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

There is a bigger point to Self’s deep dive into the internal politics of the LGBT and women’s rights movements, as well as his analysis of the gender politics of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam-inflected politics of manhood and the military, and the sexual revolution. Rather than seeing identity politics as a single thing, distinct from economic issues, he shows that each movement or dimension of family politics had, at its best, an agenda that included both basic rights and economic supports that would help the changing family adapt — such as the effort to secure a strong child care program that foundered in the Nixon administration—which Self refers to using Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between “negative” and “positive” rights. (A pithier version of the distinction is the computer scientist Richard Stallman’s phrase, “Free as in speech, or free as in beer”— free beer, unlike speech, comes at someone else’s expense.) Each movement involved its own divisions, often those of race and class, between those who could afford to prioritize negative rights and, for example, low-income unmarried women, who needed more positive support to achieve equality. This structure works better as an analysis of feminism than of gay rights. Self argues that the negative rights within each movement won out:

what has survived in the new political environment are a handful of abstract rights: women’s market liberty, for instance, the constitutionality of abortion, and sexual privacy…. Meaningful rights varied with income and resources.

While the rapid shift in attitudes about same-sex marriage, and its legal status, is astonishing to all of us who have lived through it, it is also entirely consistent with Self’s dichotomy between negative and positive rights. Gay marriage became acceptable as soon as people looked up and realized that nothing was threatened, that it bore no real cost. And many liberals now regard these victories as almost too easy, compared to the challenge of expanding economic opportunity, which has to come at a cost to someone, even if only the very rich. “Where are the leaders when the issues are jobs and social investment?” lamented Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect when Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York embraced same-sex marriage.

Does Self refute the now-conventional story that identity politics tore apart the liberal coalition that existed from the 1930s to the ’60s? Not quite, which is unfortunate, because such a challenge would be useful and overdue. But he does add a great deal of nuance to the old tale. First, he shows that the emergence of a politics of rights, around the nature of the family, was inevitable — there’s no alternative history where you get to keep “breadwinner liberalism” unchanged, and if there were, none of us would want to live in that world. Here I’m reminded of the libertarian writer Brink Lindsey’s aphorism that “left and right are both pining for the ’50s. The only difference is that liberals want to work there, while conservatives want to go home there.” Neither one has that option.

Second, Self shows that an alternative form of the politics of the family was possible, one in which issues such as child care, health care, and an economic program of full employment that included women were fully realized. The fullest achievement of that agenda would have represented a kind of post-breadwinner liberalism that would support the shared aspirations of all families, including adaptive ones. That it didn’t happen is in part the fault of the movements themselves—as Self says, “the liberal-left insurgents of the 1960s and 1970s lost momentum, political allies, and purchase on crucial symbolic mythologies of the American family” — but was also related to larger economic and political forces affecting white men as well as the rights movements.

A significant shortcoming of the book is that it drops the story around the early 1980s, even though the final section promises to cover the period from 1974 to 2011. Beyond the Carter years and the rise of both the religious right and HIV-AIDS activism in the 1980s, it thins out, and familiar anecdotes, such as the Clarence Thomas- Anita Hill showdown, substitute for the extraordinary archival research and littleknown characters of the earlier chapters. As a result, Self omits one of the more interesting chapters in the history of the politics of family, which I would call the era of kidsas- politics. This period lasted from roughly the late 1980s, when Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg circulated a strategy memo with the title “Kids as Politics,” through the early George W. Bush years. Putting children at the center of politics would, it was hoped, restore the “positive liberties” that Self says were displaced in the earlier fights, and renew a sense of the purpose of government. Children could form a kind of common denominator between the adaptive model of the liberal left and the archetypal model of the right. If the focus was on children, it really wouldn’t matter whether they were growing up with one parent or two — married or unmarried, gay or straight — or in an adoptive or foster family.

Kids-as-politics didn’t fully live up to Greenberg’s expectations, but it didn’t do too badly. Also in 1987, Senator Jay Rockefeller convened the federally funded Commission on Children, which had the valuable effect of co-opting several prominent family values conservatives to support some of the positive social supports that were necessary for children to thrive, such as health care, child care, and a children’s tax credit. While the commission’s recommendations were considered overambitious on their release in 1991, almost all of them eventually came to pass: significant increases in child care, Head Start, and the Earned Income Tax Credit; the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act; the creation of the Child Tax Credit and its hard-fought expansion as the Additional Child Tax Credit in 2001; and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997. While kids-as politics didn’t stop the welfare reform of 1996, which was the inevitable outcome of the racial and gender backlash Self recounts, that bill’s other provisions — separate from the now-disastrous transformation of family support to a fixed block grant — greatly expanded child care and child support enforcement.

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.