The following is a guest post from Christopher Shannon in response to Chris Ramsey’s recent review of Robert O. Self’s latest book All In the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s. Shannon is an assistant professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, VA.
Chris Ramsey praises Robert Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s as “an ambitious attempt to interweave the histories of postwar liberalism, conservatism, gender, and sexuality from the Lyndon Johnson administration to the present day.” Not having yet read the book, I am not prepared to comment on its technical merits as a model of interdisciplinary history. Ramsey’s review does demand a response in those areas where the book, at least by Ramsey’s description if not his judgment, seems to lack ambition: the narrative framework that holds all this dazzling interdisciplinary together. Unless Ramsey has irresponsibly represented Self’s argument, it would appear that Self tells the story of the heroic challenge to the established family values of “breadwinner liberalism” by feminists and cultural radicals during the 1960s, followed by the reaction against this emancipator development by the advocates of “breadwinner conservatism,” itself now under siege by a new flowering of inclusive and expansive ideas of family life best represented by recent victories on the gay marriage front. I have no reason to doubt Ramsey’s account of Self’s narrative, for it is a narrative that one finds enshrined in the cultural commentary of the New York Times and similar mainstream liberal publications. It is the historical common sense of the liberal educated classes. Self’s book and Ramsey’s approving review raises the deeper question of whether, in post-Reagan-Bush America, historians can be anything more than the lap dogs of establishment liberalism.
I may share liberals’ distaste for what appears to be the only viable alternative—mainstream conservatism—but the righteous indignation with which liberals approach phenomenon like “breadwinner conservatism” continues to obscure ideological continuities identified in their own research. Liberal historians continue to be surprised by the ways in which privacy rights championed by the left have so easily been invoked by the right in its attack on “big government.” What we see in the politics of the last forty years is an underlying consensus on the primacy of free choice, followed by a secondary insistence on the need for government to mop up after the disastrous consequences of unrestricted free choice. So, liberals insist that the government must stay out of our bedrooms, but then insist justice demands that government fund contraception and pay for abortions. Conservative CEOs extol the virtues of the free market yet pony up to Congress with their begging bowls when it comes time for a “too big to fail” bailout. These are two sides to the same coin that historians once called corporate liberalism—a system of socializing costs and privatizing benefits that has served as a substitute for a thickly textured conception of the common good. Why this substitution? Because left and right alike see thick textures as threats to freedom.
Lest my invocation of the common good appear an unwarranted imposition of normative value preferences on to the “real” story of history, Ramsey shows Self to be more than willing to impose normative frameworks on his narrative. The normative dimension lies in his judgment of the failure of American politics to continue the proper progressive development from the “negative rights” of the Civil Rights era to the “positive rights” aspired to in the early years of the Great Society. This is most obvious in the conservative backlash against welfare, but the whole debate about welfare was initially bound up with debates about normative ideals of proper family life. Ramsey approves of Self’s interpretation that efforts to instill into black men the breadwinner virtues of the white middle class issue distracted the nation from the real issue at hand: the need for “using the government to guarantee that discriminated or disadvantaged groups can effectively exercise their personal liberties.” Leaving aside the issue that Moynihan understood instilling breadwinner virtues as itself a government responsibility, the great tragedy of the era appears, by Ramsey and Self’s account, to lie in the failure to extend to poor and minority women the opportunity to achieve the same marketplace success that the feminist movement had brought to white middle class women. Culturally and economically, this amounts to the failure of the government to subsidize the autonomy of individuals.
Perhaps I should qualify this statement to read the failure of government to subsidize the prosperous autonomy of individuals. Women are by all accounts much more autonomous today than they were fifty years ago. For middle class women, this means successful careers. For poor women, it means the feminization of poverty. If some conservatives are all too willing to blame poverty on the breakdown of the family, liberals are all too willing to gloss this break down as evolution toward autonomy. In the teleology that ends with “Modern Family,” families are not broken, they are blended, transformed, re-imagined, etc. If liberals concede the dark side of autonomy when it comes to material poverty, they continue to evade the social and psychological costs of autonomy for the comfortably middle class. If Betty Friedan could invoke the addiction to sleeping pills as a symptom of the quiet desperation of suburban housewives in the 1950s, what should historians conclude from the epidemic of behavioral medication among the children of the “brave new families” celebrated by historians as advancements in autonomy?
Liberal historians approach matters of sex, family and autonomy much like the NRA approaches gun control legislation. To suggest that the promiscuous availability of sexual partners has any inherent connection to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is as heretical as suggesting that the easy availability of guns has any inherent connection to gun violence. For both sex and guns, freedom trumps all other considerations. Yes, we must be responsible citizens—for sex, using condoms, for guns, obeying the law. In acknowledging the harm principle, we remain good pupils of John Stuart Mill, which is to say proper Victorians. Contemporary liberalism grates against the intellect in that it so often presents itself as having a social conscience even as it advances individual autonomy. The struggle for gay marriage is thus more about breaking down a barrier to choice rather than promoting a public good. Historians are certainly free to take sides in the debate over family life, but in the interests of honesty, or at least clarity, there should be some recognition that “family” means nothing if it can mean anything. Yes, I suppose there is the common denominator of warm fuzzy feelings—but in that too, we remain Victorians.