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Robert O. Self argues that a fundamental transformation of American democracy occurred during the second half of the twentieth century. The author makes this transformation most visible through a focus on the family.

During the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society operated on the assumption of “breadwinner liberalism.” Its programs, such as jobs and jobs training, propped up the white, male, heterosexual breadwinner of the traditional family, in which the husband worked while the wife remained at home with the kids. Such programs were supposed to ease entry of the traditional family into the middle class.

The political Left presented evidence that this version of the family did not match reality. Feminists were encouraging women to realize their potential in the work place, including equal treatment in earning a living, as an alternative to the housewife role. Meanwhile, some women were already heads of households. As such, they were already working—often at low-paying jobs. Many of these women needed state-supported day-care centers and even supplemental welfare payments to make ends meet.

Feminists challenged the view of the traditional family in other ways. They fought for the ability of women to control their reproductive lives, such as the right to an abortion. For those who could not exercise that right because of a lack of money, feminists believed the state ought to provide financial assistance.

Gays and lesbians called for increased rights, which upset the traditional family model. For example, they advocated gay marriage and the right to be heads of households, raising children as part of a family. Meanwhile, gays and lesbians sought equality in a work place that discriminated against them.

As a result, new conceptions of the family emerged, from gay and lesbian heads of households to single, working mothers, also heads of households, requiring support from the state. Conservatives saw a moral threat to the traditional family model. State-supported abortions, gay marriage, and welfare payments to single mothers only encouraged nontraditional families, all too often leading to more and unnecessary state spending. According to the author, Ronald Reagan was able to combine the moral threat with unnecessary government spending to gain the presidency.

Self argues that the political culture transformed from breadwinner liberalism—calling for state intervention in supporting a traditional view of the family—to breadwinner conservatism, which called for a return to the traditional family model without the state intervention that encouraged alternative family arrangements. The author sees the continuing strength of the conservative backlash with liberalism in decline. Minority groups may have gained some rights but little equality.

Self provides a fascinating interpretation of the transformation of twentieth-century America, but he might give the family a bit too much explanatory power. He minimizes America's problems abroad as a major reason for the Reagan presidency. Self might be a bit too sanguine about recent changes that have aided various minority groups in seeking and gaining citizenship. But he offers a compelling book with solid research and a thesis worth serious investigation. His is a work well deserving of careful reading, especially at the graduate level.