Monday, April 01, 2013

What We're Reading: New History

All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s, by Robert O. Self


One of the odd things about history--and perhaps the observation applies especially to social history--is that it seems to be of greatest interest to those who have lived through those very times that that are the subject of retrospective chronicles. It’s as if we are looking for someone to make sense of the times through which we have lived, to give them a coherency that at the time seems to have eluded us, and to tell us what were the important themes of what we have experienced as our communal lives. All in the Family is one version of that story, one that will no doubt be argued over by all the parties who still have passionate irons in the fire. It is an intriguing book that will be central to any attempts to make sense of the social lives of all of us who are a part of the “Baby Boom” generation.

What author Self is trying to explain here is nothing less than the shift in American political culture since the 1960s, the change from what he calls the final days of the “breadwinner liberalism” of the New Deal to the rise of “breadwinner conservatism” in our times. He sees this change as driven largely by a deflation of the unsustainable myth of the American patriarchal nuclear family, and by the subsequent conservative reaction to the personal rights politics of women and sexual minorities. This change may have all begun in earnest politically, Self says, with the Civil Rights movement, but he argues:

As crucial as it as to restructuring American life in these decades, the struggle over racial equality cannot by itself account for the ways that breadwinner liberalism came unglued or for the ways that a right-wing version of breadwinning nuclear families moved to the center of conservative politics after the 1970s. Only by considering the politics of gender, sex, and sexuality in tandem with---and just as often embedded in---the politics of race can we understand how breadwinner liberalism over the two decades after 1972 became breadwinner conservatism.
What may be difficult for some readers to accept in Self’s analysis is that the so-called personal identity-based political movements that we seem to have experienced during our lives as innovative yet still marginal (the struggle for gay and lesbian rights along with the feminist movement) were in fact central to the realignment of American politics, that they were symptomatic of tectonic shifts that were occurring in society at large, and that they seriously challenged the enduring myths that no longer (if they ever did) reflected the social and economic realities of life in America. In making his argument, Self gives us interesting histories of how the gay movement, lesbian movement, feminist movements, and “family values” and neo-conservative movements have changed and developed since the 1960s. These are illuminating narratives in their own right, but more importantly, Self looks at the interrelationships between the groups on the left and those on the right as he attempts to explain why the revolutions of the left had but mixed success and why the reactions of the right to those movements ended up successfully stalling or defeating the agenda of the leftist rights-based movements. As Self explains:
To redress historical inequality and to make political headway, a range of Americans out of necessity coalesced around identities--black, homophile, female. However, once the notion of a universal democratic subject, a universal "American," was fractured, it was a complicated matter to reassemble. The liberal and radical movements that challenged the idea of a universal American were inherently circumscribing, not all-inclusive.
This problem of identity-based politics was not faced by the conservative opponents of these movements, and Self’s examination of the tensions between various groups on the left is one of the more intriguing aspects of his book. The discussion about the relationship between radical lesbianism and feminism is particularly illustrative and provocative.

Self believes that another challenge to the leftist movements was their philosophical origin in the right of privacy, which he identifies as a “negative” right, the right to be left alone. For example, defining access to abortion as a “negative” right to individual liberty meant that social inequalities would as often as not determine the quality of the liberty afforded by privacy. And indeed, we seem to be reminded daily of this in the news when it comes to the issue of access to abortion. Self also sees a tension in these movements between goals of equality and liberty. When it came to the workplace, the impact of the women’s movement was one in which liberty won out over equality: “Women were set free to compete with men in the market, but little was done to transform that market to accommodate the unchanging necessity of women’s family work.”

“Equality” he classifies as a “positive” right because it inevitably meant that government social and economic policy would be enlisted in the effort of securing those rights to individuals. But conservative groups united in the view that affirmative actions by an assertive state to secure these rights for various social groups was a case of the state replacing the family as the center of moral values. This too seems to remain a major ideological fault line in the country, although conservative-sponsored “affirmative” actions like DOMA, that put the state in the position of defending a particular values agenda, seem to now be part of the arsenal of tools used to combat the rights legacy of the major social movements of the last 40 years.

Self believes that the political and social fight in America during the last 40 years has centered on the contest of who would control the definition and use of “family” as a political term in America. The strength of the conservative reaction against much of the rights agenda of the identity-based social movements still seems to depend on an ideal myth of the American family. There seems to be some understanding that the reality of a male-headed single breadwinner nuclear family is a thing of the past, and yet nostalgia for the idea, and the particular values that it was thought to embody (as well as the particular divisions it defined between the public and the private and the role of government) remains a powerful force. But there also seems to be a growing recognition that this old notion of the family cannot accommodate the contemporary reality of the varied ways in which families are now constituted in contemporary American life. For many families and individuals, that old ideal excludes them; it is a notion that cannot guarantee them equality, inclusiveness, and full citizenship.

The gulf between what so many still long for and the nation that in fact exists is still one we are attempting to bridge, and the dynamic of that struggle seems to remain fundamental to the continuing divisions in American domestic politics. Self has written a book that helps us to understand and to think about where we have been, where we are, and is suggestive of what social and political waters we yet must cross.

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