Barry McNamara  |   Published February 04, 2018

Midwest Matters

Prize-winning author Cowie to speak about region’s economic, political connections
MONMOUTH, Ill. – An author who has been called “one of our nation’s most commanding interpreters of recent American experience” will speak at Monmouth College about how the Midwest’s economic struggles can be connected to recent major political events.

Jefferson Cowie will deliver the College’s annual Midwest Matters talk at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 in the Pattee Auditorium of the Center for Science and Business.

Like last school year’s speaker, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, Cowie is the author of a book that may help explain the results of the 2016 election through the lens of hard economic times, said political science lecturer Robin Johnson.

“What brought me to trying to bring Jeff to campus is his recent book, The Great Exception,” said Johnson. “We think the post-World War II era is a grand era. Cowie’s point in the book is that it’s actually an outlier in U.S. history, and I think he’s onto something.”

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne called The Great Exception: The New Deal and Limits of American Politics “one of the most important political books” of 2016, and The Nation magazine has tabbed Cowie as “one of our nation’s most commanding interpreters of recent American experience.”

“For his talk at Monmouth, Jeff will discuss his recent work and its connections to the state of American politics today, with a focus on the Midwest,” said Johnson. “During the post-World War II era, the Midwest was the hub of the middle class, with a booming auto industry, strong unions and strong manufacturing. All those entities have been declining. That’s a direct cause, perhaps, of the 2016 election results.”

Johnson said two other authors of 2016 books shared Cowie’s viewpoint. Economist Robert Gordon argues in The Rise and Fall of American Growth that “the age of innovation is dead.” In An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy, Johnson said author Marc Levinson “comes to the same conclusion as Cowie, with a global outlook,” writing that the oil crisis of 1973 ushered in a new era.

“My hope is to have people react to what Jeff thinks and to see if his thoughts about the Midwest square with our history,” said Johnson. “This is a topic I think is really relevant – thinking about our future economy and what’s achievable, and what might not be achievable.”

The James G. Stahlman Chair in History at Vanderbilt University, Cowie is the author of a number of prize-winning books, including Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, which won a series of awards, including the 2011 Francis Parkman Prize for the Best Book in American History.
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