Archie Bunker and America’s Argument Around the Dinner Table

America had a cultural hangover in the ’70s. The civil rights struggle, the rise of second wave feminism and the sexual revolution seemed to insure that the country had undergone a basic social transformation.

Not everyone was happy about it.

Working class white men, many of whom had benefitted tremendously from the New Deal, the hard bargaining of their trade unions and postwar liberalism, found themselves deeply at odds with the Democratic Party on matters of race. Feminism scared them to death. And they couldn’t understand why the kids could be so unpatriotic as to refuse to fight in a war in Southeast Asia.

Hardhat wearing city guys voted Republican. By 1980, they became the “Reagan Democrats”.

Almost 40 years later, two powerfully descriptive but inherently offensive terms made their way into the rhetoric of the 2008 election. In describing working class whites who definitively were not going to vote for Obama, pundits used the phrase “downscale whites” and the utterly clunky term “down trending whites” as shorthand for a lower middle class whose economic insecurity made them easy prey for encoded racism, birther theories, and fear of even the name “Barack Obama”.

The fictional ancestor of “downscale whites” was Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) of All in the Family, a Norman Lear-helmed show that premiered in the fall of 1971 with enough possibility for controversy that CBS opened the first episode with a warning to viewers that the next half hour might contain some shockingly racist language, but that it was meant to “direct a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns.”

Available now on DVD, All in the Family: The Complete Series provides an opportunity to revisit one of the most revolutionary shows on television and a moment when sitcoms dealt, in complicated ways, with issues ranging from inflation to gay rights to gentrification to, of all things, excise taxes. Packed with extras (including an unaired pilot), the set features a booklet containing essays by media critics Mary Kaplan and Tom Shales that explores the shows context and meaning for the American ’70s and the present.

Running for nine seasons, All in the Family became one of the most popular and controversial shows on television, Lear creating a rich stew of social commentary out of the dynamics of working class family life in Queens. Archie Bunker (a foreman on the loading dock), his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), his daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) all live under one roof, clashing over politics and personality.

Archie tells Edith to “stifle herself,” Gloria and Mike argue with “Arch” at the dinner table over his racial attitudes and, in the show’s early seasons, his support for Richard Nixon. Edith, meanwhile, becomes the moral heart of the show, holding a family together that acts like it wants to tear itself apart over the same issues that seemed to be tearing apart the country itself.

Carol O’Connor’s Archie became almost the narrative voice of the show and one of the most recognizable of television icons. He’s a blowhard, an antediluvian who sadistically abuses the English language and his long-suffering wife. He is sometimes an outright collaborator with evil as he works with his equally benighted neighbor McNabe to keep the “coloreds” from taking over the block. Of course, by “taking over the block” they mean an incursion no greater than a single black family, the Jefferson’s, moving in down the street.

But he’s also lovable and sympathetic, a character that represents something of an everyman, not so much in his prejudices as in the fact that he has basically lost a struggle. Archie, like so many of the white working class in the ’70s, worked hard to hold on by their fingernails to row houses in need of constant repair and jobs in a manufacturing economy that had begun to disappear. Archie himself has to take a night job as a cabbie just to keep his family afloat.

Indeed, Lear and his team of writers/directors never missed a chance to remind us that Archie dwells at the bottom of a shrinking middle class and that all his ranting about “hebes, spics and spades” has more to do with his own very real economic insecurities than a fully formed conception of white supremacy.

Even the famous opening sequence, panning over Manhattan and then into working class row houses in Queens, meaningfully suggests a distance from the American dream, even as Archie and Edith sing, “Those were the days”. In one episode where Archie wants to celebrate some good news with a glass of wine, he gets out “the good glasses.” Edith can’t help but note, “We haven’t used these glasses since we got them from the Quaker oats people.”

In the same episode, Archie gets the chance to appear on Walter Cronkite to give “the working man’s view” of Nixon. Archie, of course, supports Nixon because, as he says “God does, too.” The comedy of the half hour revolves around the Bunker’s ancient TV being broken and the race to find one to watch Archie’s big moment. When they finally find a place to watch, a local watering hole, the news is preempted by a special Presidential address. Archie, never able to really win, has had his voice drowned out by the man he, against his own economic interests, supports vociferously.

Lear’s real genius may have been setting the political in the midst of the domestic. Viewers who found Bunker utterly repulsive for his views couldn’t help but empathize with the working class guy who rode the subway to work every day, who seemed exhausted and harassed by every element of his life. Conservative viewers found themselves constantly challenged by the very clear political statements of the show.

Liberals sometimes worried, with good reason, that the sympathy the show encouraged for Archie could encourage sympathy for his views. There’s little doubt that, for some viewers, their fascination with the character tended to obscure the hideous nature of his racial bigotry.

Lear suggests in a wide-ranging interview included in the special features that minority viewers tuned in because the show became a kind of open forum on race in America, a place where the worst would literally come out at the dinner table for discussion. I hope on some level that this is true, but think it just as likely that many African Americans found Archie too repulsive to abide. After 1974 he was too reminiscent of the hard hats that violently protested busing in Boston or the hateful neighbor on the street they tried to integrate.

And yet, the show did also feature characters like George Jefferson who, of course, later became a way to explore a different angle of America’s racial experience in The Jefferson’s. And, onAll in the Family, George and his son Lionel (friends with Mike and Gloria) never failed to get the better of Archie, to sometimes bring out the worst in him in a way that almost seemed like they were drawing out cultural poison from the snake’s tooth.

Through almost nine seasons of great television, the show remained remarkably static in terms of character and even basic comic tropes. In the last few seasons, the writers did add new characters, Gloria and Mike moved out as Mike became a professor and the couple had a child. Archie loses his job and opens a bar.

But Archie’s war with the ’70s never changed. In season seven, in a classic episode revolving around the fate of Archie’s famous chair, he’s still making jokes about watching “that pinko Cronkite.” In the same season, he insists that his lodge’s “white’s only” policy isn’t discrimination, “its just being particular.”

All in the Family also remained committed to showing the complexities of working class life, including how someone like Archie could cast his vote for Republicans even while he paid his dues for his union.

In season five, a four-part episode entitled “The Bunker’s and Inflation” has Archie going on strike and professing his loyalty to his trade union. It also has him, and his union reps, happy when they receive a pay raise that’s actually not a pay raise at all, once the real numbers are adjusted for inflation.

Historian Jefferson Cowie writes in his excellent book Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class that Richard Nixon worried about the effect Archie Bunker was having on public opinion. In a conversation with John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, he ranted about an episode in which Archie discovers that a friend of from school, a football player, turns out to be gay. Nixon, Cowie reports, feared that the show’s sympathetic representation of a gay man might surely lead to the destruction of American society. “Root ‘em out” he rambles, “homosexuality, dope, immorality are the enemies of strong societies… We have to stand up to this!”

Ironically, Archie Bunker represented exactly the “silent majority” that would support Nixon’s brand of politics during the conservative counter-revolution of the ’80s, the hard hats that would vote for Reagan and two Bushes, the struggling working class that would vote against the economic agendas that had helped created a muscular manufacturing economy and for the policies that would help create enormous economic inequality in American society.

In 1976, when Jimmy Carter wins the White House, Archie retorts to his liberal daughter and son-in-law that Ronald Reagan will win next time around. It’s meant as an impossible joke, rather than a political and cultural prophecy. Its another example of how All in the Family understood the temper of the times, and became America’s argument around the dinner table.