50 years since its debut, what “All in the Family” can teach us about bridging America’s political and cultural divides
Archie Bunker was a bigot. Whether bemoaning the Black family who lived next door or refusing to accept his friend is gay or his casual misogyny or his frequent attempts at — to borrow a phrase from the modern right — “own the libs,” he was a deeply flawed and prejudiced man. Yet, half a century since he first appeared on our screens, singing an off-key ode to Herbert Hoover and life before the New Deal, he remains a crucial and iconic pop culture figure.
Through Archie, series creator Norman Lear managed to provide a humorous and insightful glimpse into the id of white America during a time of massive cultural and political upheaval. As opposed to the middle-class ideals presented in Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and other American sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s, Norman Lear’s magnum opus focuses on the working-class Bunker family and tackled weighty and topical issues in ways not done before on television. For that reason, All in the Family, which premiered 50 years ago this Tuesday, is a landmark television event.
Led by the cantankerous and bigoted Archie (Carroll O’Connor) and his “dingbat” wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), the Bunkers are your typical American family: content but not happy, hardworking but low-earning, comfortable but only just. Joined by daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and hippy son-in-law Mike Stivic, whom Archie derisively calls “Meathead,” the Bunkers spent nearly a decade helping Americans unpack their cultural baggage at a time when the weight was wearing the nation down.
Running from 1971 through 1979, All in the Family is a snapshot of America during a time of immense change and strife. Integration accelerated, the women’s liberation movement hit its stride, and the gay rights movement began to gather steam. All of this, of course, occurred against the backdrop of civil discord. The Vietnam War raged, with a sustained anti-war movement taking to the streets. An energy crisis hobbled the nation, leading to a recession in 1973 and causing economic hardship for millions of workaday Americans. Meanwhile, Watergate exposed corruption at the highest levels of the US government, prompting the resignation of President Richard M Nixon.
It is amid this chaotic and fluctuating national landscape that All in the Family emerged like a lighthouse in a storm, guiding the nation towards a safe harbour in which it could examine and digest the issues tearing it apart. Re-watching the show today, the most surprising thing is not the use of slurs which would now never be permitted on network tv. Rather, it is that so many of the issues the Bunkers grappled with are issues we ourselves struggle with in 2021.
All in the Family is as instructive today as it was 50 years ago. Archie Bunker has a lot to teach us about his ideological descendants — the Red Hat-wearing, MAGA chanting, Trump voting Americans. It can also provide a glimpse at how the descendants of the hippy Mike — the #Resistance, social justice warriors, and overeducated-but-underemployed Millennials — can find a way to live alongside them. For that reason, All in the Family is as timely as ever.
Part of what made Archie such a cultural icon is that he is not a caricature of racist white men. Rather, Norman Lear — while critiquing Archie’s bigotry and never letting him off the hook for his prejudices — treated the character not with contempt, but with compassion. He made Archie fully human in ways that many on the contemporary left will not even acknowledge their living breathing political counterparts to be. Make no mistake: Archie was a racist man. He was a misogynistic man. He was a homophobic man. But despite all this, Archie Bunker was a good man.
That someone could be both bigoted and ultimately decent sounds like a contradiction to our ears today. Yet it as true in 2021 as it was in 1971 and understanding this fact can help us bridge the cultural gap between right and left. Not all bigotry is born out of malice, nor is it exclusively borne by the right — a fact raised by Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans) in the fourth season episode “The Games Bunkers Play.”
While playing a board game in which they are meant to be honest, progressive Mike claims he is mature because he is open-minded and “tolerant of the other guy’s opinion,” while Archie is “a walking monument to intolerance.” Yet, as Mike’s best friend Lionel points out, Archie “doesn’t know any better” whereas Mike — who constantly makes Lionel’s Blackness the centre of their conversations — does, or rather should.
That is the genius of Norman Lear. Lionel does not excuse Archie’s prejudice. Throughout the series he regularly corrects and counters Archie’s more racist notions, often with clever quips which fly over Archie’s head. Rather, he points out the hypocrisy of lefty Mike, who sits in judgment of his father-in-law while also failing to see the ways he himself might be prejudiced — in this case, both against Lionel (who Mike sees primarily as Black, and not as an individual) and against Archie, whom he views as his cultural and intellectual inferior.
This is a problem plaguing the modern left, as well. Too many progressives hold themselves to be above their Trump-voting compatriots, while ignoring the prejudices they themselves hold and believing themselves to be more enlightened than the plebs in the red hats. This smug sense of superiority blinds them to understanding (or even attempting to understand) the other point of view, or indeed what might cause someone to vote for Donald Trump in the first place.
“The Games Bunkers Play” is a fantastic episode to watch today because it gets to the heart of the cultural divide between white progressives and white conservatives — both in the 1970s and in the 2020s. Mike spends the episode insisting he is better than Archie, while constantly being shown — by Lionel, by Gloria, by Edith — that he has more in common with his father-in-law than he would care to admit. Mike is every bit as stubborn, as closed-minded, as self-righteous, and ultimately as insecure as is Archie.
Yet, unlike Archie, Mike had opportunities — a fact Edith acknowledges towards the end of the episode. “Archie yells at you because he is jealous of you,” she tells an upset Mike. “You’re going to college and you got your whole life ahead of you. Archie had to quit school to support his family. He ain’t ever going to be more than he is right now.” Unlike Mike, who was living with his in-laws rent-free while he pursued his college degree, Archie never had that opportunity.
The opportunity gap in white America is as real today as it was in 1971. There is an ever-growing cultural chasm between those with bachelors and advanced degrees and those without, one that is manifesting itself in our politics. It has become a cliché to describe Trumpism as the result of “economic anxiety,” especially when there is emerging research showing racial resentment lies at the heart of the Trumpist movement. However, the economic and cultural divide is certainly a contributing factor, just as it was 50 years ago.
Like many Trump voters today — who either saw their factories shuttered and mines closed in the 1980s and 1990s or came of age after the fact — Archie was raised with limited economic prospects, a product of growing up during the Great Depression. So, he went to work, spending his life putting food on the table. Making ends meet was the most he could hope for.
And for much of his adult life, that was enough. He was doing what the world told him he should do: go to work, earn an honest wage, provide for his family. He was living his life as his father had taught him, a fact evidenced in the eighth season episode “Two’s a Crowd.”
While having a drunken conversation with Mike, Archie reveals that much of his prejudice is the result of his upbringing. Recounting an episode from his childhood in which a Black boy beat him up for calling him the n-word, Archie asks what he was supposed to call the boy. “That’s all my old man ever called them,” he drunkenly confesses.
Stunned and frustrated, Mike asks if Archie ever thought his father might be wrong. “He was never wrong about nothing,” Archie insists, slurring his words as he waxes lyrical about his abusive father. “How can any man that loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?” he asks.
It is one of the most poignant and touching moments in the show’s run. It also provides a moment of clarity for Mike, who finally realises why Archie is so recalcitrantly conservative. Archie Bunker was a man living his life as he always had, as he had always been told to live it, until suddenly there was this man — Mike the Meathead — in his own home telling him the way he had lived his life was wrong. What’s more, the world outside agreed with Meathead, and Archie felt increasingly like a stranger in his own country.
To be clear, Mike was right. The times, they were a-changing, and thank God for it. The racism of Jim Crow, the sexism the women’s movement campaigned against, the repression LGBT people sought to liberate ourselves from — these were oppressive and needed to go. They still need to go. Archie Bunker was not the cause of those problems, though. He was a low-income guy from Queens who was just trying to make ends meet and make sense of a world from which he felt increasingly alienated.
Archie’s problem, as Edith knew and Mike came to realise, was a deep-seated insecurity about his place in a changing world. The same is true for his political and cultural descendants. Many Trump voters today are sceptical or even frightened by our rapidly changing cultural and economic moors and realities, what I once described as “the browning and queering of America.” They see a world in which they increasingly feel out of place, one where twenty years ago their views — on religion, on sexuality, on immigration or race — were the norm but which are now outright rejected as antiquated or even bigoted.
And to be clear, the often are. Just as it was for Mike, it can be difficult to have sympathy for the Archie Bunkers of our time. When confronted with repeated images of innocent Black people being shot dead by the police or children in cages on the border or a literal insurrection against the government, their complaints about “political correctness” and “cancel culture” can seem trite, at best.
To that end, I am not suggesting anyone make common cause with insurrectionists or white nationalists. The terrorists who stormed the US Capitol last week are not the ideological descendants of Archie Bunker. If they have any antecedent in All in the Family, it would be the white nationalists who blew up a Jewish activist in the season three episode “Archie is Branded.”
In this episode, the Bunkers find a swastika painted on their door after their house is mistaken for that of a Jewish neighbour. Though mostly remembered for the discussion of violent versus nonviolent tactics in opposing bigotry, “Archie is Branded” also reveals an important fact about its titular character. Archie, though insensitive and ignorant, is not hateful. He is horrified by the hate and encourages the militant Jewish activist Paul (Gregory Sierra) to fight back against the bigots. The episode ends with Paul being blown up in his car, a horrified Bunker family looking on helplessly.
The distinction between “insensitive and ignorant” and “hateful” is one that is often lost in modern discourse. We tend to paint everyone with a broad brush (“all Trump voters are racist”) and lose sight of the nuance and imperfection of humanity. Archie Bunker was many things, but he was rarely intentionally cruel and had little time for those who were. When Edith’s drag queen friend Beverly LaSalle (Lori Shannon) was murdered by homophobic thugs, Archie was visibly upset. And in an episode of the spinoff Archie Bunker’s Place, Archie punches a grocery store clerk for making racist and misogynistic comments about his housekeeper.
Both of these incidents occur either late in the run of All in the Family or in the spinoff, indicating character growth along the way. And while that provides a valuable lesson to the left on not abandoning anyone (especially the working class) to their fate, it is also indicative of the decency at the core of Archie Bunker. Impact might matter more than intent, but intent does matter — and Archie’s intent was never to be hateful, even when he was.
As the left assumes the reigns of power in Washington, it is as important as ever that we remember this. You might not be living in Archie’s house, but both MAGA and the Resistance share the same country whether we like it or not. Trump may have lost the election, but Trumpism is not going away, and Trump voters certainly aren’t. That means that the Mike Stivics of the 2020s are going to have find a way to co-exist with the Archie Bunkers of today.
Again, All in the Family can provide a roadmap to reconciliation. Despite their constant antagonism and differing worldviews, Archie and Meathead shared a mutual affection. At the end of “The Games Bunkers Play,” after Edith’s kitchen lecture about Archie’s lack of opportunity, Archie walks in and is warmly embraced by Mike. And in “Two’s a Crowd,” he affectionately covers a passed-out Archie with a blanket to keep him warm.
For his part, even when Archie is giving Meathead a hard time, whether criticising the way he puts on his shoes or the way he eats his dinner, there is an underlying sense of care. Archie takes a paternal role in his orphaned son-in-law’s life, trying to teach him the way his father taught him not out of malice, but out of love. Dysfunctional? Sure. Heart-warming? You bet.
Archie and Meathead were never going to see eye-to-eye, but in the end, they didn’t need to. They had real and substantial political and cultural disagreements, just as many of us have within our families today. Yet through talking and arguing with one another, they managed to achieve a deeper understanding — of themselves, and of each other — which provided the basis for a mutually respectful and affectionate relationship. Crucially, they brought the country along with them.
Despites all his many flaws, Michael Stivic came to love Archie Bunker, and Archie Bunker came to be enlightened by a Meathead. This was only possible, though, once both opened their minds — Archie to the fact that the world was changing, with or without him, and Mike to the fact that his father-in-law was not the cartoon villain he so often reduced him to.
This is the timeless brilliance of All in the Family. It pitted Archie and Meathead against one another to examine the cultural divides within 1970s America, but with the understanding that at the end of the day, these two people were not that different. Fifty years later, it’s a lesson many of us could stand to learn.
Let’s hope we do. The past four years have been traumatic and trying for this nation, perhaps the most traumatic and trying years we have had since All in the Family first aired. Going forward, may we all seek to emulate Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic, realising that we don’t have to agree in order to love one another. Perhaps then, in another fifty years’ time, we can look back on the 2020s and think “those were the days.”
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan