Robert Self, an associate professor of history, recently published a new book entitled “All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s.” Last summer, he also wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that assessed the state of the contemporary Republican party in the context of social reform movements in the 1960s. The Herald sat down with him to talk about his work, the evolution of politics over the past half-century and the current election cycle.
The Herald: What drew you to the topic of your new book?
Self: I was struck by how much of our contemporary politics involved questions of gender, sexuality, family and how … most of my own life, this seemed to be a principal terrain on which Americans talked about the country, what mattered and the national government. And I wanted to understand why that was the case.
And second … there had emerged within American politics a distinction that I found to be artificial between culture and values on the one hand and economics on the other. All of my training as a historian convinced me that these were not separate things, and so I wanted to try to understand how they came to be talked about as separate.
How would you summarize the key points of your book to a layperson?
I think I would start with that point. One of the ways, even the primary way, that Americans talked about and contended over the welfare state since the late 1960s has been through arguments about the family, arguments about gender roles, arguments about sex, sexuality and morality. One of the points of contention over the future of the national state itself has been its role in families. And so, family politics – the politics of the family are really the politics of the state, the politics of what Americans imagine and believe about the national state and the national government.
So that’s kind of the main theme. But more particularly … the transformation that I examine is how in the early 1960s – and this really dated to the New Deal 1930s – the heterosexual breadwinner nuclear family was a liberal political project. By the mid-1980s, the heterosexual male breadwinner nuclear family was really a conservative political project. And I try to show how over two or three decades that transformation happens.
How is the topic of your book relevant to today?
It’s relevant because we live in a world, both a social world and a political world, that has largely been made by the three decades of battles over these questions. We live with the consequences of choices and decisions and fights that are deeply, deeply historical. That doesn’t mean that … history presents us with an easy set of choices for the future. But it is important to understand that the choices we face, the choices the country faces now, are constrained by decisions – decisions that have been made in the past and battles that have been under way for four decades now.
How is this “realignment” affecting the state of American politics and culture today?
There’s a lot of ways to answer that question. … I use the term “American democracy” because I am trying to push our understanding of politics away from a strictly partisan battle between Republicans and Democrats. I am arguing that the shifts that take place in American politics are really about the whole. The discourse of politics has shifted. I think that one of the principle consequences of that is that it has become exceedingly difficult for liberals to defend a coherent world view. It’s not because I think liberals don’t have access to a coherent world view, but the politics of gender, sex and family have rendered it extremely difficult. Liberals have struggled with how to overcome the divisiveness of some of those fights, to land on coherent and defensible politics.
The other way the realignment is relevant is that it has, I think, veiled something quite essential. That when we argue about the family, gender roles and sexuality, we are in effect arguing about how we imagine the social contract – how we imagine our obligations to one another, our obligation to the collective body politic and what collective vision we have as a society moving forward. These debates and controversies are not simply over a few moral questions; they are deeply imbedded in a much larger discussion about what the social contract is.
What are your thoughts on the current election cycle?
(Laughs) My thoughts are depressing. That’s a huge question. … I’m in the business of writing history and not so much in the business of calling the day to day dynamics of political races. I think the United States is in a fairly momentous period of transformation, and whether we are at the beginning of that period of momentous transformation or we are toward the end of it, we don’t know. This is kind of a standard historian’s answer to this type of question: We won’t know for another 50 years or 100 years. I do think that the 2012 election will be seen fundamentally as part of a major transformation in how Americans relate to one another and to the national state. I can’t say whether I think we are at the very beginning of that or somewhere in the middle or toward the very end but I think historians will look back and see it as a pivotal election in that process.
What do you think are the current social movements and changes that will affect political alignment in the future?
You know, I have to be honest, I don’t see a social movement on the American political landscape right now that strikes me as capable of dramatic political realignment. Some of that is my own increasingly cynical view that, especially at the national level, politics is so money-driven that it is actually quite difficult for true social movements to have an enormous impact. Most of the social movements that we think about – perhaps environmentalism, Occupy Wall Street – at least on the left, they have either been relatively incorporated or institutionalized so they’re not really social movements in a true sense. Or they are very small and easily contained in the way Occupy Wall Street has been. And on the right, these days most of the social movements are actually financed and driven from the top down. They are sort of grassroots, in a certain sense, but they are also well financed by these enormous collections of cash that are out there.
So, I guess I’m not especially optimistic at this particular moment that there is a social movement out there on the landscape that seems poised to forge any kind of realignment.
What do you foresee politics evolving into five, 10 years from now?
Well, look, we are in a post-Citizens United world, and I don’t know that anyone – and I would include political scientists and those who spend every day of their lives studying the current political system – would tell you that they know where things are going. This is the first major election cycle since the Citizens United decision and what we have seen is an enormous amount of relatively unaccountable cash coming into the election cycle. Where that is going to go, I think, is very, very difficult to predict. I think it is easy to say it’s probably not going to be good for any kind of small democratic process, but what it is going to look like is difficult to say. I think that decision marks a real fundamental departure for the way politics works, and we will just have to see