IN JANUARY 1971, a new sitcom called All in the Family appeared on CBS television. Its central figure was Archie Bunker, a white, working-class, World War II veteran from the Astoria section of Queens. The show’s humor derived from Bunker’s poorly articulated bigotry and resentment against the social changes of the 1960s—feminism, the counterculture, youth and antiwar activism, legalized abortion, expanded roles for minorities, open homosexuality—and his confrontations with those new forces in his own family and neighborhood. The sitcom was one of the first to deal openly with such controversial topics, and it struck such a chord with American viewers that it was the number-one rated show for the first five of its eight years on the air.
Robert O. Self’s book doesn’t mention the sitcom but offers a detailed recounting of those same battles and transformations that provided fodder for the show. Self argues that the “explosive issues surrounding gender, sex, and family” were not peripheral “culture war” matters, but were central to the political struggles over power, equality, and economics during the past five decades. In his view, the politics of the period were, ultimately, all about the left-wing challenges to liberalism’s vision of the idealized nuclear family, followed by a conservative backlash against the supposed moral threat to “family values” posed by new conceptions of gender and sexual rights.
This is a bold claim, but Self makes a strong case that politicized arguments over family were at the heart of liberalism’s crackup and the rise of the right. He offers the useful term “breadwinner liberalism” to describe the Democratic effort, from the New Deal through the Great Society, to advance economic and social policies that would allow more families—headed by a patriotic, hardworking, and presumably white and straight male provider—to enter the middle class. But Self argues that the model of the family envisaged by breadwinner liberalism was “narrow, obsolete, and uncommon” even by the 1960s, with more women in the workforce, greater availability of sexual choices beyond early marriage, and growing numbers of “unconventional” families. Moreover, the traditional model took little account of the needs (or sometimes even the humanity) of women, blacks, and Hispanics, homosexuals, and dissenters and nonconformists of all stripes.