Ron Briley: Review of Robert O. Self's "All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s" (Hill and Wang, 2012)

tags: masculinity, Ron Briley, Robert O. Self, working class, families

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Contemporary liberal commentators and politicians often lament that conservative interests employ cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage to convince working-class Americans to vote against their economic interests. However, Robert O. Self, associate professor of history at Brown University and author of the prize-winning American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (2003), perceives this conventional political wisdom as a false dichotomy. In All in the Family, Self presents a complex and nuanced argument, tracing how breadwinning liberalism, focusing upon economic issues and the safety net, transformed into breadwinning conservatism with an emphasis upon the traditional family and cultural issues. This transformation, argues Self, explains contemporary political dialogue dominated by social conservatives and neoliberals.

Self asserts that President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society expanded to incorporate the black freedom struggle by bringing black Americans into the New Deal Democratic consensus. Drawing upon such sources as the 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action prepared by then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Johnson administration believed that “ending racial discrimination and embarking upon on an ambitious antipoverty and affirmative action program would allow heretofore marginalized black men to become productive workers and heads of families” (19). This government effort to promote black masculinity through such programs as affirmative action, however, evoked a reaction by white males who perceived their status and families as under siege. This debate upon the nuclear family and male breadwinners failed to recognize the increasing number of households, both black and white, headed by women.

According to Self, traditional notions of manhood were also challenged by the Vietnam War. In the jungles of Vietnam, the national equation of manhood with patriotism was undermined by allegations of atrocities committed by American soldiers. The right perceived soldiers such as Lieutenant William Calley, convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre, as victims of an American government which failed to adequately prosecute the war. In addition, the class bias of the draft which allowed for middle-class college deferments fueled a sense of working-class discontent with an educated and urban elite.

Finding inspiration in the example of the black freedom movement, gay men also challenged the heterosexual assumptions of breadwinner liberalism. Initially employing the right of privacy, gay men dominated what Self refers to as the homophile movement, seeking acceptance and citizenship. This citizenship, however, would also require the government to take more positive actions to assure that the rights of gay men were protected from discriminatory policies and practices. Self also notes that the struggle for gay rights divided along class and racial lines; however, this new sexual citizenship was viewed by social conservatives as a monolithic assault upon the traditional male breadwinners as was the emerging feminist movement.

One of the major assumptions of the idealized nuclear family was female domesticity, which failed to reflect the reality of women serving as head of households and participating in the workforce. Self observes that women’s liberation was split along the line of liberty and equality. Liberty would address any discriminatory laws or practices which limited a woman’s access to the labor market. However for women to compete equally with men in the market place, governmental action providing such services as child care would be essential. This conflict between liberty and equality was most prevalent in the abortion debate. The case for abortion rights was based upon the notion of privacy -- a woman should be free to make personal choices regarding her body and reproduction. Nevertheless, poor women would need the state to assure that reproductive rights were available to all women. The anti-abortion movement, on the other hand, produced a strong counter argument led by women such as Phyllis Schafly, who championed the traditional nuclear family and insisted that abortion was murder. Unable to overturn the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court abortion decision, Schafly and her supporters were able to curtail abortion by limiting federal and state funding. Thus, poor women were unable to achieve freedom of choice, contributing to the growing feminization of poverty in which poor women were left behind as their middle-class sisters proceeded to take advantage of the new opportunities opened up by feminism. The late 1960s and early 1970s also saw the development of a lesbian movement which struggled to find its place within the homophiles dominated by gay men and heterosexual feminism, but Self concludes that lesbianism “as identity, practice, and theory became ever more intertwined with the women’s movement in all of its class and racial configurations” (179).

To traditionalists, the sexual and identity politics of the early 1970s embodied an erotic revolution which was a threat to the nuclear family. While feminists sometimes joined conservatives in opposition to pornography, the religious and family values constituency sought not an accommodation with the new sexual order, but rather a restoration of the traditional sexual order. The process of gays and lesbians (replacing the term homophiles) coming out was also perceived as a sexual threat to the nuclear family. Coming out suggested that sexual orientation was not simply a matter of private choice, but a public action which required state intervention to assure that equal protection of the law was extended to gays and lesbians. Self writes, “The gay movement posited a new citizen, one with rights protecting it from discrimination based on sexuality, and its opponents countered by asserting the rights of an idealized nuclear family” (221).

The high watermark for the emerging identity politics, argues Self, was the 1972 Democratic national convention. Emphasizing racial, gender, and sexual politics along with quotas, the convention discarded traditional Democratic power bases such as unions, urban political machines, and the solid South, while nominating George McGovern, who Self maintains ran on the platform of a deteriorating breadwinner liberalism. Thus by the mid-1970s Self concludes that moral conservatives believed that “pornography, sex education, abortion, the ERA, gay and lesbian rights, and feminism writ large were less distinct issues than a single revolution in which the state sought to displace the family as the nation’s moral arbiter” (257). Thus, feminism, lesbianism, and abortion were constructed as state-sanctioned actions against motherhood and the family. In addition, a new perception of manhood was found in the hard-hat movement in which construction workers in New York City attacked anti-war protesters, projecting hard work and patriotism as the virtues of breadwinner conservatism.

Thus, by the late 1970s anti-feminism and the reassertion of patriotic masculinity were celebrated as opposing the power of an authoritarian state threatening individual liberty and moral certainty during a period of economic decline for most working-class Americans. Breadwinner conservatism seemed to reach its zenith in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. While some political commentators discount the contribution of Christian evangelicals to the so-called Reagan conservative revolution, Self asserts that the religious right played a pivotal role. Nevertheless, evangelicals were often disappointed by Reagan’s lack of action on social issues, and, thus, they were able to perpetuate a sense of victimization. Self concludes that by the end of the twentieth century, breadwinning conservatism was ascendant, while Democrats such as Bill Clinton embraced a neoliberalism with greater emphasis upon the market rather than government. In summarizing the conservative agenda, Self asserts, “They convinced enough Americans that government was an unresponsive force that promoted abortion, supported (broken) families on welfare, advocated absolute equality between men and women, and rewarded racial minorities at the expense of hardworking white breadwinners to discredit the social contract and remake the nation’s politics” (401).

Self does not discuss the Obama administration, but the nation’s first black president seems essentially to fit within Self’s conception of Democratic neoliberalism. While empathizing with the identity politics of blacks, Asians, Latinos, gays, lesbians, and feminists, Self laments the effort to simply graft this new politics on to traditional breadwinner liberalism rather than forge meaningful new parameters for liberalism. Self’s argument is well grounded in extensive archival research which especially increases reader appreciation of the feminist, gay, and lesbian movements for change during the 1960s and 1970s. However, Self provides little analysis of how identity and cultural politics were reflected in popular culture where such influential films as Rocky (1976) depicted a perceived threat to the white heterosexual working class. Self’s argument developing the link between economic and cultural issues sheds considerable light on the politics of the late twentieth century, but the path out of our political malaise is less apparent.