads from Bruce Springsteen and Devo, and in films like Saturday Night Fever. But the musing quickly turns into bloviating and regrettable tedium. Much of what he wanted to say could have been condensed from two chapters into one, or incorporated into the photos section with enriched captions. The attempt to casually expound on entertainment diminishes the power of Cowie’s serious and informative history.9

Republican Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980. By then, Cowie laments, the “redefinition of the working class beyond its New Deal form” had failed. Postwar attempts to maintain workers in the middle class failed. Conservative enemies torpedoed their legislative and policy accomplishments. Carter and a new generation of liberal Democrats had no shared history with labor and little inspiration to court their rusted and scarred loyalties.10 The working classes had nowhere to go but inward in their search for a credible identity. Ironically, that desperation left them open to another round of Nixonian seduction. Reagan’s New Right vision promised a return to a revitalized America built on the rubble Carter and his Eastern elites had left behind, one nation under God, ruled by white Christian men just as they ruled in their own communities.

The potent, sickening sweetness of Reagan’s nostalgic platitudes — Cowie calls it “symbolic sanctuary” — mesmerized workers who hungered for a time when they mattered to American society. Reagan swung the final major blow to the remnants of the labor movement when he shattered the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) union strike in 1981. Cowie calls Reagan’s decision “one of the boldest acts of his administration.” Cowie could have added details of the administration’s decision-making process, internal debates, or recollections from Reagan advisors. Instead, the incident, which signaled to the corporate world how weak and vulnerable the union community truly was, is barely explored in a rush to finish the second half of the book, which ends in 1982. By the 1990s, a globalized economy of union-free service workers emerges, ruled by a conservative coalition descended not solely from conservative victories, Cowie argues, but also from liberalism’s failures and shortsighted divisions.11

Cowie’s sad and fascinating story points to the “internal weaknesses” of the working class when explaining why labor movements failed to sustain cohesion and strength long enough after the New Deal to pose a significant challenge to “[m]arket orthodoxy.”12 Perhaps, he argues, their noble alliance was little more than a “conceptual unity” that never truly existed. The mirage inspired the working class – enthused by their New Deal identities — and their tenuous allies toward distant horizons of hope, unaware that only predators awaited them in the night.


1. Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010), 9-11.
2. Cowie, 9, 29, 83.
3. Cowie, 41, 84.
4. Cowie, 236-237.
5. Cowie, 122-124, 132-133.
6. Cowie, 12, 164.
7. Cowie, 14, 266.
8. Cowie, 15.
9. Cowie, 209-210, 357-369.
10. Cowie, 366.
11. Cowie, 362-364.
12. Cowie, 18.

Torn in the USA

Life, liberty, and the doomed pursuit of happiness. A review essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

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Life, liberty, and the doomed pursuit of happiness.
A review essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

******

Discussed in this essay:

Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History. By David Allyn. (New York: Routledge, 2001. 400 pp. $26.96).

Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. 2nd ed. By Lizabeth Cohen. (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 568 pp. $25.99).

Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. By Jefferson Cowie. (New York: The New Press, 2010. 488 pp. $15.98).

“Resistance in the Urban North: Trumbull Park, Chicago, 1953-1966.” By Arnold R. Hirsch. The Journal of American History. (82, no. 2 [September, 1995]: 522-550. JSTOR [accessed Feb. 1, 2013] ).

In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement. Edited by Jama Lazerow and Yohuru Williams. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. 408 pp. $24.01).

Quixote’s Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, 1966-1981. By David Montejano. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010. 360 pp. $23.70).

Polio: An American Story. By David M. Oshinsky. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 368 pp. $16.95).

“Crabgrass-Roots Politics: Race, Rights, and the Reaction against Liberalism in the Urban North, 1940-1964.” By Thomas J. Sugrue. The Journal of American History. 82, no. 2 [September, 1995]: 551-578. JSTOR [accessed Feb. 1, 2013] ).

I.

The New Deal caressed with warm rays of hope the hearts and minds of millions of Americans grappling with the Great Depression. Shimmering ideals carved into the pillars of 1930s bureaucratic power re-invented the relationship between government and the people it represented. The New Deal also served for subsequent generations as a gateway opening onto a glowing era without racism, illness, or injustice. Citizens only needed to step towards the entrance to realize the core tenets – and challenges — of their American democracy: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Select academic and popular works from the past two decades beautifully illustrate how Americans dared to aspire for better lives, to reach out for democracy’s sweetest fruits, and to confront adversaries unwilling to share the treasures of freedom.

The aspiration for a better life often began with fair employment. Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal and Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive both focus on the journey the working-class endured throughout six decades of economic turbulence and doomed political alliances. Cohen sets the stage by exploring Chicago’s ethnic working-class communities from about 1920 to 1940. Before the Great Depression, companies corralled their workers into paternalistic corporate societies. Workers enjoyed picnics, medical care, education, and other key aspects of a full life, yet all existed in the company’s shadow, without leverage to demand higher wages or a significant voice to improve worker conditions. Corporate authority framed workers’ identities. Cohen’s tapestry of Chicago communities gradually changed their understanding of who they were – from automatons governed by heartless corporate machinery to autonomous citizens who could no longer look to their employers for economic protection. Just as they changed their outlook, the liberal Democratic Roosevelt administration grew in political power and effectiveness. They reached out for each other. Energized unions offered workers a new avenue towards their goals of economic security, social legitimacy, and a viable political voice. The Democratic Party valued union support, listened to workers’ needs, and institutionalized the view that government could protect workers from corporate manipulation and financial unrest.

But the freedom from corporate autocracy, Cohen explains, added to workers’ lives a new vulnerability to “new tyrannies.” Chicago workers, along with workers throughout the U.S., became so closely bound to Democratic policy that when the Roosevelt administration, faced with entry into World War II, moved closer to companies needed to make war materiel, workers had no choice but to endure the consequences of corporate-friendly agreements. Alliances with political groups, Cohen also points out, meant workers swam in deeper political waters, filled with large allies but even larger enemies. Workers savored their new political value, but their leaders also did whatever was necessary to hold on to that influence on parties, administrations, and elections. Political enemies like Richard Nixon targeted that desire and the frustration workers felt over advantages the civil rights movements afforded to minorities.

Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive examines labor after the New Deal’s light faded beyond history’s horizons. He focuses on the years between 1968 and 1982. The working-class identity in the midst of that postwar political dusk was still proud and hopeful, hand-in-hand with liberal determination to transform the working-class into a new segment of the middle class. Three decades later, the working-class identity was a mutilated and incinerated political corpse quietly spat upon and dumped into Ronald Reagan’s ashbin of history.

The 1968 presidential election opened amid the cacophony of riots over the Vietnam War and years of unrest over the Great Society’s promised solutions to workplace, school, and social inequalities. Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged from Democrats’ circular firefight as the presidential nominee, with only the labor machinery at his side, Cowie writes, making labor the “big boss in the Democratic Party.” Richard Nixon, leading a united Republican Party, raced into the gaps in the Democratic ranks, slicing off white working-class workers with manufactured sympathy over their growing hostility to effete Northern “elitists,” the anti-war movement, women who refused to recognize traditional patriarchal authority, and empowered minorities disrupting workplaces and intensifying corporate hostility to labor’s aspirations for better wages and improved worker rights. Workers in 1968 and 1972 slipped into a warm electoral spa with Nixon, a python sympathetically caressing their dreams as his coils squeezed them to death. Nixon, Cowie deftly points out, was the last president to view the working class in the context of their New Deal legacy of political empowerment. He invented a new chess board on which workers were neutralized as electoral threats and absorbed into the net Nixon cast over the landscape of American voters. He lured them into his New Majority by targeting the cultural-vs.-material dichotomy in the workers’ outlook, appealing to their sentimental ideal of New Deal America and blurring the financial danger his party posed to workers’ dreams for better lives.

The danger Nixon directly posed to labor’s aspirations ended with his 1974 resignation. But Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory – secured in part with his own Nixonian seduction of working-class patriotic sentiments — worsened what Nixon began. His election followed four years of Democrat Jimmy Carter, who was never a stalwart labor ally and was hardly the mortar needed to rebuild the old alliances the civil rights and antiwar movements fractured. Economic problems sparked in the late 1960s intensified in the 1970s. Industries moved to regions that fought union organization and offered corporate-friendly employment laws. By 1980, Cowie wrote, “a unionized manufacturing job” was a precious drink of water for workers crawling across a blasted economic wasteland. The dire predicament worsened when the Reagan administration shattered the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) strike in 1981, legitimating conservative disregard for labor as a viable element of the political calculus and exposing workers, stripped of government allies, to corporate manipulation. Cohen’s workers embarked on a journey to build new and better lives. Cowie’s workers continued the journey but failed to overcome the obstacles that moved into their path. The menagerie of groups gathered under the New Deal canopy may have simulated solidarity but they also stimulated real (if not lasting) determination among labor, even if bitter divisions negated their triumphs.

II.

One of the New Deal’s sparks ignited the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. As the working class pursued better economic lives, blacks and Latinos throughout the United States pursued liberty. David Montejano’s Quixote’s Soldiers and Jama Lazerow’s and Yohuru Williams’ In Search of the Black Panther Party both portray inspired individuals striving for the dignity of equal treatment, but the authors also refuse to portray equally inspirational coalitions that overcame every level of institutional opposition. Internal divisions, as Cohen and Cowie illustrate with their labor histories, threatened the civil rights movements at every turn.

Montejano’s three-part local history explores the multifaceted Chicano civil rights fight in San Antonio from 1966 to 1981. Chicanos targeted the “gringo supremacy” that governed the city and region. They saw Anglos dominating the social scenes and annual Fiesta events. They blamed Anglos for limiting Latino economic mobility and quality of education. The Latino movement descended from World War II and Korean War Latino veterans who returned home with legitimate expectations, particularly “first-class citizenship,” from the society they fought to defend. Social activists tried to ease the ravaging effects of gang violence and drug use on youth culture by encouraging Chicanismo or “carnalismo” — a sense of Chicano brotherhood that appreciated Latino history and aimed to improve a Latino identity unfairly associated with poverty, ignorance, and violence. Latinos demanded better schools and textbooks, and they conducted school walkouts to drive home their displeasure. They marched in the streets to protest police brutality and housing discrimination. They formed organizations like the Mexican American Youth Organization to coordinate messages, register voters, and gather participants.

Montejano considers much of San Antonio’s Chicano movement a success. But with progress came resistance. Montejano points to U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, who saw the new fiery Chicano voices as a threat to his institutionalized power base. Like patriarchal labor leaders willing to deal with any political power that preserved their status, Gonzalez perceived Chicano protestors’ “aggressive nationalism” as disruptive to fragile local understandings and arrangements with the “gringo supremacy” and to his own ambitions. Chicanas demanded equality from the paternalistic community that expected them to remain subordinate to Chicano goals, tactics, and directions, and resistance to their demands also caused internal rifts. Women, Montejano writes, challenged male activists to extend the equality principle to their own households and “machismo” attitudes that oppressed Chicana expression and progress. The struggle echoes Cohen, who wrote that female members of the Congress of Industrial Organizations were not allowed in positions of union leadership because “the male breadwinner would represent the family’s interests in policy making.”

Lazerow and Williams take a dispersed approach to the Black Panther Party’s accomplishments and contributions. In Search of the Black Panther Party uses fourteen essays to connect their battles to a wide array of revolutionary movements within and beyond U.S. borders. Contributor Jeffrey Ogbar’s piece on Black Panther connections to Latino nationalists best illustrates their struggle in a larger racial context. The Black Panthers inspired the Chicano Brown Berets and the Puerto Rican Young Lords and Latin Kings. The aggressively vocal “black demand for equality,” embodied by Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, also energized Latino youths who realized their demands could be heard by institutions that could address them. Black nationalist themes of “multinational alliances and cooperation” resonated with Chicanos who saw paralyzing U.S. colonialism in Central America and with Puerto Ricans in the U.S. who saw pervasive Caribbean poverty. The Black Panthers also played a uniting factor among strivers for liberty. In 1970, Ogbar explains, the Party “became the first major black organization to align itself with a women’s liberation movement,” which was seen as an Anglo cause. They later embraced the gay rights movement. The Panthers linked Latinas to bolder visions of social equality their patriarchal Chicano partners could not stomach, and they injected Black Power’s pride and dignity into the Latino movements, enriching the struggles as well as the rewards.

Social divisions often crippled the civil rights struggles. Arnold R. Hirsch’s study of white resistance to community change in Chicago from 1953 to 1966 and Thomas J. Sugrue’s study of similar disdain in Detroit from 1940 to 1964 both brutally underline the tragic consequences of unresolved racial differences among the New Deal’s descendants. Hirsch’s microstudy of a plan to move black families into Chicago’s Trumbull Park Homes and Sugrue’s local history of Detroit’s white working class illustrate how some Americans reached their economic goals and left other similar groups behind. In Chicago, whites refused to live with blacks in the same neighborhood. In Detroit, whites worried that rights for minorities threatened their workplaces, wages, schools, and communities. Social, personal, and material concerns, Hirsch and Sugrue demonstrate, mattered more than the moral struggle for equality and justice.

Americans pursued better lives and secure liberties. They also pursued happiness – fuller lives, longer lives, and healthier lives. The New Deal’s defeat of poverty and the World War II defeat of fascism primed Americans for victory in an old war at home: the fight for freedom from disease and, decades later, the fight for freedom from sexual oppression.

III.

David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story explores the national endeavor to eradicate the polio virus with a safe vaccine. Millions of dollars were raised. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also a polio victim, encouraged the multi-city celebration of his birthday to raise funds for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. He inspired women canvassing their communities for donations. Citizens and politicians worked together for the common good. A vaccine would help young and poor, of any race or religion, and prove the benefits of a democratic society free to fulfill its potential. It also showcased U.S. scientific abilities as the postwar era darkened into the Cold War era. Experts like Jonas Salk became the public face of American ingenuity. The 1954 vaccination trials offered tangible hope and a sense of progress towards an ultimate cure.

The polio story touches on race, ethnicity, and class. Before the vaccine’s development, Americans blamed immigrants for bringing disease and viewed lower-class slums as cesspools of infection. But rich and poor were struck equally. Scientists thought black Americans were less susceptible to polio, so they received less attention during outbreaks. By the mid-1950s, polio ravaged the lower classes who could not afford the three-shot-plus-booster combination.

Freedom from oppression is just as important as freedom from disease. David Allyn’s Make Love, Not War tenderly explores a sexual renaissance that ebbed and flowed from the 1960s to the 1980s, opening new social spaces for expressions of gay sexuality, experiments with group sex, sophisticated sexual education, the birth control pill, and an open sexual life.

Allyn argues that the sexual revolution changed the most important element of any sex life: the mind. Every phase of the revolution, from acceptance of sexual literature at bookstores to a woman deciding to have an abortion or control her fertility, prepared for the ground for more changes in Americans’ outlook on their times. Swinger parties were incorporated into normal suburban lives. Couples consulted illustrated sex manuals to improve their nocturnal time together. Gay Americans celebrated their desires in clubs that were no longer hidden away in shameful corners of the urban landscape. The revolution introduced to Americans a new freedom from fear, and that freedom still flourishes — and must still be defended — today.

The pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness eventually end for some as others begin the journey anew. Superior forces obstructed the revolutions’ progress. Tragic internal weaknesses, inherent or introduced at a later point, ripped apart movements’ ideological cohesion and lasting power. These works offer larger lessons and warnings to future revolutionaries and idealists: know where you want to arrive before beginning the journey, and bind yourselves tightly to your most unlikely of allies. These works silently demand perseverance, patience, and belief that the American Dream belongs to everyone. One must only fight for it, even if it means fighting other marginalized Americans. There may never be enough of the Dream for everyone.