Earlier this year, Randy McNally, the speaker of the Tennessee Senate, issued a proclamation declaring April 2023 Confederate History Month. He urged ‘citizens from across this state’ to remember their ancestors’ ‘heroic struggle’ for ‘individual freedom’. Observers outside Tennessee may find it incongruous to identify a war fought to preserve slavery with the ideal of freedom, but Jefferson Cowie, who teaches history at Vanderbilt University, in the heart of the state, wouldn’t be surprised. His new book seeks to explain why so many Americans, especially but not exclusively in the South, have understood freedom as an entitlement limited to white people. Cowie argues that ‘white freedom’ has long entailed the power to dominate others, especially non-whites, without interference from the national government. The fear that white freedom is under assault by Blacks, or immigrants, or a faraway national government, helps to explain why in the last election Donald Trump carried Tennessee in a landslide, winning 60 per cent of the vote and all but three of the state’s 95 counties. In many parts of the US, every month is Confederate History Month.
Since the election of Ronald Reagan, historians have struggled to explain why so many members of the white working class have abandoned their loyalty to the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt and decided to vote for candidates whose policies, including tax cuts for the rich, hostility to trade unions and an embrace of economic globalisation, undermine their own economic interests. In perhaps the most widely read book on the subject, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), Thomas Frank argued that the upheavals of the 1960s generated fears and resentments that allowed issues such as abortion rights and racial equity to eclipse economics. Cowie’s book is both an ambitious history lesson and a contribution to this ongoing discussion, recently reinvigorated by working-class support for Trump.
Cowie’s previous work includes Capital Moves (1999), an account of how RCA, a manufacturer of radios and televisions, obsessively pursued cheap labour at home and abroad, and Stayin’ Alive (2010), which drew on images of workers in popular culture to argue that organised labour is no longer a self-conscious power in American life. In both, he was able to weave class, culture, politics and ideology into a consistent narrative and to connect local histories with national and global events. The same qualities are evident in Freedom’s Dominion. The book covers more than two centuries of American history, seeking to explain the evolution and enduring power of a racially inflected understanding of freedom. [Continue reading…]