By most accounts, economic issues are the real core of politics, and social issues are a distraction. A historian begs to differ.
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.
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.
Although the Affordable Care Act and additional low-end tax breaks in the Obama years have extended some of the gains for children, for the most part the bipartisan era of kids-as-politics crashed in about 2002, when the Wall Street Journal deemed the families that benefited from the Earned Income Tax Credit and the other tax benefits the “Lucky Duckies.” With this move, the right began a new stage in the culture war, in which economics itself would replace the divisive power of gender, race, and sexuality. We face a choice between an “entitlement societ” that supports only people who “want things from government,” Mitt Romney tells us, or “an opportunity society.” Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently assembled data that supports the Romney worldview, warning that we are becoming “a nation of ‘takers,” and his boss, AEI President Arthur Brooks, has published two books that warn of an existential showdown between the believers in free enterprise and the forces of government. The language of irreconcilable moral viewpoints, such as characterized fights about abortion rights or gay marriage, has been ported over into the economic field, and people who believe government has a role in supporting the needy or economic growth are treated as alien — “foreign to the American experience,” as Romney said of Obama’s ideas. And so the fight is now fully back in the territory of economics, with the rising American electorate (unmarried women, millennials, professionals, and minorities) not only more socially tolerant but also more supportive of government’s role in the economy. 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. They also could form the basis of a richer liberalism that not only fully values the rights of individuals in their diverse identities, but also builds the kind of supportive economy and social contract that can enable everyone, in any kind of family, to make the most of his or her capacities.
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