Review of Michael Stewart Foley's "Front Porch Politics"

tags: politics, activism

Andrew Feffer is professor of history and co-director of film studies at Union College in Schenectady, NY. He is currently writing a book on the impact of the Rapp-Coudert investigation on the intellectual life of New York City

Front Porch Politics: The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s
by Michael Stewart Foley
Hill and Wang (2013)

Most Americans tell an identical story of the last decades of the twentieth century: Around 1968 the heightened political activism we call “the Sixties” began to overreach itself. Unreasonable, utopian demands replaced the practical, reasonable goals that had driven the civil rights and student movements of the previous decade. Those excesses, found especially in the rhetoric of “black power,” multiculturalism and universal equality, reportedly provoked a “backlash” of conservative politics. Around 1979 or 1980 that surge of right-wing reaction took over national government, first in the White House and then in Congress. Meanwhile, frustrated with a decade of social and political turmoil, Americans retreated from civic engagement. The “Age of Reagan” thus began.

A good story perhaps, but not one fully supported by the historical record. Using that record, Michael Stewart Foley offers, in this very readable and adept book, an alternative account of the era, one that discards the “two now-tired tales” of rising conservatism and declining civic engagement at the heart of the Reagan-era myth. Such tales are believable, Foley argues, only if we focus on the period’s electoral and party politics and if we fail to take a closer look at what was happening in America’s neighborhoods, on its city streets, and across its backyard fences as the millennium came to a close. Instead, Foley urges us to turn our gaze downward and outward in order to look more closely at “another kind of political experience,” one that was “much more likely to propel Americans into action” and one that has had a much greater impact on our political life than generally assumed.

The experience Foley has in mind is something he dubs “front porch politics,” grassroots campaigns whose proliferation throughout the era “demolish the myth that Americans retreated from activism after the Sixties” especially “when the question before them [was] the safety and security of their families, their homes, and their dreams.” Americans were led into front porch politics neither by ideology nor by indignation over distant or global injustices, but rather by “the promptings of their own experience” and by a “primal concern with fairness.” The front porch produced an unvarnished civic action that was not yet represented in government or institutionalized in policy, nor even mobilized in political parties. It was “existential and emotional,” a response to “an immediate sense of threat – from government, corporations, the law, or other citizens with opposing interests – that required something more than a vote.” The wolf was at the door. The situation “required action.”

And from where did that wolf come? According to Foley, it crept up on our porches with the declining fortunes of the American economy, as jobs evaporated in deindustrializing towns and cities, as abandoned factories yielded hidden harvests of toxic waste and as neighbors squabbled with each other over dwindling resources. The era that Foley describes was not the one that sported Ronald Reagan as its optimistic spokesman announcing “morning in America.” Rather it was nearly four decades in which hundreds if not thousands of local social movements flourished among ordinary Americans troubled by the darkening prospects and instabilities of a post-Fordist society.

As Foley chalks up the sheer number of local and regional movements, it becomes hard not to agree with him: neighborhoods mobilized against toxic waste dumps, young women established battered women’s shelters, poor and working families squatted in abandoned housing in declining cities, rust-belt industrial workers took over factories discarded by multi-national corporations. Something more than civic disengagement and conservative rule clearly was going on in the wake of the 1960s.

For the most part, Foley convincingly argues his case, especially in a handful of superbly crafted chapters that locate “front porch politics” in a much longer trajectory of social and economic history. So, for instance, he neatly summarizes the way racial discrimination practiced during the 1940s and 50s in the development of America’s signature suburban geography generated social pathologies that led decades later to an extraordinary range of movements and conflicts. The fair housing battles in New Jersey that led to the landmark 1975 Mt. Laurel decision forcing communities to permit the development of low-income housing may seem antithetical to the anti-busing crusades that wracked Boston around the same time. But Foley makes us understand the extent to which a common geography of segregation and class privilege applied in both cases. Anti-busing activists from South Boston may have been shockingly racist, but they were not wrong about liberal suburbanites and judges who dumped educational inequities on working-class white and black Americans alike. In the retrospect of this longer history, those liberal suburban “Bostonians” who pushed intra-city busing as a solution to educational segregation (without addressing the root problem of residential discrimination) uncomfortably resemble the inhabitants of New Jersey suburbs who priced or forced African-Americans out of local housing markets and into the “inner cities” of towns not fortunate enough to maintain restrictive zoning regulations.

In another chapter, Foley reviews the era’s patchwork of environmental activism against the backdrop of declining economic expectations, this time pulling the common ground out from under a movement that seemed unified around the mere protection of the environment. The working and lower-middle-class “front porch” rebellion of families living in toxic waste dumps like Love Canal grew from vastly different sources than the largely youth-based No Nukes movement that challenged the development of nuclear power stations like Seabrook or Diablo Canyon. It is extraordinary leaders like Love Canal’s Lois Gibbs that give Foley’s “front porch” image its greatest resonance with the nation’s larger political culture as Foley understands it, representing so clearly households beleaguered by industrial decline and corporate criminality. As local manufacturing firms, and with them much of the American middle class, began to melt in air, these “accidental activists” were drawn out of their houses by the palpable experience of watching their children poisoned – their feet chemically burned when they played on the lawn – by what disappearing companies, the alleged backbones of their communities, left behind. “The people in Love Canal,” Foley writes, “never aspired to participate in grassroots politics, but as they pieced together the evidence that something sinister was poisoning their landscape and that the city would do nothing about it, defending their families meant leaving their homes and engaging.” And engage they did. Before the Love Canal activists were even remotely satisfied in their quest for recognition and compensation, Gibbs took two Environmental Protection Agency employees hostage and forced President Jimmy Carter in summer 1979 to declare the neighborhoods surrounding the toxic site a national disaster area. The following year, Congress established the environmental Superfund, still one of the most effective pieces of environmental legislation on American law books.

A revisionist account of the era is long overdue, supported by a growing number of historians whose work Foley summarizes here. Yet, though this book contains a wealth of counter-examples to the conventional “Age of Reagan” story, it does not provide the reader with a compelling counter-narrative. Part of the problem is Foley’s aversion for what other people call “politics” – ideologically guided and institutionally organized contests for power and authority. According to Foley, grassroots activists like Gibbs needed no ideology to launch them out of their houses into the world of civic activism. They only needed to sense a “threat” to their families and have that “primal concern” for fairness. Perhaps that was so in Love Canal. But, one senses a much murkier and ideologically fraught picture even from these ostensibly politically unalloyed stories.

And there is little here to guide us through that thicket of grassroots activism, which in Foley’s encyclopedic treatment places anti-tax campaigns alongside movements demanding greater investments of public funds in state-sponsored projects. So intent is Foley on harvesting the unadulterated treasures of the grassroots that he misses many ideological currents that actually swept through them. Neither environmentalists nor housing activists, many of whom were socialists, anarchists and radicals of one stripe or another, were truly as unideological as Foley makes them out to have been. Nor were many anti-busing activists, family farm militants and anti-tax campaigners guided merely by a belief in fairness.

We can see where this all was headed, but Foley refuses to go there, stopping his retelling of the story in 2001, when he grimly declares that front porch politics “reached a point of exhaustion.” Thereafter it was replaced by “rigid, ideologically informed world views” mouthed by “surrogate talking heads on twenty-four-hour news channels.” But that’s just not a good enough story. For the “grassroots” enthusiasms of the late twentieth century flowed much more evenly into the political movements of the new millennium. For a comprehensive account of those connections we will just have to wait for another kind of storytelling.

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