Political historian and author Jefferson Cowie examined the parallels between New Deal-era America and today, in his presentation “Historical Perspectives”. This is the third installment of the 2016 University of Rhode Island Honors Colloquium “Inequality and the American Dream.”
Economics Department Chair Rick McIntyre provided the opening remarks Tuesday evening, offering words of admiration for Cowie’s work.
“It’s a pleasure for me to be asked to introduce one of the finest social and political historians currently working in the United States,” McIntyre said. “Many books have been written about the income inequality today. Many of these books end with a call for something like a new New Deal. That is not what Jeff Cowie says in his book, ‘The Great Exception’. His argument, [is] more subtle and sophisticated than I can give you in this introduction.”
Cowie, a former Cornell University professor and the current James G. Stahlman Chair at Vanderbilt University, took the stage following McIntyre’s introduction. Cowie began his lecture by addressing the very topic of the American Dream and its inherent absence from the minds of blue-collar white workers.
“Almost all groups in America are optimistic about the future, except for blue-collar whites,” Cowie explained. “Hispanics are almost a third more likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. African Americans, even with what I would regard as inhumane rates of incarceration and police violence, are still three times more optimistic than working class whites. That’s even controlling for economic status.”
Cowie went on to explain the historical context of the New Deal, which actually consisted of two “New Deals”, set in place by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. Cowie discussed the strange impact of the New Deal, coupled with the Great Depression and the onset of tensions across the globe, and how it helped to redistribute wealth and income in the United States. He emphasized the significance of redistribution of wealth, both in the New Deal era and today.
“Your life expectancy as an affluent person is shorter in a more unequal country. We all have interests in decreasing inequality,” Cowie stated.
Cowie moved on to the topic of the “Great Exception,” both the title of his most recent book and what he calls the time period between 1936 and 1978, when America deviated away from standard political practice. This era, following the New Deal, redistributed wealth and income throughout the country.
“The New Deal, this time that many refer to as a model for change, was a positive but unstable experiment,” Cowie said. “This proved to be divergent of some of the dominant trends of American political life. It was a triumph of redistributive policy, but it was clearly not a permanent revolution in the way that we thought of ourselves as a country.”
“I think of the Depression as what is called a ‘political gauntlet’; it was a very narrow opening through which a great deal of change happened. It was a rare moment,” Cowie continued.
He moved on to outline several arguments and facets of “The Great Exception” era, which included the historical changes to immigration, race, individualism, and class and labor, to name a few.
At the conclusion of the lecture, Cowie welcomed questions from the audience. He was met by concise, thoughtful, and interesting questions from various members of the audience, some of whom drew up their own experiences growing up in “The Great Exception” period.
In this question and answer session, Cowie received one question about the topic of World War II and the impact on the economy that weapons production had. Cowie responded with a counter point illustrating how WWII was actually one of the things that pulled the US out of the Depression. The lecture concluded with appreciative applause and attendees lining up to ask Cowie follow-up questions.
Next week’s Colloquium is on Tuesday October 11, and will be presented by Deanna Trella and Timothy Hilton on the topic of “Poverty and Homelessness.”