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.”