Breadwinner Conservatism: On Robert O. Self
When Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate in August, much of the immediate speculation about the representative from Wisconsin assumed he wasn’t a culture warrior. On Time’s website, an article by Jay Newton-Small listed the “Eight Things You Should Know About Romney Running Mate Paul Ryan”: Point No. 3 was that “He came of age in the fiscal right wing of the GOP,” but No. 7 assured readers, “He’s less conservative on social issues.” Newton-Small based this assessment on Ryan’s 2007 vote for a bill that would protect gay people from employment discrimination—it’s the one pro-gay vote Ryan has cast in the House—as well as, bizarrely, his vote for the auto bailout.
Soon enough, though, the jubilation of the anti-abortion movement over Ryan’s place on the ticket became hard to ignore; so, too, the 100 percent score that the National Right to Life Committee gave him for every year of his congressional career (a higher rating than that earned by Todd “legitimate rape” Akin). In fact, in 2011 Ryan joined Akin in co-sponsoring the Sanctity of Human Life Act, a federal personhood bill that, if passed, could lead to bans not just on abortion but on many forms of birth control and in-vitro fertilization as well. As Nate Silver pointed out in The New York Times, according to DW-Nominate, a system for ranking members of Congress ideologically, Ryan is as far to the right as Michele Bachmann.
The initial misapprehension of Ryan was telling, and points to the persistent failure to understand the extent to which laissez-faire economics and social authoritarianism have become intertwined in the last thirty years. Again and again, political commentators insist on distinguishing Republicans obsessed with cutting government benefits from those clamoring to use government power to enforce “family values.” When the Tea Party emerged, it was often labeled a libertarian movement, when in fact it was overwhelmingly the old Christian right in a new guise. If voters and analysts alike hadn’t underestimated the extreme social conservatism of Tea Party candidates in 2010, they wouldn’t have been shocked when newly elected Republicans who had run for office on budget-cutting turned their attention to curtailing or eliminating access to birth control and abortion.
The most useful aspect of Robert O. Self’s often frustrating new book, All in the Family, is the framework it offers for understanding how social conservatism and economic libertarianism have merged into a single ideology on much of the right—one that Self calls “breadwinner conservatism.” He writes: “Conventional interpretations of the post-1970s conservative coalition too often claim that so-called cultural or ‘values’ conservatives stood in tension with fiscal conservatives. In some specific instances,” he allows, “the alliance was fragile and not altogether natural. But in far more cases, the budget-cutting, anti-welfare-state fiscal conservatives found natural allies in the religious right and the pro-family movement.”
The author of an acclaimed history of postwar Oakland, American Babylon (2003), Self has set himself an ambitious goal in his new book: to explain why, ever since the 1960s, battles over sex, gender and the meaning of family have become inextricable from battles over the size and scope of the government. For conservative activists since the ’80s, the defense of the autonomous, idealized nuclear family “was intimately linked to the way they also sought to limit government interference in the private market,” Self writes. “These stories are not often told together. Questions of gender, sex, and family have been isolated as part of the ‘culture war’—a struggle that has been seen as tangential to the politics of equality, power, and money.”
This is crucial for those outside the conservative movement to understand. It helps explain why liberals and progressives so often fail to rally working-class and middle-class voters behind economic policies that would benefit them. It’s the reason that even in our present moment of economic desperation, fights over sexuality and family roles keep recurring. With “breadwinner conservatism,” Self has named and defined the story the right tells about itself. By emphasizing how social and economic conservatism buttress each other—even when they seem contradictory to outsiders—All in the Family has the potential to explain much about our current political moment.
Consider the recurring debates over single motherhood. In July, The New York Times ran a widely discussed piece, “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do.’” It contrasted the situations of two friends working at a Michigan daycare center, Jessica Schairer and her boss, Chris Faulkner, both mothers of school-age children. The gap between their salaries isn’t great, but Faulkner, who is married, lives a comfortable middle-class life, while Schairer, who is single, struggles on food stamps. “Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns—as opposed to changes in individual earnings—may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality,” wrote the Times’s Jason DeParle, a pre-eminent reporter on poverty in this country. “Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.”
Typically, a liberal sees this situation and faults a system in which a woman can work full time and still barely support her family. To someone on the left, only a hypocrite could claim to value family well-being while opposing policies that might help Schairer and her kids. But if you believe that encouraging traditional families is of paramount social importance, a regime that makes life as a single mother extremely difficult is not necessarily unjust. And if you want, above all, to keep government small, you will oppose family arrangements that could lead to greater use of public supports like food stamps, subsidized daycare and after-school programs. In both cases, policies that make people less dependent on nuclear families and private institutions like churches are anathema. As Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget plan insists, “government’s expansive reach too often undermines non-governmental institutions better suited to assist individuals in need, because it substitutes federal power in their place. Government programs should bolster—not displace—the family, civic and religious institutions that serve communities across the nation.” This stratagem allows Ryan to square his fealty to Catholic doctrine in matters of sex and reproduction with his rejection of the Church’s social justice teachings. And it’s the reason many Americans are convinced that government policies to help families in need constitute an attack on the family as an institution.
* * *