Suburban Warriors

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Lisa McGirr. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (2001) ISBN: 0-691-05903-9



Lisa McGirr traces the beginnings of the American right after 1960 through Orange County, California. She attempts to fix the old historiographies that claimed right-wingers were generally the downtrodden or ignorant rural people rejecting modernity. Dr. McGirr claims otherwise; argues that the movement was based on old tradition that adapted to modern issues. Orange County was a prototype for the American right. The combination of defense spending, affluence, and immigration from the conservative Midwest made Orange County a strongly conservative place.

McGirr contends that anti-communism began as the primary issue for Orange County conservatives. It glued together social conservatives worried about moral failure and libertarians committed to individual rights combined with limited government; they believed that communism and even liberalism threatened individual liberties. Religion also played an important role in the rise of the right wing, particularly in the 1970s. McGirr highlights that the movement did not arise as a response to race riots, but grew from an anti-communist agenda into one fighting against the welfare state and a perceived loosening of morals in the country. However, in the later 1960s, as anticommunism declined as the motivating driver of activism, the differences between economic elites and social conservatives became more pronounced.

McGirr also claims that the right included educated, professional, middle-class Americans who had adapted well to modern society, and even prospered. They paid more attention to the nation and politics than did others. Dr. McGirr points out just how widespread and how energetic this movement was. They capitalized on the growing conservatism of a nation rocked by the social problems of the second half of the twentieth century. They felt the liberal state threatened family, individual rights, and their way of life. Dr. McGirr sees this movement as culminating in the Reagan revolution. Religious conservatives joined and fought gay rights, abortion, crime and other social issues. These issues replaced anti-communism as the linchpin of the movement. The Right, especially in Orange County, sought protection of property rights, religion and the family.


Chuck Crum Fall 2009

This work is a welcome breath of fresh air to studies of the right in that it does capture the essence of who were the people that made up the right. Dr. McGirr does not assume the New Deal is right, everyone wanted it, except those that were wrong. This is a nice grassroots history of conservative voters. She is perplexed by their political views, however, and it shows. She claims they won adherents by emphasizing the individual, giving the go-ahead to their greed, without comprehending that was what causing the social breakdown. She is wrong. She does miss the fact that social conservatism and libertarian views can be compatible. She may also suggest too much. It is very possible that people did not change nearly as much as a switch in vote may seem. Their own views hadn't changed, they simply voted differently, for a variety of reasons. People often vote against their beliefs or best interests, particularly in a national election where something as simple as the personality of a candidate or the media's influence decides the vote. The core beliefs of the voter may not have moved at all. This may have been the situation with many Americans prior to 1961 and it stayed that way. Goldwater's nomination and subsequent defeat does not necessarily mean people abandoned what McGirr class extremism and thus became more mainstream. There were other factors involved in Johnson's victory. It can also be problematic to extrapolate from one county to an entire political party or movement. Dr. McGirr also looked at activists, not the majority of the voting public.

John Lillard, Spring 2010

In Suburban Warriors, Lisa McGirr uses the example of Orange County CA to explore the New Right as a social movement at both local and national levels (12). She does not use this county as a case study in the classic sense, because with its unique demographics it does not represent other communities where the movement took hold. Instead, McGirr uses Orange County to trace the attributes of the New Right movement from its beginnings through the Reagan era. McGirr makes a game effort of providing an unbiased view of the movement, but her work is cut out for her. It is a challenge not to view the county with a degree of cynicism. The predominantly white, middle class and Protestant population (44) actively responds to perceived threats from a hodgepodge of distant and indistinct enemies to individualism, family and religion (272). But for a region whose economy is built largely on the defense industry, the Orange County anti-tax and small government stance seems more than a little incongruous and this dichotomy is never explained.

McGirr's main accomplishment is her documentation of the turning point for the New Right in between the Goldwater and Reagan era. It was during this time that the grassroots movement went national, learned to translate their John Birch rhetoric into a more modern language, and operated inside what McGirr calls "the bounds of respectable discourse (128-9)." Reagan's backers were much savvier as regards to the packaging and selling of their candidate and platform, reflecting a maturing of the movement. The New Right became a national political force when they achieved the feat of maintaining their conservative credentials while making them palatable to great mass of swing voters.

Once in her Introduction (7) and again in the middle of her text (147), McGirr makes a point of emphasizing how her approach differs from that of Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset. She claims that Hofstadter's causal analysis of the conservative movement is too grounded in explanations based on "physiological distress" or "personality disorders," namely fear and paranoia. Yet the words McGirr uses to describe the motivations of Orange County residents still sound very much like fear. The New Right rhetoric that she quotes is infused with apocalyptic images; "destruction of moral fiber . . . communist threat . . . collectivist menace . . . subversion . . . conspiracy . . . [welfare state as] the road to serfdom." The terms used might be moderated somewhat over the years, but the foundation is still simple fear (272). With such hyperbole at the center of the New Right philosophy, Hofstadter's characterization still appears to be not too far off the mark, and McGirr inadvertently does a good job of supporting his point.

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

In Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Lisa McGirr intended to write a "history of the conservative movement, using Orange County as the lens through which to explore the social base and ideological waters of one of the most profound transformations of twentieth-century U.S. politics" (4). While there are many strong points to the book, there are many weaknesses as well, including a major flaw in the previous sentence. McGirr's herself exposes this "transformation" of the area into a conservative bastion as one based largely on a rise in population by citizens from more traditionally conservative areas. There was no transformation, as that would imply that the political affiliation of the citizenry changed. While the area did become more conservative and there were certainly those who became more conservative, many conservatives moved into the area due to a proliferation of military and defense organizations.

Even with this fundamental flaw, McGirr's strongest sections are in the beginning of her book, as she discussed the rise of, and important changes in, grassroots conservative activism during the Goldwater campaign and Reagan's campaign for governor. Her description of the split in the Republican party during the Goldwater campaign, a split that doomed the campaign in California, is quite interesting. McGirr's description of the rise in fundamentalist religious movements in her final chapter is a strange addition to the book. While grassroots conservative movement from generalized anti-communist activism to activism based on more specific single causes, such as anti-abortion or anti-obscenity, the rise in religious fundamentalism could be a cause or an effect of the conservative movement in general. McGirr is dismissive of the movement as a genuine religious experience, focusing instead on the vast amounts of money and marketing created by these churches. As John correctly and comprehensively notes above (in a way that precludes repetition), McGirr's word choices throughout the book reveal her belief that the conservative movement in California was racist, misguided, paranoid, and extremist. While in many cases this is certainly true, and while (as John notes) she dismisses Hofstadter's thesis, she ascribes this to the entire movement, and not merely to groups like the John Birch Society.

Gwen White, Spring 2010

Lisa McGirr combines political and community history to examine the rise of conservatism in Orange County, California in the post-World War II decades. What is never overtly stated but is implied throughout the text, is the importance of the suburban landscape to this movement and how the American dream of home ownership played into the consolidation of the conservatism that we know today.

Fully planned communities provided "individual privacy, private property, and public spaces defined by consumption (p. 40)." They also created homogenous zones. Homeowners associations and assessment fees kept people with less economic buying power and perhaps differing political views out of the neighborhood and made it possible to create powerful political groups at the grassroots level through involvement with school boards and local politics.

Suburbia is a paradox. It represents a close community of like people focused on family. On the other hand it can foster racial discrimination as McGirr points out. Anti-communism, anti-semitism, and segregation in churches and schools, whether mandated or by design further fueled the separateness of the conservative community in Orange Country. The tale that McGirr relates of the determined long-range planning that led to the conservatism that exists today, is an eye-opening and impressive work

Alan S. Brody, Spring, 2011

Lisa McGirr takes on the task of writing from the point of view of the ordinary citizens who were the nucleus of the conservative right in Orange County, California. While she more than meets her stated goal of exploring the, “social base and ideological waters” of a new conservative movement I am bothered by the fact that her examples don’t include the agenda and accomplishments of the liberals. I think the text would have also benefitted from a trip North to San Francisco or even Sacramento to help contextualize her arguments. For all of the rancor expressed by the critics, I am still unclear what net effect these individuals had beyond helping elect candidates and joining societies?

I am not in any way minimizing these tasks, I am just considering another way to frame the work because in may places it reads like it wants to be a history of women or a history of the acceptance and influence of ideas. Forgive my nineteenth century spectacles, however, I see many parallels between this and reformers. McGirr locates Orange County as a place of military and technological innovation, how were those ideas expressed beyond a rabid anti-communism? She references curriculum and the PTA in passing and left me wanting more social history. The last chapter, “New Social Issues” is the strongest and I applaud her ability to weave the political possibilities and ramifications within the religious context. Her illustrations are also worthy of note as they help contextualize her argument.

As others have noted, this is an important work and one which spark passions, I endorse her political stance and believe that her interpretations are accurate and based in evidence. This is not to make wholesale judgments, instead it helps us as historians place the American Right within its own context. The people in this work seem to exist at a certain time and place and I am curious as to how that story can be rewritten in the age of social media? There is great promise in looking at the ways technology and new media have empowered her suburban warriors and the political parties and causes they serve.

Alex Bradshaw; Fall 2012

McGirr offers an interesting alternative to the history of the United States during the second half of the twentieth century. In addition to examining a movement that is often overlooked, she examines middle class whites in a rarely seen context. The "suburban warriors" of Orange County reacted to the threats that they perceived in communism, the civil rights movement, and other liberal gains that followed World War II by throwing their energy and influence into a mobilization that began a virtually uninterrupted reign of conservatism that lasted until the end of the century. Most histories of popular or grassroots movements tell the stories of struggles for rights and opportunties that are generally associated with the left ot liberals, but this history tells the story of efforts on the opposite end of the political spectrum. the men and women discussed here used many of the same types of methodologies that grassroots liberalism has, but to very different ends.

McGirr asserts that the three main components of the conservative movement of the 1960s were the creation of the Sunbelt, suburbanization, and white backlash, and that these three elements owed their creation to the liberal gains that preceded them. Although she is presenting a hisotry of the conservative movement, McGirr clearly suffers from no illusions concerning the motivations behind the movement. She acknowledges that the actors in this history were motivated by economic and class bias, racism, and religious fanaticism, but manages to do so without sounding overly condemenatory.

One particularly interesting point that McGirr makes is that the people in her study have been dismissed, both by their contemporaries and by historians, as extremists, but they crafted a trend in popular and political thought that held on to power for quite a long time. Although there were a number of failures, like Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, the successes of the conservative movement significant and long-lasting. It is interesting how successful a white, middle class based movement could make such achievements during a time in which many types of discrimination were more popularly and consistently condemned than ever before, and when opportunities available to non-white and non-middle-class were more prevalent than they had ever been before.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

With the goal of tracing the rise of the Radical Right in American culture beginning in the 1960’s through the case study of Orange County, California Lisa McGirr’s work “Suburban Warriors” is a success. McGirr chose Orange County not for its representative qualities, but rather for its extreme zealousness toward the social conservatism, libertarian economics, Christian Evangelicalism, and commitment to a strong military that would come to define the Republican party after the 1980’s. With this choice the reader is able to see the extremes of the grassroots activists, McGirr’s suburban warriors, who would eventually come to dominate national politics.

While the book had many strengths, it did suffer from one major weakness. This can be seen in McGirr’s discussion of the impulse towards racial homogeneity in Orange County. By posing this white flight as a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, McGirr poses the issue as a black-white divide. In Southern California where there are not only large African American populations but also large Hispanic and Asian populations this was a mistake.

Despite this major weakness, the book was strong overall. Her greatest strength was in her willingness to look beyond the negative cultural portrayals of these people and this movement by many scholars and liberals. Refusing to see them as shrill or irrational, McGirr detailed the beliefs which made up the new Right’s partisan platform, including anti-communism and evangelicalism, and showed how these were not anti-modern sentiments, but rather were born out of social realities and political opinions. This can be seen in her discussion of the coalition between libertarians and social conservatives. Despite seeming to be ideologically incompatible “libertarians and social conservatives shared enough grievances against their common enemy, the liberal Leviathan, to forge a political movement.” (pp 164) These commonalities included anti-communism, a limited interpretation of the Constitution, and hostility toward social welfare. (pp 164-174) This is representative of the care used to detail the elements of this social movement which seem contradictory on its surface, moving beyond the dismissive tone which left liberals then and now unable to deal with this political threat.

I wonder how McGirr’s narrative might have been changed if printed just five years later. In the time between it’s publication in 2001 and 2006 three popular television shows which are set in Orange County emerged - The OC, The Real Housewives of Orange County, and Laguna Beach. Each of these shows focus on the exact demographic who makeup the suburban warriors. Since two are reality TV shows it could provide an interesting source to see how the political values of this era have translated into social and cultural values for a new generation of Orange County residents. Perhaps it is time for a new edition.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

McGirr analyzes the social context of the conservative movement through the lens of Orange County, California. By isolating a particular location that developed strong patterns of support and outreach for conservative candidates, issues, and activism, McGirr attempts to identify the social and regional factors that created conditions for a conservative anticommunist awakening while also showing how the tactics changed over time to encompass broader religious imperatives and single-issue political campaigns.

McGirr’s demographical analysis of the country reveals interesting patterns. The county attracted migrants from the heartland, who brought conservative values with them and a yearning to recreate community connections that had been fractured in the westward move. Second, she contends economic connections to Cold War military-industrial complex created a heightened awareness of anticommunism sentiment that sparked “fears of federal government centralization and apprehensions over the penetration of liberal ideas into the nation’s schools, churches, and communities” (p. 55). According to McGirr, the transient nature of Orange Countians and proximity to Cold War industry created conditions conducive for activist groups like the John Birch society to rally established and informal social networks into recruitment activities and educational forums against a perceived threat of communism and liberalism. In this locale, the perceived threat first took the form of attacking school board members’ political affiliations and once small victories in changing local politics were achieved, neighborhood groups set their sights on higher goals like controlling the CRA. It is unclear the kinds of issues that were galvanizing these early local grassroots groups other than references to support for free-enterprise capitalism and a vague sense of educating the community against the “communist menace” and this is one aspect that McGirr could have clarified. Later, groups could rally around particular political candidates or specific propositions or social issues like busing, pornography, sex education, or abortion, but determining the extent of support based on polling results captures the sentiments of the voting public as a whole based on state or national issues that reached the balloting phase. An interesting discussion might be to compare county or city government records for homegrown initiatives rather than state or national platforms for town hall meetings that reveal local concerns that failed to make the ballot at higher levels of government.

McGirr points to the solidly middle and upper class cohort in the early 1960s that supported early efforts to educate against threats to the American way of life, but a point that is perhaps underscored is that these men and especially women had the leisure time and income to participate in study groups. McGirr theorizes that these women’s “identification as wives, mothers, and ‘moral guardians’ of the family” encouraged them to leave the domestic sphere in order to promote the conservative cause (p. 87). This attitude and motivation is reminiscent of white middle class social workers of the Progressive Era as depicted by Ewen in Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars where women also left the domestic sphere to promote values-based education as an American way of life against a perceived outside (immigrant) threat. McGirr’s ability to delve into the motivations of women for joining, forming, and recruiting other women into political and militant Christian identities frames an intriguing subtext to the greater story of the collective movement within the county and a counterpoint for the feminist movement.

McGirr’s strengths come from analyzing a national movement from a local perspective, but even within this local perspective, the influences from outside the county seem to be preferred over the influences from within the county.

Dan Curry, Spring 2014

In her book, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Lisa McGirr traces the origins of the grassroots conservative movement in the U.S. to Post-WWII Orange County, California. She describes how southern migrants brought socially conservative, evangelical ideas to the region and added to an existing population holding laissez-faire and individualistic beliefs. The strength of her book is her effective description of how Libertarians and Social Conservatives were able to form a grassroots coalition with common goals of fighting big government, communism and moral decline despite fundamental ideological differences. McGirr clearly describes the educated and middle-class nature of conservative activists dependent on California’s growing defense industry and influenced by the homogenous isolation of suburban communities. She also brings often overlooked attention to the local organizations and movements of middle class conservatives in California and how their local actions evolved into a national movement culminating with the election of Ronald Reagan.

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

Lisa McGirr’s book is about the rise of American conservatism; it is also a book about Orange County, California. Fortunately for her, the two are inextricably linked. McGirr manages to narrate a history of the conservative movement from its earliest roots in the 1950s to the Reagan administration using primarily examples from the real conservatives of the OC. One can see from her many examples covering many aspects of society, including politics, education, religion, labor, economics, and business, that the OC is a litmus for conservative currents. The fervency with which Orange County conservatives mobilized stands out in McGirr’s examples, but she situates their activism within the broader context of the Right throughout the nation. She demonstrates effectively that the county helped birth the conservative right, but also shows that the process began much earlier than most narratives suggest.

When held up in comparison with Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands and Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart (both from 2009), it is obvious that both authors read McGirr and learned from her example. As a result, each book offers a juicy slice of the conservative history pie without losing too much of the contextual crust.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

In describing the basic tenents of the conserative movement in Pasadena in the 1960s, McGirr hints at the ways in which anti-statist and anti-intellectual sentiment also manifested as an antipathy towards the east coast, particularly the northeast, or at least its politics (see, for example, 132, 348n9). This reminded me of Schwarz's description of conflict between southerners and westerners, on one side, and north-easterners on the other. In the context of California conservatism, notions of western independence and the pioneer mythos seem to have played a role in the construction of conservative identity, even for residents who were only recently arrived in the area.

While McGirr may not always directly address issues of racial conflict, she does acknowledge that the Orange County conservatives were concerned with maintaining the status quo of their white, and middle class, privilege. By examining the groups who joined in conservative action in the 1960s and drawing out their various motivations, McGirr reveals the ways in which the California conservative movement was not entirely homogenous.

David McKenzie, Spring 2015

While much popular understanding of conservatism focuses on the South as the prototypical conservative bastion, in Suburban Warriors Lisa McGirr recenters the West, specifically Orange County, California, as a major locus of the conservative revival that gathered steam following Barry Goldwater's 1964 defeat and, as she shows, manifested itself even before.

This geographic focus is one of the book's major strengths. In an era that finds California a coastal "blue" state in presidential elections, it is easy to forget the state's role as a hub of conservative thought. While she argues that Orange County was not the birthplace of modern conservatism, it was the literal birthplace of Richard Nixon, and played an integral role in the rise of a relatively obscure actor to the governorship of California and a presidency that the heirs of McGirr's suburban warriors revere ever more as time passes.

McGirr's focus on that one specific place, Orange County, allows for another major strength: her ability to delve into the motivations of actual people who formed, and helped lead, conservative movements. As other commentators have noted, she rightfully dismisses facile, psychological explanations for the conservatism of her subjects, showing that they were not simply rural throwbacks but rather took an active role in the modern world—a modern world for which they saw a role of their "traditional," yet evolving, beliefs. While she does not shy away from pointing out logical inconsistencies in her subjects' belief systems (especially the contrast between a hands-off libertarian state and a state enforcing socially conservative mores), she overall takes these beliefs seriously and gives them their due weight. While I agree with other commentators that some comparison with more liberal regions—and even more liberal parts of California—would have been valuable, the book does not suffer from this.

McGirr's focus on one county does not come at the cost of a broader understanding of Orange County's place in Southern California and the West more broadly—indeed, that firm placement of Orange County in its regional context, and a reminder of how the county was not unique in its setting, is valuable. Even though, as many historians of the West have rightfully argued, the region is not one of self-reliance and ruralism but instead of greater federal dependency and urbanism than is manifested in any other part of the United States, this regional mythos remains integral to Western identity. McGirr shows the import of that mythos on migrants from other regions of the country; even those who brought conservative beliefs with them (as McGirr shows, many migrants came from the South and Midwest) bought into these ideas.

Overall, Suburban Warriors provides a solid, if self-consciously narrowly focused, understanding of the rise of conservatism in the United States. It provides a solid complement to works like Nixonland that chronicle the bigger picture by making the story local and personal.

Andrew Salamone, Spring 2016

Lisa McGirr investigates the forces that helped nurture the development of a conservative political movement in Orange County California during the 1960s; an event she describes as one of the more profound in American political history. Some of these forces included the polarized international climate of the Cold War, a county whose economy was largely dependent on the military industrial complex, and an increasing rejection of what McGirr contends was "assertive liberalism, sexual liberation, the prominence of black and youth cultures, and changes in family life." She also argued that many of the people who served as the vanguard of this movement came to California from the Midwest and South. These people brought with them conceptions about the American Revolution, ideals about virtue and morality, and a strongly Protestant religious outlook. Citizens of Orange County, those who she referred to as "kitchen table activist." started the conservative movement in response to these forces, initially focusing on local politics such as schoolboards. Gradually, they worked to build a more cohesive network through publications, association with churches, and by supporting local candidates for political office. She argued that Barry Goldwater's nomination as the Republican candidate in the 1964 demonstrated the blossoming power of this movement, and pushed the old guard of the GOP further to the right. Ronald Reagan's eventually victory in the 1980 presidential election was the culmination of this newly reformed Republican Party, which was comprised of a mix of working class, evangelicals, and moderate Republicans. McGirr's work provides an excellent window into the ways in which social forces can bring about far-reaching changes in a specific locality. She also explored the vital role that women played in driving these changes. Nonetheless, as previous reviewers like Lillard and Erbelding pointed out, her description of how the conservative movement in Orange County spread throughout the nation did not include convincing details. It's difficult for me to see whether Orange County initiated this push towards greater conservativism or if it was responding to a set of forces that were put in motion elsewhere in the country. Evidence showing that other counties or municipalities in the Midwest or South adopted strategies originally implemented in Orange County might have made this clearer.

Stephanie Walters, Spring 2016

In Suburban Warriors, Lisa McGirr traces the growth of the conservative movement in Orange County California from the late 1950s to the Reagan Era. McGirr explores the varying different social and cultural movements in the United States during the time period they contributed to hyper-conservatism in the county. The biggest perpetuation was forced by the end of the Red Scare where Americans were increasingly concerned of communist influences. According to McGirr the regions that were most concerned with the spread of communism, like the Bible-Belt in the South and Midwest were the populations who were moving into Orange county over about three decades. Conservative values in these regions and the rejections of communist through were strong in the Midwest and South and their ideas infiltrated the West Coast. As they moved in, they voted in more conservative government, pushed for more religious and conservative undertones in community and schools--especially noted with the Goldwater's rise int he Republican party, Reagan's win as governor (and then ultimately President of the United States).

By using Orange County as a case study, McGirr reveals how quickly areas of the US began to spread ideals of conservatism and then ultimately reshape the republican party who was still reeling from Nixon. By emphasizing the importance of Christianity, constant comparisons to communism and socialism, conservatives managed to not only change the landscape of the not only in Orange county, but the rest of the US.

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