Introduction: Reassessing the 1950s

Among members of the Baby Boom generation, any reference to the 1950s provokes wild mood swings, including reactions and responses than can break stereotypes. The self-avowed democratic socialist Harold Meyerson (born in 1950) regularly uses his Washington Post column to gush effusive praise on the United States at mid-twentieth century, pointing to a national industrial prowess that created family-wage jobs for men and a “broadly shared prosperity that made us the envy of the world.” He claims the robust American economy of the time, dominated by manufacturing, puts to shame today’s “Wall Street-Walmart” global economy, dominated by lucrative high-finance, on one end, and by low-paying service jobs, on the other, a new order that has depressed both wages and labor-force-participation rates among American men.

On the other hand, Michael Barone (born in 1944, technically not a boomer) seems anxious to correct his younger brother’s memories of their childhoods. In the Wall Street Journal last summer, the American Enterprise Institute fellow denigrated the Fifties as a time when Americans fell into the habit of “celebrating the average, the normal, the regular,” chastising “liberals who long to return to the Midcentury Moment” for forgetting “that it was a time of enormous cultural uniformity that stigmatized being unmarried or unchurched or gay.”

In this case, The Family in America does not hesitate in siding with the liberal Meyerson over the conservative Barone, in part because we welcome any challenge to the meta-narrative crafted by American elites, a story line that depicts the 1950s as a cultural backwater in need of the enlightenment that liberal progressives finally brought to the country in the 1960s. As Bryce J. Christensen’s lead essay suggests, this journal upholds the postwar years as a golden era in large part because state law and federal policy—informed by New Deal-era social and tax polices—upheld life-long marriage as the social ideal and offered numerous protections of the social sector (particularly the home economy, motherhood, and children) against the threat of industrialization and the “creative destruction” that corporate executives visit upon the family when given the chance to run roughshod over the social sector. This was America before the Supreme Court went haywire, reconstructing the DNA of civil society by inventing constitutional rights to pornography, abortion, contraception, sexual relations outside of marriage, and sodomy. This was also America before the legal guild lobbied the states, with very little public input or discussion, to dilute the bond and permanence of matrimony through no-fault divorce.

It is no coincidence that the economic conditions of the 1950s that Meyerson cherishes were embedded in unprecedented demographics, characterized particularly by the near doubling of marital birthrates, ending decades of demographic stagnation. For the first time in the twentieth century, divorce rates plummeted and marriage rates hit new highs, while the median age of first marriage declined. Also a demographic first, suburban women—even those with college educations—enjoyed higher fertility than either urban or farm women. As Christensen points out, this renewal of family life paid economic dividends for five decades. Moreover, all the social indicators from 1946 through 1964 clearly belie any notion that family breakdown is “historically inevitable,” a dogma widely shared by most academics, including the late conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson.

To be sure, the 1950s left much to be desired for African Americans, especially those living in the South. Civil-rights laws were absolutely necessary to repeal the “separate-but-equal” laws that prevented African Americans from enjoying the fruits of American prosperity. But racism was alive and well in the country long before the postwar era. Dating to 1876, the Jim Crowe regime was not a product or even a reflection of the social conservatism of the 1950s. Indeed, African Americans enjoyed the same uptick in fertility and marriage rates as the nation at large; moreover, a key provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was intended to lower employment barriers for African-American men so that their families would enjoy the same economic stability as white families. That section of the legislation was perhaps the last vestige of the explicitly pro-family bias of the New Deal, a construct that would come under attack when progressive social engineers would launch the socially destructive raft of means-tested welfare programs that President Johnson promoted under the banner of the “Great Society.”

As much as The Family in America joins with Christensen’s two-and-a-half cheers for the 1950s, historical and scholarly integrity requires a counterview. So our publisher, Allan C. Carlson, explores the underbelly of the postwar era, looking for developments that were not salutary. While the prominent social historian has, over the years, single-handedly unpacked the many components of what he terms the promising “American family policy system” of the New Deal and postwar years, he takes a stab here at exposing “the cultural dry rot” of the time, an exercise that demonstrates that all was not well in Fifties-era America. Indeed, he dates the beginnings of the sexual revolution to the 1940s, reminding readers that the now-discredited Alfred C. Kinsey started his mischief in 1948 with Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, followed by the Indiana University zoologist’s corresponding smear of young girls and married women in America in 1953, the same year Playboy debuted. In essence, Carlson identifies the cultural seeds that elites planted in the 1950s that would bear bitter fruit in law and policy in the 1960s and beyond.

By publishing both Christensen’s and Carlson’s essays, The Family in America aims to shed light on an important decade in recent American history, an era that offers important lessons for policymakers, and elected officials, who seek to renew the promise of America in 2012.