IN JANUARY 1971, a new sitcom called All in the Family appeared on CBS television. Its central figure was Archie Bunker, a white, working-class, World War II veteran from the Astoria section of Queens. The show’s humor derived from Bunker’s poorly articulated bigotry and resentment against the social changes of the 1960s—feminism, the counterculture, youth and antiwar activism, legalized abortion, expanded roles for minorities, open homosexuality—and his confrontations with those new forces in his own family and neighborhood. The sitcom was one of the first to deal openly with such controversial topics, and it struck such a chord with American viewers that it was the number-one rated show for the first five of its eight years on the air.
Robert O. Self’s book doesn’t mention the sitcom but offers a detailed recounting of those same battles and transformations that provided fodder for the show. Self argues that the “explosive issues surrounding gender, sex, and family” were not peripheral “culture war” matters, but were central to the political struggles over power, equality, and economics during the past five decades. In his view, the politics of the period were, ultimately, all about the left-wing challenges to liberalism’s vision of the idealized nuclear family, followed by a conservative backlash against the supposed moral threat to “family values” posed by new conceptions of gender and sexual rights.
This is a bold claim, but Self makes a strong case that politicized arguments over family were at the heart of liberalism’s crackup and the rise of the right. He offers the useful term “breadwinner liberalism” to describe the Democratic effort, from the New Deal through the Great Society, to advance economic and social policies that would allow more families—headed by a patriotic, hardworking, and presumably white and straight male provider—to enter the middle class. But Self argues that the model of the family envisaged by breadwinner liberalism was “narrow, obsolete, and uncommon” even by the 1960s, with more women in the workforce, greater availability of sexual choices beyond early marriage, and growing numbers of “unconventional” families. Moreover, the traditional model took little account of the needs (or sometimes even the humanity) of women, blacks, and Hispanics, homosexuals, and dissenters and nonconformists of all stripes.
The rights revolution enlarged opportunities for minorities, challenged norms of masculinity and womanhood, secured reproductive rights and more workplace equality for women, and obtained greater freedoms for gays and lesbians. But these were incomplete victories, in Self’s view, since it proved difficult to secure positive liberties—that is, active state assistance to allow citizens to exercise their rights by means such as state recognition of gay marriage. Instead, activists usually had to settle for negative liberties, in which the state merely acknowledged that citizens were free to pursue their liberties to the extent that their own individual resources allowed.
Self also points out that the social revolutions of the ’60s became bogged down in internal disagreements and provoked the rise of the conservative movement. The backlash against issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and welfare allowed conservatives to replace liberals as self-proclaimed champions of the family. Yet the right was not seeking to expand opportunity so much as to defend the idealized family against moral threats and restore so-called “traditional norms.” And since the threat to the family allegedly came from an overweening state, social conservatives joined forces with economic conservatives in a common anti-government front despite the considerable contradictions between their philosophies.
All in the Family provides brief portraits of familiar figures such as Harvey Milk and Gloria Steinem as well as less familiar but important pioneers such as Frank Kameny, who was fired from government service in 1957 for being gay and spent the next half-century crusading for homosexual rights and respectability. Self also revisits critical episodes, such as the Democratic convention in 1972, when new affirmative action rules mandating greater representation for women, youths, and minorities allowed George McGovern to take the nomination, but polarized passions around issues such as welfare, abortion, gay rights, and amnesty for Vietnam draft-dodgers and deserters torpedoed his candidacy.
Other histories have provided more detail on the activists and the episodes that Self describes, but he is relentless in his ability to connect the historical examples to his overarching thesis. Consider his portrait of Kameny, who died last year in Washington at the age of 86. Kameny was among the earliest “homophile” activists and organized the first public protests in the nation’s capital against the purges of homosexuals from government employment. Self emphasizes that Kameny’s movement represented as profound a challenge to the nation’s self-understanding as the contemporary civil rights movement. The gay rights advocates were “arrayed against the country’s major institutions,” including the state (which made homosexuality grounds for dismissal from any federal job), the churches, and the medical profession (which classified homosexuality as a mental illness until December 15, 1973, when “we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists,” as Kameny put it). Self argues that Kameny and his fellow activists “took up the deepest questions of what it meant to be men and women, what it meant to be sexual, and what these matters had to do with the rights and obligations of citizenship.” He underscores his argument with a quote from a letter that Kameny wrote in 1964 to Sargent Shriver. “I write as a homosexual American citizen,” Kameny declared, “with equal emphasis on all three words.” Kameny’s example invites comparisons with the dissidents of the Soviet bloc, whose great insight was to act as if they lived under a regime that respected human rights. Kameny, in Self’s telling, is a figure who should be included in standard American history courses rather than relegated to gay studies departments.
Self’s book does many of the things that good histories do, offering a fresh and far-reaching reinterpretation of recent politics as well as interesting vignettes and detail gleaned from deep archival explorations. But the book also has the defects of its qualities. Self’s monomaniacal focus on family-centered arguments as the overriding explanation for political realignment leads him to minimize competing explanations, such as technological and economic changes and intra-party competition, or national unease over issues such as the Vietnam war and student demonstrations.
Self implicitly assumes that the change in national attitudes was driven by activists, which leads him to devote excessive attention to the internal politics and dynamics of obscure and extremist organizations whose public significance he rarely explores. A typical passage on black power name-checks “Albert Cleague’s Christian nationalism, Flo Kennedy’s audacious and unapologetic feminist politics, and Amiri Bakara’s probing thought …” Self’s obvious sympathy for liberationist forces sometimes leads him to odd conclusions, such as the notion that the civil rights revolution was derailed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan having pointed out, in the course of arguing for more investment in African-American communities in his famous 1965 report, the increasing number of black children being born out of wedlock. He adopts a studiedly neutral position regarding the excesses of identity politics, which makes it hard for the reader to understand why middle-Americans often found black, feminist, and gay radicals to be genuinely threatening, and why conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly were not just playing on prejudices when they pointed to potential negative outcomes from the Equal Rights Amendment.
Self’s treatment of conservatism is careful but nowhere near as well informed as his description of the political left. He makes minor mistakes, like misidentifying columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak as anti-civil rights conservatives when in fact they were pro-civil rights moderates in the ’60s and ’70s who were reviled by the right. (Novak, of course, later became a stalwart of the right.) And he lacks any serious analysis of libertarianism, a crosscurrent within conservatism that was at odds with both the Republican establishment and the religious right on most issues concerning the family and traditional morality.
Self’s epilogue, written before the recent election, takes a gloomy view of the present political situation, in which market forces dominate, liberalism seems in retreat, and “LGBT people still inhabit a world in which only the smallest negative rights have been won and positive rights are confined to relatively few states.” But liberal victories in 2012 suggest that the Democrats’ messy internal wars over identity politics were a necessary price to pay for the party’s present advantages with women, minorities, youth, gays and lesbians, and educated professionals. The success of gay marriage forces in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington also raises the question of how ordinary Americans came to support social positions that they almost certainly would have rejected even a decade ago. The activism Self chronicles obviously is an important part of the explanation, but so too are factors to which he pays less attention, including the role of advertising, the media, and popular culture, all of which have tended to make discrimination against any group seem uncapitalistic and uncool. Historians must cast their nets very wide indeed to determine how we moved from a political culture represented by the likes of Richard Nixon and Archie Bunker to one increasingly characterized by figures such as Barack Obama and Ellen DeGeneres.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.