When this country was founded, the right to vote — and thus, the ability to determine the character of the fledgling United States — was granted only to white men. In 1870, the 15th Amendment removed racial restrictions, but discrimination kept many African-Americans from the polls through much of the 20th century. Women weren’t enfranchised until 1920. It’s no wonder then that, according to historian Robert O. Self, the “universal subject” of American democracy at the beginning of the 1960s was still “assumed to be a white, heterosexual male.”
In “All in the Family,” Self explores how challenges over the past 50 years to cultural assumptions about gender roles, sexuality, and masculinity by feminists, gay-rights activists, and antiwar protesters fostered a greater sense of national diversity but also inspired a fervent backlash that coalesced around an idealized and highly ideological take on family values. It’s a powerful, well-researched account of how the efforts of marginalized groups to assert their rights as citizens ran up against the resistance of entrenched privilege, setting the stage for the polarization that grips US politics today.
The story begins in 1964. The passage of the Civil Rights Act inspired a new wave of progressive activism, but also created an opportunity for Republicans to lure disenchanted Southern Democrats and seize electoral power. Self follows the shockwave of this realignment through to the end of President George W. Bush’s first term, revealing how the “national mythology” of a “white, middle-class nuclear family” headed by a male breadwinner has dictated political discourse regardless of societal realities. In this context, working women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities possessed a “partial, compromised citizenship.”
Self views our modern culture wars as a battle to define the meaning of citizenship and over the primacy of two types of rights: negative rights, which guarantee individuals freedom from interference by the government and others; and positive rights, which require communities to ensure certain services and abilities to individuals.
“What activists on the liberal left learned in the 1960s and 1970s,” writes Self, “is that the more a right is rendered in negative terms, the more it becomes wealth sensitive — that is, the more it disproportionally benefits members of society who already possess resources.” Essentially, this describes the conservative ideal of smaller govern-ment. In response, the left sought to create positive rights that would guarantee the resources needed to bring the full benefits of citizenship to all, regardless of economic or social status.
The demand for positive rights, particularly by (in the broadest sense) minorities whose voices historically had been squelched, created a sense of disorder among mainstream Americans, who viewed such activism with suspicion and fear. The result was the emergence of what Self calls “breadwinner conservatism,” a “populist combination of antifeminism and patriotic traditionalism . . . that allowed a new generation of conservative political entrepreneurs to connect with an inchoate, but deeply felt, quest for order and certainty in the nation at large”
Self shows how this take on American life became entangled with evangelical Christianity and free-market capitalism, as “religious and pro-family movements worked to make rights in American society subject to the market rather than supported by the state” to safeguard their privilege.
“All in the Family” is a provocative book, bringing into focus the underpinnings of cultural and political shifts that have remained obscure to most, yet whose effects still can be detected even in this year’s contentious presidential election. Self demonstrates how, for better or for worse, the personal became political, and reminds us that our democracy is an imperfect thing, only as noble as the people who constitute it.Michael Patrick Brady, a freelance writer living in South Boston, can be reached at mike@