Launching the Neoconservative State
The politics of the family, sexuality, and reproduction—and, most symbolically, of abortion—became a primary vehicle through which right – wing politicians sought to achieve state power in the late 1970s and the 1980 elections. In particular, the crusade against legal abortion was taken up by an ascendant New Right as the pivotal issue in a drive to impose conservative thinking on many areas of policy making and social life.2 But this ideological thrust predated the Reagan administration; it made important dents in state policy—in the executive branch, Congress, and the courts—during the Carter administration. Although by 1982, amid a deepening recession and the preoccupation of politicians with a stagnant economy, it seemed to have lost much of its steam in the legislative arena, its impact on administrators, courts, media, and public consciousness was (and is) profound. At this writing, abortion is still legal in the United States, but its legitimacy has been shaken, access to it has been curtailed, and the larger climate of feminist and liberal values that spurred its legalization has been called into question.
Why are abortion and sexual and family issues so centrally the focus of a resurgent conservatism? Is the connection between opposition to abortion and other, more traditional conservative political goals merely an opportunistic diversion (e. g., to take people’s minds off the economic crisis),3 or is there a more fundamental connection between abortion politics, sexual politics, and the economic and military policies of the New Right? It is my contention that antiabortion and more broadly antifeminist politics played a critical role in legitimating the transition from the liberal to the neoconservative state.
Attacks on sexual deviance and feminism historically have been a part of right-wing, or backlash, movements. Nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments helped fire crusades against abortion, obscenity, and birth control in late-nineteenth-century America. The early Ku Klux Klan and other right-wing groups in the 1920s attacked not only "cohabitation between whites and blacks" but "bootleggers, pimps, . . . wife-beaters, family-deserters, home-wreckers," as well as jazz music and short skirts.4 The Nazis marked homosexuals for extermination along with Jews, Bolsheviks, Slavs and gypsies. The witch-hunters of the McCarthy period persecuted homosexuals as well as communists, liberals, and other "un – Americans," lumping them into one "subversive" list.5 Modern authoritarian, fascist, and anticommunist movements have not failed to link a rigid patriarchal family structure, including the repression of sex outside heterosexual marriage and procreation, with the values of militarism, national and racial chauvinism, and sacred private property; and, as feminists know, they are perversely correct. It is not merely that there are "cultural" aspects to right-wing politics but that those aspects are connected to the "economic" and "political" aspects in deep-lying and complicated ways. What Reich called "organized mysticism" creates a mentality that is susceptible to authority, that displaces bodily needs into "fantasized substitute gratification" and racist hatreds, and that is easily diverted from the miseries of everyday life.6 But the connections between right – wing economic policies and right-wing sexual-racial policies, at least in the current context, have an important social as well as psychological base. To analyze these connections means looking at the relations between antiabortion politics, antifeminism, and a declining capitalist economy.
Economic recession and massive unemployment provide a fertile context in which the ideas and politics of the right can thrive. A climate of soaring inflation, constant layoffs, retrenchment of social programs, and general insecurity helps explain popular susceptibility to conservative values and the defensiveness or weakness of left and feminist movements in response. The expansion in higher education and employment, especially in the public sector and professional jobs that opened to many women in the 1960s and 1970s, has eroded. As women, particularly younger and poorer women and single and divorced mothers, become more vulnerable to unemployment and cuts in social programs that have allowed them a margin of independence from traditional marriage, their sense of reproduction as a domain of conscious control may diminish. As corporate interests and the capitalist state accelerate their drive to rechannel resources from the public to the private sector, to increase profits in a period of decline, they perceive the "social experimentation" programs of the past two decades—including affirmative action, food stamps, battered women’s shelters, legal services, environmental protection, occupational safety and health, and government-sponsored family planning and funded abortion—as expendable. The economy "cannot afford" social justice or the equality of women.
But while they gain momentum in times of economic distress, backlash movements are not primarily economic but political and ideological forces. In economic crises, antifeminist, racist, anticommunist, antiwelfare, and other stock conservative values—which are always there, always "in the wings" of American politics7—become not just a "diversion" but an essential means of legitimating the policies that deepen that crisis. They not only spring from it but propel it onward. In this manner, the campaign against abortion has played a specific and important role in propelling the right-wing economic and political resurgence of the late 1970s and the 1980s.
Backlash movements derive their ideological core from their existence as reactions to social movements and ideas of the left, including liberal and radical feminism. In American history, complicated as it has been by feminist participation in moral purity, eugenicist, and other semi-rightist or racist tendencies, those movements have typically assumed a moralistic fervor, often garbed in evangelical religiosity. Witness Father Coughlin, the fundamentalist Anti-Communist Christian Crusade, the Reverend Billy James Hargis, and others. Extreme right-wing movements are typically an expression of the "preservatist" impulses of social groups that feel their way of life threatened:
Desperately preservatist or restorative movements—that is backlash movements—require an aggressively moralistic stance and will find it somewhere. There needs to be invoked some system of good and evil which transcends the political or social process and freezes it.8
What this "system of good and evil" is, however, is not arbitrary but a product of the historical moment and of a conjunction of forces that bring specific social conflicts to the fore. If the embodiment of absolute evil for an earlier generation of the right was international communism, the left, and labor movements, in the recent period it is feminism and homosexuality. Both represent movements for transcendence of a patriarchal form of family and for sexual liberation. This shift is not surprising given the weakness of the left and labor movements at the present time; whereas the feminist movement in the 1970s was the most dynamic force for social change in the country. And of all feminist demands, the right to abortion and to sexual freedom appears most threatening to traditional sexual and social values.
The antiabortion movement, which began in the Catholic church and, despite disclaimers, has remained an essentially religious movement, has been a central vehicle through which the New Right has crystallized and developed its mass base and mass ideology. This particular crusade, which predates the New Right, has provided the perfect issue to "freeze" the political process into an absolute struggle between good and evil; it is something "positive to fight for." But while the religious, moralistic, and often mystical terms in which this crusade is couched resonate for many of its followers, religion should not be mistaken for the content of right-wing politics. Religion provides an "apocalyptic framework which validates [moral] absolutism,"9 but this framework is political in the most conventional sense: It has to do with how and by whom power is exercised in the economy, the state, the family, and the churches. In addition, religion supplies a language and symbolism through which the right lays claim to the righteousness and purity of its vision. Abortion represents all the satanic evils the right seeks, and Scripture beckons it, to destroy (communists, feminists, homosexuals, liberal welfare advocates); the fetus symbolizes the pristine and the innocent, which must be protected and saved (family, children, God, the American way). Paul Weyrich, New Right theoretician and political kingmaker, conveys the apocalyptic character of this vision and the full sweep of the cast of enemies it implicates:
. . . from our point of view, this is really the most significant battle of the age-old conflict between good and evil between the forces of God and forces against God, that we have seen in our country.
We see the antifamily movement as an attempt to prevent souls from reaching eternal salvation, and as such we feel not just a political commitment to change this situation, but a moral and, if you will, a religious commitment to battle these forces. . . .
Among the antifamily forces are hardcore socialists who see it as a means by which they can attain greater state control. One of the Communists’ chief objectives has always been to break down the traditional family.
There is also a group of economic opportunists who profit by the decline in traditional values, through pornography, abortion clinics, the contraceptive mentality, drug sales.
Then there are people who want a different political order, who are not necessarily Marxists. Symbolized by the women’s liberation movement, they believe that the future for their political power lies in the restructuring of the traditional family, and particularly in the downgrading of the male or father role in the traditional family.10
This appeal to evangelical religion and populism reflects traditional ingredients of American right-wing ideology; what is distinctly new is that abortion is the occasion of the crusade, and "the family"—more centrally and passionately than "free enterprise" or national defense— its sacred object. This shift in emphasis is unmistakably the product of feminist ideas and their powerful impact in the 1970s on popular consciousness. Feminists are the "communists" of the 1970s and 1980s.11
The simplest and most obvious explanation for the New Right’s existence and success in influencing public policy is that the political values and social changes its members are fighting against are real and pervasive. The women’s and gay liberation movements and structural changes in the family that have been both cause and effect of those movements represent a genuine threat to the family system and sexual morality the New Right is seeking to preserve. While New Right language and symbolism often take a mystical and irrational form, their ends are coherent and clear; the conflict between the values of the New Right and those they oppose, as they perceive better than many liberals, offers no compromise. In this sense, the antiabortion/antigay/anti-ERA/profamily current is indeed a backlash movement to turn back the tide of the major social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It is aimed primarily at organizations and ideas that have directly confronted patriarchal traditions regarding the place of women in society and the dominant norms of heterosexual love and marriage. But it is also a reaction to the New Left and the counterculture generally, which many white middle-class parents experienced as having robbed them of their children, either literally or spiritually. The strength and determination of this backlash, particularly in regard to abortion, homosexuality, and the ERA, is in part a measure of the effectiveness of the women’s and gay movements, the extent to which their ideas (and various distortions of their ideas) have penetrated popular culture and consciousness, if not public policy.
The "profamily" movement is reacting to dramatic changes in family life that have occurred most sharply during the past fifteen years. When we add together the changes in marriage, fertility, women’s labor force participation, and household composition discussed in Chapter 3, the result is that only around 10 percent of all American households consist of the "normative" model: husband-wife families with two or more children at home and the husband as the sole breadwinner.12 Although marriage and remarriage rates are higher than ever before, the combination of postponed marriage and high divorce rates means that marriage becomes a phase of the life cycle rather than a lifetime proposition, with continually increasing numbers of women spending years of their adult lives heading households or alone. Delayed and declining fertility and the growing tendency to work during pregnancy and childrearing years have made active motherhood a shrinking part of most women’s daily life and overall life cycle. While most women will raise one or two children in their lives, they will do so in a context of nearly continuous work outside the home and, for many, of decreasing economic dependence on men. Meanwhile, one out of five Americans lives as a single individual—not in a "family"; and a growing proportion of households (still a small minority) consists of young unmarried couples.13
These demographic trends undoubtedly conjure up for many people untold fears of sexual deviance and the absence of "safe" boundaries. Whatever the gap between conservatives’ fantasies and the reality of people’s lives, it seems unquestionable that the demographic changes have been accompanied by significant cultural shifts. In particular, they have brought greater openness about homosexuality, nonmarital heterosexuality, living arrangements, and childrearing that fall outside the traditional (normatively sanctioned) heterosexual-married-household pattern. Moreover, we should remember that they are changes whose major upswing has occurred only during the last twenty years, less than one generation, and whose impact on people’s lives and expectations for themselves and their children has undoubtedly been unsettling.
Absorbing that impact has been difficult for all people, including committed feminists. For one whose belief has remained unshaken in his prerogative, as a man, to "have the authority and make the decision," or her privilege, as a woman, "to be happy with it," it must seem a very alien and treacherous world. For many more, the economic strains and social changes of the contemporary period are experienced as personal crises, as "family" crises: loss of job, loss of children, loss of a sense of security, or loss of mother (or wife) at home. Thus the construction of a "profamily" politics, with the embattled fetus as its motto, appeals, or is intended to appeal, to a level of longing and loss (homelessness) buried deep in the popular subconscious. To argue that the New Right’s focus on sexual and family issues is a diversionary tactic to lure people’s attention away from unemployment and other economic distress is to deny the social reality of changes in the family and their effect on people’s sense of who they are, particularly in a climate of economic insecurity. At the same time, women’s employment outside the home, as well as the women’s liberation movement, is once again blamed for the economic crisis, for taking jobs away from men, and this adds fuel to the New Right’s antifeminist attack and people’s susceptibility to it.
Embedded in the New Right’s "moral" offensive are two interlocking themes. The first is the antifeminist backlash, aimed initially at abortion but extending from abortion to all aspects of sexual freedom and alternatives to traditional (patriarchal) family life. The second is the anti-social – welfare backlash, aimed at the principle (given a certain legitimacy during the New Deal and the 1960s) that the state has an obligation to provide for economic and social needs through positive government-sponsored programs. What we need to understand is the relationship between these two aspects of the right’s current politics, how they reinforce one another.
For it is becoming clear that the moralistic fervor applied in the antiabortion campaign is being extended to political goals that seem unrelated to sex, religion, or the family—to traditional right-wing goals such as racial segregation, welfare cutbacks, and militarism. The analysis that follows attempts to show not only the centrality of antifeminism and antiabortion politics to the New Right’s ideology and political organization but also some connections between antifeminism and the attacks on liberalism and social welfare. In particular, I stress the ideology of "privatism" and "private morality" as that element of the antiabortion/antifeminist thrust that has provided the critical link between family and sexual politics and traditional economic and social conservatism.
Historically, the concept of privacy for American conservatives has included not only "free enterprise" and "property rights" but also the right of the white male property owner to control his wife and his wife’s body, his children and their bodies, his slaves and their bodies. It is an ideology that is patriarchal and racist as well as capitalist.14 Part of the content of the formal appeal to "states’ rights" is the idea of the family as a private, male-dominated domain. Control over families (one’s wife and children) and over local and state power structures are closely related conservative values, insofar as the latter is the means whereby the former is sought as an end. Thus what seem to be attacks on federalism or federally sponsored social services are simultaneously attacks on movements by women, the poor, and young people to assert their right to resources, services, and a viable existence outside the male-dominated family and the ghetto.15
Privatism and the welfare state in American capitalist society have not opposed but in many ways have reinforced one another.16 Public programs to bestow social benefits have frequently functioned to subsidize private (market) interests (e. g., Medicaid, manpower training, or tax benefits to proprietary day-care centers and nursing homes). The very concept of welfare in the United States contains within it the idea that the wellbeing of people and providing for their basic needs is an essentially private matter, that the state should act as provider only in situations of extremity or helplessness. Thus, unlike welfare clients, individual workers "earn" their social security benefits by working hard and paying into the program. In the last two decades, however, the sizable expansion of social welfare programs has reached into new substantive areas of "entitlement"—health care, food, housing, legal services, higher education, protection from abusive husbands and toxic environments, and abortion—as a result of demands by organized popular movements. These gains, though limited, have helped individual women, poor men, teenagers, workers, and communities exposed to environmental hazards gain independence and security in their lives. They have also created a political climate in which the idea that basic human needs ought to be met through public, social instruments has begun to achieve popular acceptance. For this reason—political rather than mainly economic, for many of the programs being cut back are among the least costly—the social welfare apparatus has come under attack, not only by the New Right, but by businessmen and centrist policy makers.17 Thus the push to reprivatize or "deregulate" certain public programs has been highly selective, aimed specifically at domains of social service created through the struggles of working people, blacks, the poor, and women in the 1960s and 1970s to expand their sphere of autonomy within a capitalist patriarchal society.
Legitimating this push is the neoconservative notion of "excessive government." It argues that what’s wrong with busing programs or Medicaid abortions or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is that the federal government is meddling in our "private business." It assumes, indeed, that there exist some private, safe places— "our" neighborhoods, "our" private schools, "our" churches, and, above all, "the family"—that would give us everything we needed if only the government would stay out. But, although the language of New Right ideology evokes the sentiment of personal freedom from state interference, what distinguishes that ideology from classical conservatism is that it is spoken on behalf of corporate bodies rather than individuals. It is corporate privatism—in the service of business, church, private school, and patriarchal family—that is intended, not individual privacy. Moreover, it is put forward in the name of a particular class—white middle-class Christians—whose relationship to "private" institutions is one of ownership. In both these aspects, the New Right’s appeal to privatism is much closer to fascism than to classical libertarian doctrine and is thus perfectly compatible, in theory as well as practice, with a program of state control over individuals’ private lives. For example, requiring that both parents be informed when teenage girls seek abortion or birth control services has created serious contradictions in the policies of the Reagan administration. It attempts to support traditional conservative principles of individualism and states’ rights and at the same time dictates how states should regulate relations between parents and their children as well as the sexual behavior of young people. But such contradictions are apparently of little consequence to the New Right and the Reagan administration, whose concern is polemical appeal rather than coherent policies. By focusing on realms that have the greatest appearance as "private" or "personal" in our culture—sexuality, abortion, the relations between parents and children—the New Right has been able to achieve a certain ideological legitimacy for its policies of racist and sexist exclusion and denial.
Nowhere is this clearer than in measures to cut off Medicaid funding for abortions, which in 1977-78 helped prepare the way for the conservati – zation of the state. The Hyde Amendment and the Supreme Court’s decision upholding that amendment contain the antifeminist and the antisocial welfare components of New Right politics in a nutshell. For these measures undermine the idea that women’s "right to choose" abortion is fundamental and the idea that the state is obligated to pay for the health needs of those who cannot do so themselves.
Restriction of Medicaid abortions was one of the first in a series of escalating cutbacks in social services, adopted in the context of economic and fiscal crisis, military buildup, and environmental and business deregulation. Involving an activity that seems most deeply associated with a private, personal realm and affects the most vulnerable, least powerful group in society—poor women, many of them women of color or teenagers—this policy has provided a politically acceptable wedge for the agenda of "reprivatization" to be applied on a larger scale. The assault on Medicaid abortions helped provide more than a pragmatic fiscal argument for social service cutbacks; it provided a "moral" argument. Women who seek abortions are accused of "selfishness" and "hedonism," a theme extended to welfare clients, food stamp recipients, legal services clients, and all who are dependent on social welfare programs to survive (though not those on social security or unemployment insurance). And these are predominantly women—poor divorced, widowed, separated, and single women, those who live outside the patriarchal nuclear family, recently called the "nouveau poor."18 Abortion is "evil" not only because it represents women seeking their "selfish" ends rather than their procreative "duty" but also—and this is the dimension of popular "morality" that the New Right has tapped most successfully—because it represents women who "get away" with something, who get a "free ride." Medicaid funding for abortions gives poor women a "license" for illicit sex. They don’t have to "pay" for their sins, they get something (sex) for nothing, courtesy of the taxpayers. That, far more than the killing of fetuses, makes not only conservative politicians but many working-class and middle-class people angry.
The campaign against abortion funding—and abortion generally—I would argue, exploited both the "taxpayer revolt" and the rightward- drifting sexual morality. It was instrumental in propagating the ethic of self-sacrifice and belt tightening that the corporate ruling class and the capitalist state attempted to impose on workers, consumers, and, most of all, the poor, as a means of "controlling" the economic recession. In this way, antiabortion politics played midwife to the neoconservative state and its business-oriented economic policies.
At first sight, a policy that restricts abortion access for poor women seems in direct contradiction to a decade-long policy of state-sponsored population control among the poor, as a means of diminishing welfare dependency. But neoconservative and New Right thinking about welfare cutbacks and abortion does not represent a pronatalist doctrine so much as a formula for restoring the traditional patriarchal family and the authority of men within it, among the poor as among the middle class. In the forefront of this thinking is President Reagan’s favorite neoconservative, George Gilder, whose Wealth and Poverty is a singularly unoriginal recapitulation of the ideas of Malthus, Mandeville, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
To Gilder, the central cause of poverty, apart from the failure of the poor to work hard, is the weakness of "the male role in poor families/’ the "breakdown of family responsibilities among fathers." The solution to poverty, then, is to "strengthen" male authority, to return women to their "maternal horizons," thereby tying poor men to the family and to a long-term future of "work and thrift."19 The implicit objective here, however, is not unlimited childbearing but the imposition on the poor of a bourgeois ethic and culture of saving and, no doubt, abstemiousness. Shades of Malthus. Similarly, Hyde Amendment restrictions seem irrational and contradictory to fiscal conservatism (reducing the numbers of people on the welfare rolls) only if we ignore the fact that saving money is not the primary function of either abortion or welfare cutbacks. Reaganomics involves cutting back those social programs that affect the poorest and most vulnerable people and yet are smallest in terms of total outlays.20
Social welfare cutbacks, including funding for abortion, are less a matter of increasing revenues or achieving a balanced budget than they are of imposing discipline, social control. But who is the object of discipline, and for what ends? Piven and Cloward argue that the major purpose of social welfare cutbacks in the 1980s is to discipline workers by tightening the income-maintenance programs that make loss of employment less onerous, less threatening to all workers, not only the unemployed. Thus the cutbacks are ultimately directed at restoring the power of the capitalist class over the working class as a whole.21 This argument, while not wrong, ignores the fact that the great majority of the beneficiaries of those programs undergoing the severest cuts are women—female family heads who are in poverty, poor women seeking legal help for divorce, paraprofessional and professional workers in the public sector, and sexually active teenagers. It seems undeniable that a major goal of the conservative state’s effort to contract if not dismantle social welfare is to discipline and punish women who try to survive, and be sexual, outside the bounds of the traditional family.
Here the denial of funding for and access to legal abortion is obviously key. The crisis of capitalism and the capitalist state provides only half the explanation for the antiabortion campaign; the other half comes from the crisis of patriarchy. Abortion is not simply an aspect of social welfare; it is a condition of women’s liberation, and by the 1970s it had become recognized by advocates and foes as deeply symbolic of feminist aspirations, a paradigmatic feminist demand. The reasons for this, as we have explored, are rooted deep within the actual conditions of women in industrial society and the culturally assigned responsibilities of women for children. While unarticulated, often even by feminists, the meanings resonating from abortion politics have more to do with compulsory heterosexuality, family structure, the relationship between men and women and parents and children, and women’s employment than they do with the fetus. Thus the campaign against abortion in the courts, the legislatures, and through electoral politics is—in some ways that are more devastating than the defeat of the ERA—a challenge to the changes in women’s conditions that are identified with the feminist movement. The campaign against legal abortion reflects and reinforces the swelling counterattack against feminism.