U.S. Intellectual History Blog

All or Nothing In the Family

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. 


  

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “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.”

    Two questions:

    1) In Liberal Fascism, Goldberg relies on Weinstein’s and Kolko’s “corporate liberalism” thesis to critique contemporary liberalism for sustaining corporate welfare policies. Strange bedfellows, indeed! Is there anyone who has studied the confluence of the American left and right in any systematic way?

    2) What does a “thickly textured conception of the common good” look like? Jane Addams? Catholic Workers? Christopher Lasch? John Adams? I’m reading through David Swartz’s excellent study of the post-WWII evangelical left, Moral Minority (UPenn, 2012). The evangelical left sought to conjoin the civil rights, anti-war communitarianism of the New Left and the doctrinal and sexual conservativism of the New Right. Is that the “thick texture” we’re supposedly missing?

  2. “To suggest that the promiscuous availability of sexual partners has any inherent connection to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is as heretical…”

    This strikes me as such a distortion over what most “liberals” argue to be almost unrecognizable. Surely no one disputes that in all other things being equal, more promiscuity in a population with STDs will result in more STDs. But things are not equal. The real debates are over issues like: 1) whether strict sex-in-marriage NORMS produce more STDs or less in a world where people only imperfectly follow norms, 2) the efficacy of contraception (including its imperfect usage) in preventing STDs, 3) how we weigh sexual freedom or sexual expression verses its consequences including the spread of STDs, 4) the proper role of the state in regulating and/or providing for sexual expression.

  3. “Not having yet read the book, I am not prepared to comment on its technical merits as a model of interdisciplinary history.”

    “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.”

    ?

  4. Someone asked me a few weeks ago what ever happened to corporate liberalism (in the historiography, that is) and I did not have a detailed answer for them. Could someone fill in those blanks for me?

  5. Thank all of those who took the time to respond to my post. Now, to clarify my position. Though I remain indebted to the New Left historiography of Kolko and Weinstein, I certainly do not want to associate myself Golberg’s use of their “corporate liberal thesis.” The word “fascist” is a conversation stopper. Once people start using it, you know they have no interest in real debate, just polemics. That conservatives are now using the traditional epithet of the left directed against the right only proves the consensus I identified in my post. Why does Goldberg think that Hillary Clinton is a “fascist”? Because she supports a welfare state that ultimately restricts individual freedom. Why does Clinton herself support the welfare state? Because it fosters individual freedom. In answer to Mark’s question, I would say that in general the whole issue of the confluence of the left and right is one that most American historians these days would rather avoid. The best place to start is the work of Christopher Lasch, especially his later books such as True and Only Heaven and the Revolt of the Elites. You might also look at Eric Miller’s recent excellent biography of Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time.

    Robin’s question, “what ever happened to corporate liberalism?” is a good one. There is no good account that I am aware of, and for the same reasons I alluded to above. In our neo-liberal historiographic moment (e.g. Rodgers, Kloppenberg, etc.), a return to the corporate liberal thesis would be an embarrassment to those who still style themselves progressive. What those on the left attacked pre-Reagan-Bush they now defend as the last best hope for mankind.

    Well, what else is there? Mark, you are on the right track in detecting the spirit of Lasch and the Catholic Worker movement. I have not read Swartz’s book, but the cluster of positions that he identifies with what he calls the “evangelical left” could provide an alternative to the neo-consensus values that currently dominate our historiography. This cluster was, in fact, the real consensus that kept the New Deal coalition in power from the 1930s to the 1960s. Neo-liberal nostalgia for the New Deal order looks to welfare state idealism without the cultural “conservatism” that gave it moral legitimacy in the minds of its key demographic constituencies–Northern Catholics and Southern evangelicals–who abandoned the Democratic Party when it abandoned them. I am not advocating a historical teleology that ends with old school New Deal liberalism, but the conjoining of social justice concerns and respect for certain moral verities is the best political ethic American history has to offer–and one abandoned by the contemporary right and left alike, although for different reasons.

    On my deliberately provocative analogy between sexual and gun freedom, I can only say that it is an analogy, not a policy position paper. Anonymous insists that the real issues lie in a kind of costs-benefits analysis that would of course require sophisticated sociological studies, etc. I am simply making the point that sexual freedom is, for mainstream liberalism, is an inalienable right, akin to the right to breathe. Just consider the reaction to abstinence education as opposed to the “just say no” anti-drug campaign. Mainstream liberalism remains enough indebted to its Prohibitionist past to support a total ban on practices that undermine our self control and disempower individuals, yet oppose any and all restrictions on activities judged to empower individuals. How sexual promiscuity came to be judged empowering among liberal social hygienists who continue a Victorian prudery in matters of drugs and alcohol is a story that still awaits a good history. At any rate, thanks to another anonymous contributer who noted that I am not the only one to make a curious analogy between sex and guns.

    • “I am not advocating a historical teleology that ends with old school New Deal liberalism, but the conjoining of social justice concerns and respect for certain moral verities is the best political ethic American history has to offer–and one abandoned by the contemporary right and left alike, although for different reasons.”

      Cool, you’ve pretty much encapsulated the main argument of my book. The problem is, one person’s “conservativism” is another person’s “white man’s republic.” How does the left overcome its racial and sexual paternalism apart from tearing apart the New Deal order (I’ve got Gary Gerstle’s American Crucible firmly in mind here)?

    • Mark,
      I look forward to reading your book. I acknowledge the problem of racism, but I think that left/liberals have for too long gotten away with racist-baiting all challengers who invoke tradition as a moral guide. Gerstle seems to have made a career out of blaming the whte working class for all of the failures of the “progressive” left. Will progressives ever acknowledge that they share part of the blame for the failure of the Great Society by adopting a secular, relativistic moral language guaranteed to alienate the white working class? Will they ever really acknowledge William Julius Wilson’s by now very old insight that the racial coding of liberal anti-poverty efforts, that is, the evasion of class issues that cut across racial lines, was also guaranteed to alienate the white working class? Traditional Christianity (as I presume you argue in your book) had plenty of resources to support both racial and economic justice. Speaking from the Catholic experience in America, bishops overwhelmingly suppported racial equality, yet whites in the battleground areas of America’s cities often rejected the authority of their bishops on this matter. Funny, historians (especially Catholic historians)tend to celebrate the Catholic revolt against Church authority when it comes to a matter such as birth control, yet decry the failure of the Catholic rank and file to follow the Church’s teaching on racial matters. If all Catholics actually followed the teachings of their Church, they would form the core of a viable third party that would bring together the best of the left’s concern for social justice and the right’s concern for cultural tradition. There was a time when just such an ideological synthesis had a strong appeal for African-Americans–recall Jesse Jackson’s charge that abortion was genocide against blacks. Jackson and other politically active African-Americans eventually signed on to the Democratic Party’s birth control and abortion agenda, but this continues to grate against the conscience of many in the black church. Given the current Republican Party, blacks have nowhere else to go politically (and many, of course, simply choose not to participate in politics). The political future of Latinos will be interesting to watch as a parallel. Republican immigration policy leaves most Latinos no choice but to be Democrats, yet many Latinos remain culturally conservative in family matters. Republican strategists are already plotting to woo them with a more generous immigration policy, knowing that they already have a point of contact on cultural issues like the family. Of course, if Latinos go Republican, liberals can always blame them for their homophobia.

    • “I am simply making the point that sexual freedom is, for mainstream liberalism, is an inalienable right, akin to the right to breathe.”

      This is a rather different claim than one about the relationship between promiscuity and STDs. And it is a rather different one than a claim that “sexual promiscuity came to be judged empowering.” Your target is a shifting one.

      It seems to me you are positioning yourself to make normative arguments by caricaturing the philosophical underpinning of those with whom you disagree. But many liberal defenses of an individual’s sexual freedom have nothing to with whether or not sexual promiscuity is “empowering” – they have to do with 1) whether it is a fundamental right that comes before discussions of “the good,” 2) whether it is an issue that needs to be resolved collectively or whether it is something that should be left to individuals.

      It is indeed an interesting question to know why some people came to find sexual promiscuity empowering, just as it would be interesting to know how some people came to view individual sexual choice as a right. But these are historical questions, and their normative import is unclear.

      If you find that modern liberalism “grates against the intellect” it might be because you aren’t giving its strongest philosophical arguments its due.

    • Shelley,

      That is the analogy I drew in my first post with respect to the recent bail out of private, free-market corporations. Planned Parenthood and Shell Oil both claim to be serving the public good. I would argue that both represent private interests misrepresenting themselves as public goods. Or better (worse?), private interests that correctly see that America has no public, common good beyond the aggregation of private interests and the maximization of freedom. I would like to see a more serious discussion about the meaning of our common life in contemporary America, and in American history. I believe that Self’s liberal platitudes do not really advance this conversation.

    • But you have not read said platitudes. In fact, there’s not much platituding in Self’s book. He’s an excellent historian, and his book is actually, to my mind, about the common ground of right and left, and the messy post-60s cross-pollination and territory-swapping that you desire to be told. Read it; you might like it.

      You know, you really shouldn’t trash something you’ve never read. It’s unbecoming of a scholar.

  6. I am looking forward to discussing the scholarly merits of this book, but alas my copy is still in the mail.

  7. Please explain how Planned Parenthood is seen as representing “private interests” that misrepresents itself as a private good. It is a nonprofit health provider for predominately poor people, filling in where the state has failed to provide healthcare. Where is the insidious downside?

  8. While I respect immensely Chris Shannon’s attempt to view a large chunk of American history from what would appear to be either a communitarian, or radical/Marxist or Anarchist wing (I am surmising that he is criticizing the failures of Liberalism from some kind of unorthodox Left), I think Shannon should boldly answer some difficult questions about sex. After answering those questions we can proceed to understand the nature of the problem. What, normatively does he think the meaning of sexual behavior is? For example, is it plural or monistic? And secondly if it is true (and it IS true) that there is a large variety of sexual activity that does not automatically result in either disease/infection or pregnancy, then what are the genuine grounds for his critique of freedom in sexuality or Millian or corporate Liberalism other than the usual – and in my view rather tired, if not dubious grounds – grounds that freedom is not the only value and must be grounded in a shared notion of the Good as embodied in Civil Society and so on?

  9. “Will they ever really acknowledge William Julius Wilson’s by now very old insight that the racial coding of liberal anti-poverty efforts, that is, the evasion of class issues that cut across racial lines, was also guaranteed to alienate the white working class?”

    There is a virtue and a problem to this indeed, very common critique.

    The virtue is that it can be used to criticize post-war liberalism, and the Great Society in particular, for not thinking or dreaming big enough — the mainstream and mostly conservative but also often liberal narrative of “liberalism overreached in the 1960s” is flat wrong; it is not that it overreached, but that it made promises it never even tried to seriously deliver on. The War on Poverty was no such thing; and if liberals had fought for a really substantial welfare state and even structural changes, rather than simply trying to integrate the minority poor into politics and hopefully the middle-class, they might have been on to something, and other working class whites *might* have been ultimately much more on board. But then of course, it wouldn’t really be post-war liberalism as we know it, which is far more conservative than generally acknowledged, it seems to me. But that’s another issue.

    This point has the vice, on the other hand, of downplaying the magnitude of white racism, in the working-class and middle-class alike. Any argument that even starts to stipulate “if only those liberals had framed this question differently, and stopped talked about race and restorative justice and the such, the white working class probably would have come along without much of a fuss” is on weak ground, for a substantial amount of evidence seems to suggest, as far as I can tell, that opposition to welfare policies, at root, has not so much to do with “they are taking my money and giving it to other people” but “they are taking my money and giving it to THOSE people.” Unless you want to argue that we ought to craft social policy and public discussion to best appease or get around, rather than directly challenge, racism; in which case, we disagree on such a fundamental matter we won’t get very far.

  10. Dear All,

    Well, I took Christmas off from the blog, and today discovered that I missed alot of action. At this point, the situation has progressed beyond me responding to individual comments point by point. I have raised big issues and received big challenges on the positions I have taken, so I feel I need to make a more lengthy response than is appropriate for a comments section. First of all, I must read Self’s book. In defense of myself (and of Self’s argument) I never claimed to be directly commenting on his book, and certainly not on the merits of its scholarship. In the review I simply detected a very familiar progressive narrative of family transformation, and as this appeared a local variation on a broader liberal narrative that structures many significant recent works of history, I thought it worth our while to take a step back and think about the contingency of what many seem to take as a natural narrative. I realize now that as a review of Self’s book was the occasion for my comments, readers were bound to take my comments as a direct critique of Self. Before I say anything else, then, I must first read Self’s book and be clear where I stand in relation to it. That being said, most of the comments I have received speak to the larger issues I raised in my initial post and other responses, and not with my account of Self’s book (since, again, I gave no account of a book that I did not read). Given upcoming holiday travel plans, it will probably be a week or so before I will be able to respond. I hope everyone will still be sufficiently interested in these issues to, as Richard Rorty used to say, “keep the conversation going.”

  11. I was the person who posted Chris Shannon’s essay that sparked a spirited discussion over the last few days. As Chris mentioned above, he will be looking specifically at Robert Self’s most recent book in the future with the intention of raising issues that he introduced in his response to Chris Ramsey’s review. We look forward to continuing the discussion.

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