On Political Books

September/October 2012 Identity Politics Revisited

By most accounts, economic issues are the real core of politics, and social issues are a distraction. A historian begs to differ.

By Mark Schmitt

All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s
by Robert O. Self
Hill and Wang, 528 pp.


Most of the stories we have told about American politics in recent decades have tended to divide the world between social issues and economic issues, and to focus on the interaction between them. A familiar story about liberalism, for example, holds that it was distracted by “identity politics”—the demands of minorities, women, and gay men and lesbians for rights and equality—and lost sight of the broad New Deal coalition of workingclass white voters (particularly men) and the common ground of economic issues. This was explored most fully in Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson’s recent history, The Cause, but was expressed most crudely in 1972 by George Meany, then president of the AFL-CIO, at the Democratic convention: “We listened to the Gay Lib people. We heard from the abortionists. But there were no steelworkers, no pipefitters … no plumbers.” Four decades later, Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter With Kansas, argued that the political right succeeded by distracting low-income white voters with social issues, such as opposition to same-sex marriage, in order to co-opt their votes for reactionary economic policies. More recently, the tide has turned, and many social or culture war issues (with the exception of abortion rights) now seem like winners for liberals. In 2009, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress foresaw “a likely diminution in the culture wars that have bedeviled American politics for so long.” In place of social issues, “we are likely to see more attention paid to health care, energy, and education”—that is, the core economic agenda. Republican nominee Mitt Romney has attempted to maneuver around staggeringly unpopular GOP positions, such as opposition to contraception. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’s call for a “truce” in the culture wars doomed his own political future, but only because he said out loud what Romney, and what’s left of the Republican establishment, plainly think. All of these accounts of recent politics, different as they are, share a common perspective: implicitly or explicitly, they treat economic issues as the real core of politics, while the claims of women, ethnic and racial minorities, and gay men and lesbians are peripheral.

Whether issues of social and cultural identity are manipulated by the right or pulling on the left, they are seen as diversions from the real “who gets what” of politics. In his new book, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s, Robert O. Self, an associate professor of history at Brown, rewrites this story from its most basic assumptions. For Self, the author of an acclaimed account of integration and backlash in Oakland, California, the nature of the family, the role of women, the status of gay men and lesbians, and other subjects dismissed as “identity politics” or “social issues” are not peripheral at all, but unavoidably central to recent American politics. As Self puts it in his conclusion, “the politics of gender, sexuality, and the family since the 1960s have not been issues inserted into the public life of the nation. Rather, they have been one of the central grounds on which this public life itself has been constituted.” Self sees recent politics as a choice between a conception of the family as “adaptive and sociological,” including one-parent, unmarried two-parent, same-sex-parent families, and nonmarital sexual relationships in all their variety, and one that is “archetypal,” what former Senator Rick Santorum calls “Mom and Dad families,” with deep assumptions about gender roles and responsibilities at work and home.

Self tells the whole story of American politics through the lens of the battles about gender, sexuality, and family. It is not only the story of the women’s movement and the “homophile” organizations (which is what the movement we now know as LGBT called itself in the 1950s and ’60s) but also the evolving vision of manhood and a man’s role in society, which was tested by Vietnam and the changing economy. “Breadwinner liberalism” is Self’s brilliant term for the New Deal/Great Society vision of a just society—one in which a man can provide support for a nonworking wife and children, but that is also infused with an idealized, tough-minded manhood, exemplified by the men of the Kennedy family.

Self points out that the clear-headed Cold War liberalism of Arthur Schlesinger’s book The Vital Center, now widely admired and revived in Peter Beinart’s book The Good Fight, bore an unsubtle gendered vision—what else to make of all that stuff in the book about avoiding ”neurosis” and embracing “a new virility”?

Breadwinner liberalism was unsustainable, though, for both social and economic reasons. Pete Hammil in 1969 identified “the growing alienation and paranoia of the working-class white man” as the political phenomenon of the era, and that anxious backlash, driven both by race and a rapidly changing social order, foreshadowed the emergence of what Self calls “breadwinner conservatism,” in which restoring the structure of the “archetypal” family would prove more important than the actual breadwinning.

Self makes a powerful case for the larger importance of the LGBT and women’s movements, but he sometimes delves so deeply into the internal politics of each — for example, the conflicts within 1970s lesbian activism between those who adopted “butch” and “femme” roles and the “freaky” women who rejected that imitation of heterosexual norms—that he loses some of the connection to the central grounds of political argument, veering off into alleys that involve a relatively small number of people. But these movement stories, with a rich set of characters—many of them little known to the larger liberal world — are in themselves fascinating tales. Two recurring figures in particular, the legendary gay activist Frank Kameny, who was fired from the U.S. Army Map Service and took his case to the Supreme Court in 1961, and Del Martin, a San Francisco lesbian activist of subtle strategic intelligence, emerge as figures who should occupy a much larger place in our understanding of postwar American politics. Kameny passed away last year at the age of eighty-six, and Martin, who married her partner of fifty-six years in 2008, died later that year at eighty-seven. It is not just their longevity and final triumphs that Self calls on us to admire about Kameny and Martin, but their savvy and mature engagement in managing the wildly disparate impulses of early gay rights activism.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Comments

  • DHFabian on August 29, 2012 1:04 AM:

    If we have a left, they forgot to plug in their microphone. The political left is defined by socio-economic issues, and this generation has completely dropped the ball. In more conventional terms, today's liberals are all about the bourgeoisie (while, on occasion, making a token mention of the working poor), essentially turning the middle class into a gated community by taking measures to keep the poor locked into poverty. We are so convinced of the fundamental inferiority of those pushed into poverty that we actually see cities posting "Don't feed the homeless signs," enforcing the message that the poor are no more human than pigeons. Today, we take children from parents suffering prolonged unemployment with no more moral hesitation than we take calves from cows at auction time. We have shipped out a massive number of working class of jobs, then increased the number of people desperate for jobs. Far fewer jobs for far more workers, and we demand that some of the least employable find jobs. Indeed, while people with college degrees are selling burgers and fries, we insist there is "no excuse" for the least advantaged to secure employment.As a result of Clinton's welfare reform, infant mortality rates among America's poor have been rising while the life expectancy of our poor has actually fallen below that of some Third World countries, and liberals remain disinterested. These policies kill, and we call them "successful."

  • Sean Scallon on September 12, 2012 11:51 AM:

    "Self’s book is a valuable reminder that the arguments about the family since the 1960s always had an economic dimension and were not a distraction."

    I completely agree. I was thought it was too simplistic to say "let's just focus on economic issues" as if cultural questions to our nation's politics: slavery, prohibition, suffrage, the Catholic question, had never taken place before.

    Such social issues may well have worked themselves out in the the 1970s had the economy not collapsed by 1980. The inflation which began to rise in the late Vietnam-era, going off gold, the OPEC oil embargo, the energy crisis, and then rising unemployment, all of these things contributed to discontents which existed at that time. If you feel threatened economically you're going to feel threatened everywhere else: your status at home, your neighborhood, the people you work with or the community you live. Thus, as Hammill put it, "working white-class paranoia" It's almost impossible to separate the two.

    It's amazing what a little economic prosperity can do to ease social tensions. The boom years from 1983-2008 (despite the little dips from 1990-92 and 2000-02) may well have done as much to help pass welfare reform and make homosexual marriage more acceptable in the broader society than any court decision or election or even Will and Grace did.

    Besides this book, some other media which might help you better understand the whole scene are the movie "North Country" and the book "Staying Alive - The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class" by Jefferson Cowie.

  • Just Sayinh on September 18, 2012 6:19 PM:

    This is an embarrassing review. Abortion is a winning culture war argument? Tell Todd Akin. Abortion is not economic? Because apparently raising children is free? Women's health care and ability to avoid forced childbirth is the economic foundation necessary for economic equality, full stop. ' “Free as in speech, or free as in beer”— free beer, unlike speech, comes at someone else’s expense.' Paying for health care, like birth control, saves everyone money. And not prohibiting women's health care saves everyone money as well as lives. If women can be beaten at home, we cannot continue school or excel at work. The book sounds interesting, but the review is so disconnected from anyone who has lived a female life it reads as if Mitt Romney were its author. "Culture war" issues are not economic issues ONLY FOR SWM.

  • Just Sayinh on September 18, 2012 6:24 PM:

    This is an embarrassing review. Abortion is a winning culture war argument? Tell Todd Akin. Abortion is not economic? Because apparently raising children is free? Women's health care and ability to avoid forced childbirth is the economic foundation necessary for economic equality, full stop. ' “Free as in speech, or free as in beer”— free beer, unlike speech, comes at someone else’s expense.' Paying for health care, like birth control, saves everyone money. And not prohibiting women's health care saves everyone money as well as lives. If women can be beaten at home, we cannot continue school or excel at work. The book sounds interesting, but the review is so disconnected from anyone who has lived a female life it reads as if Mitt Romney were its author. "Culture war" issues are not economic issues ONLY FOR SWM.