Divided We Stand


All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s

By Robert Self

New York: Hill and Wang, 2012, 518 pp., $30.00 hardcover


Reviewed by Felicia Kornbluh

I recently took an assignment to write a chapter-length overview of the history and scholarship on social movements in North America.   I know: hubris, the pride that goeth before the fall, etc., etc.  In my trek through the vast recent literature, I located three themes that encompassed much that was new and compelling in the published work about activism on this continent.  I called them “Expansions,” “Elisions,” and “Economics.” 

The expansions are of several types, including temporal shifts to periods both before and after those covered by the most familiar tales of the 1950s and 1960s.  There is for the first time, for example, a crop of good writing about the end of the twentieth century, including serious, diverse studies of the LGBT and AIDS/HIV movements and the women’s and reproductive rights movements after the feminist “second wave.”  Students of movements for social change have also expanded the political spectrum they are willing to consider, to the left and right. In the past, when scholars used the phrase, “social movements,” we usually thought of diverse expressions of the New Left, especially the civil rights movement, student and antiwar radicalism, and women’s liberation.  Recent writing stretches the boundaries to include the “old,” Communist and Socialist left, which shaped all of the “new” movements.  It also treats conservatism as a grassroots movement that remade US politics through concerted local campaigns in much the same way that progressive movements did.

Elisions are productive blurrings of lines between movements or political modes that writers used to treat as very separate from one another.  One understandable but distorting tendency in writing about activism has been to cover one movement per book—even though we know that many real activists participate in several different movements and see their work as complementary.  Another has been to draw a too-sharp line between “low” versus “high” politics—between, for example, grassroots movements that have demanded new legislation, one the one hand; and the elected officials, judges, and bureaucrats who have negotiated and enacted the details of that legislation, on the other.  But we are getting better at appreciating the intersections between and among movements.  Our understanding of political change is getting more savvy, so that writers who chronicle movements of the left think more about traditional politics than they used to.  Political history, a moribund field just fifteen years ago, has been remade by taking account of race, immigration and, to a lesser degree, gender and sexuality, and by including activists who work “from the bottom up” alongside people who have access to familiar kinds of power. 

Economics may be the most important category and still the least developed. We are starting to understand what has been at stake in dollar terms for movements that have been derided in the media for practicing so-called identity politics that supposedly appeal only to rich people.  Why have the African American civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, and the disability movement been so constrained in delivering improvements to their members’ daily wellbeing?  Surely not, the record increasingly indicates, because activists failed to comprehend the importance of employment, public benefits, or government policies of redistribution to their campaigns for equality.  We now know more than we ever did before about the social democratic commitments of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, about the value liberal feminists in the 1960s and 1970s placed upon the equal employment rights outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, about the welfare rights movement as a women’s (and men’s) movement for economic justice, and about the tax and other benefits that are at stake in the commitment of same-sex couples to accessing legal marriage.  Why, then, we are driven to ask, has it been easier for movements to gain what the philosopher Nancy Fraser calls “recognition” for subordinated groups than to gain the material “redistribution” that has always been part of activists’ demands? 

Against this background, Robert Self’s excellent and important All In The Family is right on time.  Debates over sex, gender, sexuality, and family have been integral, Self claims, to the shifts that occurred in the political economy of the United States over the past half century.  He makes his argument via expansions, elisions, and serious consideration of the economic dimension of modern politics.  Self examines late-twentieth-century politics through a penetrating historical lens.  He walks the reader through the War on Poverty, the war in Vietnam, and black power; black feminism, liberal feminism, women’s liberation, reproductive rights politics, and lesbian feminism; homophile organizing, gay and lesbian electoral politics, Anita Bryant, the Briggs Initiative, AIDS/HIV and ACT UP; Phyllis Schlafly, the Reagan administration, politicized Christian evangelicals, and the culture war. The last substantive chapter of the book centers on the Reagan administration, and the epilogue follows the story through the national elections of 2004.  Self does not talk much about the old or sectarian left.  He trains his critical intelligence on recent conservative political dominance, which he, following historians such as Lisa McGirr, understands as a grassroots as well as an elite achievement.

Self deftly elides distinctions between legal, electoral, and regulatory politics and the street politics and demonstrations that have preoccupied most movement scholars.  This is a political history whose author actually seems to get how diverse groups and institutions work together (or conflict with one another) to produce political change.  All In The Family happily blurs the lines between queer and feminist history and, in so doing, undercuts an invidious tendency in scholarship and sometimes in the movements themselves to forget that queers and feminists are in the same fight, insofar as we oppose definitions of intimacy and family that enable subordination. 

As part of telling this shared story, Self illuminates the historical and theoretical significance of lesbian feminism.  In this tale, unlike many others, lesbian feminism emerges less as a problem for straight feminism on the one hand and male-dominated gay politics on the other, than as a privileged perspective.  All in the Family includes a too-short but significant section on the lesbian feminist transformation of family law beginning in the 1970s.  This transformation, which Self calls the “quiet but . . . determin[ed]” work of “ordinary lesbians,” is an underappreciated chapter in legal, gender, and movement history, which Self’s hybrid approach allows to surface.

In terms of economics, Self is less interested then I am in the economic or what we might call substantive demands of modern activist movements.  My own preoccupation is with the ways in which activist movements have expressed what I call a “constant craving” for economic redistribution, workplace rights, and supports from the welfare state.  Self views these phenomena from a more empyrean perspective, and more deterministically than I do.  He finds that democratic liberalism, American style, has persistently frustrated efforts to secure the blessings of what political theorist Isaiah Berlin termed “positive,” that is, economic or substantive, liberty.  It has accommodated far better claims for “negative liberty,” as expressed in desires to be free from governmental interference.  Self notes some ways in which activists fought against this tropism toward negative liberty but omits others.  He downplays moments of victory.  However, he notes astutely that lesbian feminist reforms of family law raised critical, substantive questions.  And he acknowledges that marriage equality, which allows access to tax breaks, health care, inheritance, child custody, and similar benefits, “behaves like a classic positive right.”  Missing from this approach is much of the contingency, possibility, and power that has been present in every frustrated attempt to create a healthier, more zaftig version of identity politics.  It is because they sometimes have won that activists continue demanding workplace, redistributive, and welfare rights.  And the activists usually lose because people who believe that their interests are at risk mobilize resources in opposition to these rights.

Despite these shortcomings, Self adds vital economic dimensions to women’s and queer liberation history, and to the history of social movements more generally.  The pay-dirt moment for All in the Family, when the book justifies its author’s months in the archives and the long exegetical passages in the text, is its persuasive discussion of neoliberalism—a political economy characterized by a relatively small, inept government, and labor and consumer markets that are largely empowered to sort out wages, employment, and the distribution of goods.  Neoliberalism, in its economic particulars of so-called free trade that undercuts workers and the environment, and financially starved governments that renege on their promises of security for people who are old or ill, is unpopular with majorities throughout the world.  Yet it is the basis of a wide policy consensus among elites.  The neoliberalism of the 1990s and 2000s made Bill Clinton sometimes seem more conservative than Richard Nixon, and has made pundits work hard to find major differences in economic policy between President Obama and George H.W. Bush.  Neoliberalism, Self argues, was enabled by the increasingly conservative electoral politics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—the outcome in large measure of debates over sex, gender, sexuality, and family. “The major effect of this great realignment of American democracy,” he writes,

has been to subject more and more aspects of national life to market forces . . . What has survived in the new political environment are a handful of abstract [“negative”] rights: women’s market liberty, for instance, the constitutionality of abortion (barely), and [an anorexic version of] sexual privacy.

The thinking feminists and queers who read Women’s Review of Books are probably happy to concede these points.  Readers might even consider it obvious that the sexual side of life shapes neoliberal political economy, since it shapes every aspect of our society.  But Robert Self makes this argument in a way that is intellectually deft, careful, and sometimes surprising.  Best of all, he sketches a totally damning picture of the Democratic failures that allowed these politics to develop: failures of ideas, sexist and homophobic and racist, as much as failures of strategy.  He calls out the Democrats for their “breadwinner liberalism,” based on a father-knows-best picture of the world, which coalesced in the 1960s.  Even worse, he argues, is the fact that the party of Lyndon Johnson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan hasn’t managed, in fifty years, to come up with an alternative way of justifying government’s role in people’s daily lives.  Straight male “breadwinners” and their mostly imaginary. economically dependent wives are still the main protagonists of the story the Democrats tell about government, the economy, and themselves.  This held true even in President Obama’s pitch to voters in the industrial Midwest in 2012, despite the fact that some of them were willing to pull the lever for the out lesbian Tammy Baldwin (senator-elect from Wisconsin) instead of the champion of the breadwinner ethic, Tommy Thompson. 

Self is not alone in rewriting the historical narrative of the past half-century to take sex, gender, and sexuality seriously.  His book builds upon a series of books, my own included, that insisted to a largely oblivious professional historical community that sex, gender, and sexuality were central to changes in “high” politics.  Self builds upon this work, synthesizes it, and adds a powerful narrative and analysis that should make that largely oblivious community sit up and take notice.  Thanks to Robert Self and the scholars with whom he is in dialogue, the “story” of modern history is finally changing to take feminists, queers, and our issues seriously.  We can only hope that the Democrats are paying attention.


Felicia Kornbluh is a writer, historian, and activist. She directs the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and is an associate professor of History at the University of Vermont. She is the author of The Battle for Welfare Rights ( 2007) and many articles, and is now at work on a manuscript titled Constant Craving: Economic Justice in America Since 1945. She is one of sixteen commissioners on the Vermont Commission on Women and is the editor for North America of the new global series, the History of Social Movements, from Palgrave-MacMillan.

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