All in the Family

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Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2012. 518 pages. $30.00.


In his work All in the Family Robert Self makes the case for the “realignment of American Democracy” by focusing on the transformation of the idealized image of the American family utilized by liberals in pre and immediate post war America and then conservatives in the 1970s to support their respective agendas. In essence, Self is tracing the rise of the American Right, arguing that this rise was largely based on the Right’s ability to garner support for the myth of the nuclear American family and therefore gain support for their conservative political aspirations.

Self begins his study with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s. Starting as early as the New Deal and culminating in the 1960s “breadwinner liberals” as Self calls them, had sought to protect American families, more specifically the “the white, patriotic, heterosexual male at the head of the nuclear family” (275). They sought to protect this version of the “family” from the free marketplace by strengthening businesses and the increasing social support from the government. Around the same time that “breadwinner liberalism” was losing popularity among leftist activists, such as feminists and gay rights activists who were excluded from this particular conception of the family and the citizen, conservatives began to attack breadwinner liberalism more ferociously.

Conservatives believed that liberals and their cultural gains were threatening the American family with alternative family models, abortion, sex education and welfare and therefore developed their own ideology “breadwinner conservatism.” Breadwinner conservatism called for a family headed by white heterosexual men who protected families from the immorality of the Left (aka alternative family models) as well as government intrusion (in economics as well as in the form of welfare). This conservative backlash against the 1960s successes of the Left (despite internal splintering) was successful in moving the nation to the right by emphasizing the importance of protecting the family from Leftist politics and cultural achievements as well as an economy without free markets and higher taxes.

Self also examines the tension between positive and negative liberties that characterized the era. Positive liberties emerge from the governments efforts to structure equality through policy such as mandated busing. Negative liberties are rights that are secured through prohibitions (such as the ban on segregation)- lack of repression but not necessary` active effort to create more freedom or equality. Unfortunately, conservatives with their rhetoric of family values often caused a decrease in both types of liberties. Ultimately Self provides the reader with a new way to think about the rise of the new conservative right that persisted throughout the rest of the 20th century. By using the image of the traditional family and casting the New Left cultural policies as a threat to this image the Right was able to gain support for not only their own cultural policies but also their economic policies.


Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

Although Self’s work begins by focusing on the 1960s and images of “breadwinner liberalism” popular during that decade he interestingly argues that this idea originated during the New Deal, survived through Johnson’s Great Society, only to be destroyed during the conservative backlash of the 1970s. Self argues that “breadwinner liberals” endeavored to provide support for the economic foundations of the family- this particular family was characterized by a white, male, heterosexual head of household. The prevalence of this ideal is visible in New Deal policy that focused on providing economic support for “typical” male headed households. For the most part we tend to view the New Deal and policy modelled after it as positive measures against depression and poverty (not without their own issues of course) but it is important to remember that women and “nontraditional” citizens or families, who often needed aid the most, were frequently excluded from these policies. Self argues that this exclusion is at least partially responsible for the ability of the Right to appropriate the terminology (breadwinner conservatism) and gain widespread support for the image of the traditional family. As women and homosexuals became acutely aware of their exclusion from these government policies they withdrew their support from traditional liberalism causing it to weaken and eventually fall out of popularity.

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