Michael Patrick Brady

Books

All In The Family | Robert O. Self

September 25, 2012

My review of Robert O. Self’s All In The Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since The 1960s ran today in the Boston Globe.

The book is an amazing account of the evolution of American politics spurred by President Johnson’s Great Society reforms, as the emergence of feminism, gay rights, and anti-war sentiment was met with vociferous opposition by conservative traditionalists seeking to maintain their privilege and deny the full benefits of American citizenship to those these emerging constituencies. It’s a nice companion to Rick Perlstein’s extraordinary Nixonland. Where that book focused on the electoral consequences of the Civil Rights movement and the rise of “Law and Order” conservatism, Self takes aim at the nebulous concept of “family values” as defined by right-wing politicians over the last 50 years. He covers the impact that second-wave feminists, gay rights activists, and anti-war protestors had on the national dialogue, showing how their attempts to bring the America’s self-image closer to reality was met with fierce opposition by a privileged class with much invested in a national mythology of a white, male breadwinner and all the idealized trappings that came with it.

Self shows how “family values” became a cudgel with which conservative activists and politicians could batter the electorate, and shape the political landscape of the country. Though “family values” purport to be about returning America to a simpler time in which single-income, two-parent households were the norm (a fantasy that Self easily dismantles), in reality they’re about creating a multi-tiered citizenship in which only those with wealth and privilege are entitled to full enjoyment of their status as Americans. Everyone else is left to the mercy of the market, by design, and denied the full enjoyment of their rights.

While I was reading this book, Ta-Nehisi Coates published his excellent article, “Fear of a Black President,” at The Atlantic in which he wrote:

For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government.”

All in the Family hits on that same theme: the difference between our nation’s stated goals, its self-perception, and reality. Until we, as a country, come to terms with the systemic and institutional biases that are woven into the national fabric, we’ll never be able to tear out those stitches and reshape it into a system that works for everyone and treats everyone fairly.

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