The Rhetoric of Family in U.S. Politics

by Natasha Zaretsky
University of North Carolina Press, 2007

The iconic American ideal of “the family” permeates our national zeitgeist, and has for at least a century. Perhaps today’s “family values” are a last-ditch effort to hold back the new forms of families: same-sex marriages, civil unions, collections of people unrelated by blood but nevertheless joined by affinity, all who see themselves as a family.

Tikkun’s parent body, the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, was part of a first wave of assaults on the narrow conception of the “traditional family” when it created Friends of Families in 1980 and brought thousands of people together to a Family Day in which single-parent families, lesbian and gay families, and other “alternative” family forms were explicitly named as part of what should be meant as family. Tikkun continued that tradition, challenging the Right’s notion of family, while also insisting that there is a growing instability in families, a genuine family crisis, rooted in the materialism and selfishness of the competitive global capitalist marketplace, and in the looking-out-for-number-one consciousness that becomes the common sense of those living in capitalist-dominated societies (a common sense massively reinforced when President Obama in his 2011 State of the Union speech told the nation that the twenty-first century must be a second “American century” and that to prevent this nation from falling behind other economic competitors we must educate people to the skills needed for this global competition). Tikkun has always argued that the mindset needed to put “winning” above all else is one of the major causes of the decline of solidarity and caring for each other that are the preconditions for family stability. No wonder, then, that the traditional family, and all family forms, are in such trouble in the past forty years as the ethos of global capitalism seeps more deeply into the consciousness of people around the world, nowhere more deeply than in the United States. And nowhere have the efforts to “preserve the family” more consistently missed the point by focusing on challenging the emergence of new family forms like those that Friends of Families sought to support.

Natasha Zaretsky’s No Direction Home: the American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968-1980 is an indispensable guide for understanding how “the family” has become a political football, and why there is still so much mishegas and bitter conflicts over definitions of the family.

Zaretsky’s narrative begins in the 1970s when the American family was perceived as once again under siege. As a symbol for threatened “American values,” the family had weathered such crises before: in the 1890s when divorce rates soared, in the 1910s when white middle-class birth rates fell, in the Great Depression when families were devastated by unemployment, or in the 1950s when “juvenile delinquency” became a shorthand for the family’s destruction. Each of these moments of so-called crisis reflected larger social and cultural changes that tore at the family as some embraced change and others clung to tradition. Given the scale of the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, it shouldn’t be surprising that the American family once again found itself in trouble. In No Direction Home, Zaretsky lays out the connections that made the family a cultural barometer. More importantly Zaretsky carefully reveals how the ideal of the family became intertwined with major shifts in American politics in the Nixon and Reagan eras. In five chapters ranging from analyses of the cultural impact of the returning soldiers and POWs from the Vietnam War to the oil crisis and the bicentennial celebrations, Zaretsky considers how the ideal of the family was deployed in these moments of national anxiety and commemoration.

Zaretsky’s ability to reframe events that may seem familiar to those of us who lived through the 1970s is especially powerful. I have childhood memories of bicentennial events and as a historian have taught President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech from 1979. Zaretsky’s thoughtful reflections on these events, however, weave them into a larger cultural narrative of perceived national decline. Our national celebration in the bicentennial, for example, was mediated through the family as planners cast it as a “family reunion,” and the Smithsonian pushed for a family approach to history that drew on growing popular interest in genealogy in the wake of Alex Haley’s Roots. The bicentennial commemoration was pervaded by nostalgia that, on the one hand, celebrated colonial life and the colonial family and, on the other hand, cast it in sharp relief to life and family in the 1970s. This implicit contrast between the productive, self-reliant, and supportive colonial household and the wage-based and consumerist household of the 1970s drew on anxieties regarding dependency as Americans tried to bolster ideas of their individualism and exceptionalism. The inherent conflict between self-sufficient individualism and economic dependency resonated deeply with economic fears fanned by the Oil Crisis and growing anxiety about the United States’ faltering status on the world stage. This makes the bicentennial an uneasy commemorative mix of nostalgia for an invented past and concern for the future.

Zaretsky convincingly connects culture and politics as she sheds new light on the 1970s. By showing how the family lies at the core of a cultural and political nexus, Zaretsky not only exposes the foundation for the family values debate of later decades, but in her conclusion also makes a powerful case for its influence on the Reagan revolution and the ascendency of the Right in American politics in the 1980s. Zaretsky’s approach allows her to explain how Reagan tapped much more than political discontent when he made his case to the American people. The cultural anxieties of the 1970s made the family into a crucial site of both cultural and political expression that Reagan used to full advantage.

Of course, the American family is still in play in American politics. Conservatives eagerly hold up the “traditional family” as a bulwark against gay marriage. Indeed, this new rallying around marriage serves to highlight the heterosexual norms that have pervaded past ideals of the family. At the same time, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being recast in terms of their impact on military families much as the Vietnam War was decades earlier. President Obama began 2011 with a new initiative to support military families, called “Strengthening our Military Families: Meeting America’s Commitment.” First Lady Michelle Obama appeared on Oprah and Good Morning America to promote the president’s initiative and recast the war in terms of familial sacrifice and perseverance. As Zaretsky insightfully notes these efforts in the Vietnam era changed the war effort into a domestic drama that emphasized and amplified foreign threats to America through the ideal of the family as vulnerable and cherished. Obama’s initiative to support military families is a worthwhile policy, but what Zaretsky teaches us is how to see through our attachment to the family. This may be easier with policies that we oppose, but the ideal of the family is much more pervasive and ubiquitous.

No Direction Home is a powerful and compelling piece of cultural and political history that fundamentally reframes the history of the modern American family. Whether you lived through the 1970s or not, you will not be able to think about that decade and those that followed the same way again after reading this remarkable book.

Laura L. Lovett is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and director of the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center.
tags: Books, Culture, Politics & Society, US Politics   
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