Breadwinner Conservatism: On Robert O. Self
Despite the sturdiness of its framework, All in the Family is less enlightening than it should be. The book is more broad than deep, offering an overview of fifty years of cultural conflict without much analysis or synthesis. Readers familiar with the history of the feminist movement, the gay rights movement and modern conservatism will be able to anticipate the turns in the road. It’s not always clear why Self is retelling well-known stories like the rise of gay rights hero Harvey Milk in San Francisco or the emergence of evangelical broadcasting behemoths like Jerry Falwell and James Robison. And though he dwells at length on gay politics, Self doesn’t seem to recognize the epochal success that gay activists have enjoyed in claiming the language of family for themselves. To simply declare, as Self does in the final pages of the book, that “marriage rights remain far from universal, DOMA remains law, 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” is to seriously understate the amount of progress that has been made on gay equality in the last half-century.
Similarly, Self often documents the emergence of ideological currents without delving into them; he has a strange reluctance to engage with the various thinkers and writers who populate his sprawling story. The book is long on catalogs of meetings and legislative initiatives and short on intellectual history. Writing about the influence of the Mormon leader Ezra Taft Benson, Self collapses Mormonism into Christianity as a whole, writing, in an oversimplified parenthetical aside, “Mormons were conservative Christians, though not officially part of the evangelical community.” The fascinating story of how Mormonism, with its lionization of the American businessman, has shaped the economic outlook of the religious right more generally will have to be told by someone else.
The story Self does tell begins with the emergence of an ideology he calls “breadwinner liberalism,” which, he argues, undergirded the expansion of the welfare state during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. “Great Society liberals worried deeply about male unemployment, the replacement of manpower by machine power in the nation’s factories, and the racial discrimination that kept black men underemployed and in poverty,” he writes, adding, “Liberals stressed the need to rehabilitate the male breadwinner—through social programs, remunerative market work, and military service—and return him to his proper place at the head of the family.” Liberal economic policies were understood to support traditional families, and particularly traditional gender relations.
Even Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which infuriated civil rights leaders by attributing African-American poverty to a matriarchal culture, welfare dependence and a “tangle of pathology,” concluded with an argument for more government investment in black communities, not less. Though the problem of family breakdown was only getting worse, Moynihan wrote, there had been “a profound change for the better in one respect. The President has committed the nation to an all out effort to eliminate poverty wherever it exists, among whites or Negroes, and a militant, organized, and responsible Negro movement exists to join in that effort.”
As long as big-government liberalism worked to uphold the nuclear family, it was supported by a fairly broad social consensus. But in the 1960s and ’70s, traditional ideas about gender came under a series of attacks from the left. The counterculture rejected the ideal of military service and the iconography of midcentury manhood more generally. Feminists rebelled against enforced domesticity and fought for women’s ability to earn their own living and control their reproductive lives. Gays and lesbians demanded rights and recognition, slowly building themselves into a powerful force within the Democratic Party. Sexual liberation helped normalize the presence of porn in mainstream life. Breadwinner liberalism was being undermined.
Some on the left, of course, have faulted identity politics for the death of the liberal consensus. But that is not Self’s aim; he’s broadly sympathetic to all the insurgent social movements he describes, although it’s not always clear how much he understands them. At one point, describing the work of Robin Morgan, Gloria Steinem, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer, he writes, “At that outer edge, their thinking went beyond calls for ‘rights’ to calls for an end to patriarchy.” But opposition to patriarchy wasn’t the “outer edge” of the feminist movement—it was, and remains, its defining feature. Self doesn’t meaningfully engage with the ways that feminists in the 1970s struggled with the notion of the family, how some rejected it entirely while others tried to reform it. Consequently, he doesn’t explore or explain the radical excesses of feminism, or how people like Phyllis Schlafly were able to capitalize on them.
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Self’s account of the interaction of social movements is inert, failing to convey the passions and texture of the times he writes about. For conservative women opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment, he tells us, “gender role differences were not only natural but economically beneficial. Women cared for children and the home, and in exchange they were spared the ravages of the market by supportive men who shouldered that burden.” This is true, but also obvious. Compare Self’s gloss with Rick Perlstein’s Technicolor view of Schlafly’s anti-ERA activism in Nixonland. Once a firebrand anticommunist organizer, Perlstein writes, Schlafly “had turned her Phyllis Schlafly Report over to fulminating that what the ERA would bring America was more horrifying even than anything the Chinese could have in store for us: ‘This Amendment will absolutely and positively make women subject to the draft,’ her subscribers learned. It would license a man to ‘demand that his wife go to work to help pay for family expenses…. The women’s libbers are radicals who are waging a total assault on the family, on marriage, and on children.’” Perlstein elucidates why so many grew terrified of the ERA, which once commanded broad bipartisan support.
It’s essential for any historian telling the story of a movement to give readers a feel for its defining language. Self cites George Gilder, for example, a onetime liberal Republican who became an influential popularizer of supply-side economics as well as a hardcore anti-feminist. But he hardly quotes him at all, which is too bad, because Gilder’s book Sexual Suicide—first published in 1973 and revised and expanded into Men and Marriage in 1986—is salient for understanding the Reagan revolution and the modern right. (Gilder’s online biography boasts: “According to a study of presidential speeches, Mr. Gilder was President Reagan’s most frequently quoted living author.”) Gilder was a sexist, but a candid one. He was upfront about opposing reproductive rights because he believed they undermined male power, and about how his economic theories depended on women’s submission. “When the women demanded ‘control over our own bodies,’ they believed they were couching the issue in the least objectionable way,” he writes.
But as Norman Mailer pointed out at the time, they were in fact invoking one of the most extreme claims of the movement and striking at one of the most profound male vulnerabilities. For, in fact, few males have come to psychological terms with the existing birth-control technology; few recognize the extent to which it shifts the balance of sexual power in favor of women. A man quite simply cannot now father a baby unless his wife is fully and deliberately agreeable…. Male procreativity is now dependent, to a degree unprecedented in history, on the active pleasure of women.
Such deep, existential panic about a loss of male status and agency has had a considerable impact on America’s political trajectory. So has the belief, which Gilder articulated well, that the future of capitalism depends on women’s willingness to nurture children so the smothering state doesn’t have to. “Capitalism begins at the mother’s breast, with the feminine belief in the sanctity of every life, enshrined in the family and equal before God,” he wrote in Men and Marriage, a line that could serve as the motto for today’s Republican Party.
The contemporary conservative movement has succeeded in part by painting the government as the ultimate cause of emasculation. As Ryan said in his speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, “None of us—none of us should have to settle for the best this administration offers—a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.” Seen in this light, any man who longs for a life with more authority, vitality and dignity, who wants to control his own destiny and that of his family, must battle against the suffocating power of the state. Further, in this view, the more privileges government accords to women or minorities or the poor, the more its supremacy grows. Self understands this. As he writes in the epilogue, “breadwinner conservatism legitimated the transition to a neoliberal ethos in American life; heterosexual male breadwinners, as conservatives saw them, were not dependent on the state for either welfare or rights.” While All in the Family names and defines this way of thinking, it ultimately doesn’t do much to illuminate it.
In this same issue, Michelle Goldberg also describes how a consolidated publishing industry, along with the right-wing media machine, has fostered the market for extremist hit jobs on President Obama.