Breadwinner Conservatism: On Robert O. Self

Breadwinner Conservatism: On Robert O. Self

Breadwinner Conservatism: On Robert O. Self

How the American right’s obsession with male status legitimated the transition to a neoliberal ethos.


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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.


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