Suburban Warriors:

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Lisa McGirr. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. 2001. Reprint, Princeton University Press, 2002. $23


Contents

Summary

--Mlinhart 14:29, 6 Apr 2006 (EDT)

Beginning in the 1960’s, many Americans, mostly of the white, middle-class persuasion, began to believe that the Federal Government had taken on more responsibilities and duties than the Founding Fathers had intended it to have. Feeling that “Big Brother” was constantly peering over the fence into their back yards, these men and women began to look for alternatives to the moderate-to-left persuasion that they saw as a common denominator with most politicians. Having found little commonality and support with the Eisenhower administration and fearful of what the new minds of the Kennedy presidency would produce, these conservative-thinking individuals looked as far right as they could for someone who valued the same kind of America as they did. They found this in the Senator from Arizona – Barry Goldwater. While Goldwater and the men and women who supported him in the 1964 presidential campaign were not attempting to turn back the clock to an era of America long gone, they were attempting to return morality and faith in the Christian God – values that they believed were essential to the survival of America - back to the nation. The movement to the left that had been occurring during the first half of the 1960’s needed to be stopped; if it wasn’t, these conservatives believed, the United States was doomed to the same fate that befell Rome – its ultimate implosion from the rot that had destroyed its core for years.

In her book, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Lisa McGirr examines how these men and women were able to redefine what it meant to be a conservative through a case study of Orange County, California. By examining this particular county, McGirr hopes to gain a better understanding of what went into the grassroots movement in Southern California that allowed the ultra-conservative Goldwater to essentially steal the California primary and assure his spot on the national ticket as the Republican candidate for president in 1964. While McGirr concedes that the situation in Orange County was not necessarily similar throughout the United States, she does insist that by studying Orange County the reader can get a better understanding of the values and energy that went into this conservative movement and its attempt to redefine what it meant to be a Republican in the United States.

McGirr begins her study with an in-depth overview of the history of Orange County. She believes that this is an important process to go through; by examining the history of the county, she hopes to instill in the reader a notion that this was a county in the midst of tremendous transition. Two changes were taking place in Orange County as World War II ended. First, many of the native ranchers whose families had been living on the land for generations became frustrated by what they saw occurring around them. Second, as Cold War tensions increased between the United States and Soviet Union, the Defense Department needed land to expand upon in order to build the sophisticated weapons that would become prominent throughout the conflict. Orange County offered the government the space and work force needed for these activities.

Orange County, California was characterized by change and expansion after World War II. Population growth in Orange County was phenomenal; it grew from 131,000 in 1940, to 704,000 in 1960 to almost 2 million in 1980. World War II accelerated Orange County growth. The military and military-industrial complex, including high technology industries like electronics, instrumentation, missiles and aircraft, attracted workers to the county from across the United States. Along with workers, came businessmen. "The rapid growth and affluence of the region drew scores of entrepreneurs whose ventures, in turn, spurred new development" (p. 28) resulting in a county that was a sprawling middle class enclave.

As early as the 1960’s, Orange County was a "real center and symbol of American conservatism." (p. 4) Lisa McGirr believes there was a "convergence of a particular set of social, economic, political forces within the region that contributed to the germination of a conservative culture." (p. 29) The conservative component was a combination of native citizens with a heritage of Western individualism, entrepreneurs and capitalists who profited from rapid growth and resented government regulation of the economy, and those in military and military related jobs on the frontlines of the Cold War who were strongly anticommunist.

As educated white men and their families began to move into the county from various parts of the country, they had a unique opportunity to create their own culture and rules that would govern their new lives. Taking from their experiences, these individuals, especially mothers who stayed at home to raise their children, began to organize politically in an attempt to have this new value system transplanted into their county and neighborhoods. Beginning with the public school system that served their children, these mothers were willing to take on those aspects of life in California that they disagreed with, including the liberal education that the public schools offered to their children. Taking this fight a step further, these grassroots organizations began to work collectively to have their voice heard at the state level, their actions eventually culminating in Barry Goldwater’s nomination for president by the Republican party. By organizing into small associations that were based around the family and its immediate social network, this group of conservative men and women were able to get their ideas out onto the street.

Orange County conservatives became politically involved at the grassroots level often in struggles over "liberal influences in their children’s schooling." (p. 74) The John Birch Society, which ultimately fell into disrepute, found supporters in Orange County as did other conservative organizations. Eventually local activists "intersected with a national conservative movement" (p. 112) and advocated support of the Goldwater candidacy of 1965. McGirr claims George Wallace found little support in white collar Orange County because of his attachment "to New Deal programs, the welfare state and unions." (p. 115)

While the campaign for Goldwater is seen ultimately as a failure due to his sweeping defeat, those individuals supporting him did not lose faith in their ability to change America. Instead of continuing down the political path, many instead turned to religion in hopes of converting others to the proper way in life. By the mid-1960’s California seems to have been engulfed in a Third Great Awakening as churches began to see their congregations grow by the thousands. Where these men and women were unable to bring about the changes they desired through political means, by turning to religion, they hoped to convert those living throughout Southern California to the value systems that they wanted.

Conservatives learned from the Goldwater defeat and found "new opportunities brought about by the social turbulence of the decade." (p. 186) However, Conservatives gave somewhat reluctant support to Nixon. They felt Nixon had compromised his conservative principles and taken a moderate stance to obtain national support. Nixon had "attacked the “Extreme Right” and the John Birch Society." (p. 120) Nevertheless, as McGirr observes, Conservatives moved "into the respectable mainstream while the mainstream moved toward them." (p. 186) The result was the election of Ronald Reagan as Governor of California and eventually as President.

--Mlinhart 14:29, 6 Apr 2006 (EDT)








Commentary

--Mlinhart 14:29, 6 Apr 2006 (EDT)


In an ironic case of unintended consequences, the activists and counter-culture of the left in the late 1960s and early 1970s, not only motivated the right to action but enabled them to find sufficient support to secure sufficient political clout to affect local, state and national politics in succeeding years. Lisa McGirr states the ferment and unrest of the late sixties would ‘eventually rip the fabric of American liberalism apart and play itself out to the advantage of conservatives.’ (188) McGirr’s study of Orange County, California traces the changes in that region to demonstrate the rise of conservative influence to national prominence.

McGirr distinguishes between libertarians and ‘normative’ or social conservatives. The former ‘sought to limit the intrusiveness of the nation-state in economic matters’ (10) despite the involvement of many with the military-industrial complex and the latter opposed the decline in religiosity, morality, responsibility and family authority which ‘went hand in hand with the growth of centralized federal power.’ (10-11) Both groups championed ‘virulent anticommunism, celebrated laissez-faire capitalism, evoked staunch nationalism and supported the use of the state to uphold law and order.’ (11) There was little worry about social unrest in homogeneous Orange County among the conservatives. However, Watts was close by and demonstrated another reason to support law and order. Racism was rarely expressed but Orange County conservatives were up in arms about the 1963 Rumford Open Housing Act to prevent discrimination in housing. They voted solidly for Proposition 14, a constitutional amendment to repeal the law. (185)

McGirr’s description of conservative Protestantism in Orange County fits with Lienesch’s (Redeeming America Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right) description of the New Religious Right. There were a number of independent mega-churches with evangelical ministers like Bob Schuler and Charles Fuller. McGirr identifies ‘social conservatives’ who felt the ‘true cause of the nation’s problems’ was a ‘decline in morality, religiosity and righteous living.’ (157) Like the New Christian Right, religious conservatives in Orange County favored traditional values and were alarmed by such things as the ‘exclusion of religion from the school room,’ (159) pornography, abortion, and the weakening of the forces of law and order. Obviously, Supreme Court decisions in these areas did little to win their support for the national government.

McGirr sees Orange County conservatism as largely middle class. This middle class was more disappointed and disenchanted than disaffected. There was a component of anxiety in their thinking; their anticommunism was based on belief in a strong enemy. They believed the United States would prevail if the nation was not bogged down in social programs, had a strong military and little or no United Nations involvement. The amorphous middle class includes educated doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and engineers but it also includes others with lesser status, e.g., a clerk of a municipal court and the wife of a union member. (207) The middle class category is so broad that it is virtually meaningless.

McGirr emphasizes the role of the middle class but she also describes important financial backing from wealthy Californians including Walter Knott, owner of Knott’s Berry Farm who founded the Free Enterprise Association in 1960, a ‘critical right-wing institution in Orange County.’ (99) The middle class provided legwork and votes but the influence and support of the wealthy might have laid the groundwork for a trickle-down conservatism.

--Mlinhart 14:29, 6 Apr 2006 (EDT)



Tom Demharter, fall 2005

Overall, the author does an excellent job in providing the reader with a sense of what life was like in Orange County throughout the 1960’s. A unique set of circumstances arouse in Southern California that allowed this conservative grassroots movement to take shape. While McGirr does argue that other parts of the country experienced similar situations, she does not expand on this other than to name a few. This is where I feel that she falls into a conundrum. It is impossible to say that the support Goldwater received throughout the country in Republican primaries was based on a similar set of occurrences. That is simply not possible. Something was uniting these people on a national level and McGirr was unable to account for this. While Goldwater only received 39% of the vote, those particular groups of people were tremendously united. She ignores this point completely. McGirr also does not account for the uniqueness of religious revival in southern California and why it only seems to have occurred there. While the southeast also has a tremendous spiritual rebirth at the same time, it was nothing like the revivals of California. Overall, while the book does have some shortcomings in that it is too area specific to be useful to understand national patterns, it does provide a tremendous amount of information that helps the reader better understand the rebirth of the Republican Party. --Tdemharter 10:42, 22 Nov 2005 (EST)

Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Lisa McGirr provides an interesting analysis of the conservative movement, using Orange County, California, as a focal point. Contrary to popular opinion, according to McGirr, conservatives were not irrational "kooks" but instead were mainstream middle-class "men and women who rejected the liberal vision and instead championed individual economic freedom and a staunch social conservatism." (p. 12) McGirr disputes the view of scholars like Richard Hofstadter who "cast the Right as a marginal, embattled remnant fighting a losing battle against the inexorable forces of progress." (p. 7) Postwar liberal intellectuals tended to cast liberalism as the sole American intellectual tradition. McGirr says, "By failing to take into account the deep-seated conservative ideological universe of conservatives, liberal intellectuals underestimated the resilience and staying power of the Right in American life." (p. 148)

The book is a local study that seeks to explain the rise of a national movement. McGirr does not claim that Orange County is typical but instead finds that it provided fertile ground for conservatism through its socioeconomic, cultural, and political patterns. McGirr says, "Orange County exaggerated trends occurring elsewhere - trends that were harbingers of future national change." (p. 13)

McGirr finds that conservative Christianity found a home in Southern California and helped infuse a conservative political culture. She specifically notes the influence of fundamentalist churches, like the Orange County Central Baptist Church, which supported right-wing groups such as the John Birch Society. The fundamentalist worldview of an ongoing battle between good and evil fit well with the anti-communism of these groups.

McGirr finds that postwar liberal intellectuals failed to take into account "the deep-seated conservative ideological trafditons on which the Right drew" and accordingly "underestimated the resilience and staying power of the Right in American life." (p. 148) Conservatives believed that the postwar New Deal order impelled by bigger and more intrusive government impaired traditional morals and values and fostered social permissiveness. McGirr says, "The expansion of the scale and scope of the federal government, they believed, reduced civic autonomy and thwarted individual initiative and self-reliance, running counter to older Republican belief in the primacy of the locality and the state in determining the shape of public life." (p. 149)

McGirr views the Goldwater predidential campaign of 1964 as a watershed in the conservative political movement. McGirr says, "Goldwater's entrepreneurial individualism and his references to the West as the repoitory of true American values elicited a strong regional appeal." (p. 132) He took a number of positions that appealed to conservatives, such as his militant anticommunist stance, his advocacy of states' rights, his emphasis on individual responsibility, and, as McGirr says, "Above all, his support of "property rights" over civil rights as the ultimate test of freedom." (p. 133)

David Houpt, Fall 2008

One of the most interesting aspects of Suburban Warriors is the prevalence of anticommunism. In Nightmare in Red, Richard Fried makes claims that by the 1960s anticommunism was a dead issue in politics. According to Lisa McGirr, there was still a tremendous amount of red-baiting taking place at the local level. This would make sense because the 1960s was the height of the Cold War. It is possible that both authors are correct and that anti-communism was a dead issue at the presidential level but that at the local and congressional level it was still around. McGirr even suggests that McCarthy was revered by some of the new conservatives as being a hero of some sort.

The other part of this book that I found particularly interesting was how influential California’s politics was on the rest of the country. It was not until Barry Goldwater won the primary in California that he was really considered a viable candidate. It is hard to believe though that Orange County was a "real center and symbol of American conservatism." (p. 4) The conservative movement had been brewing in the South for some time, and I am sure that Governor George Wallace would argue that Alabama was the real center of American conservatism. I do not believe that McGirr was successful in arguing that Orange County was representative of the rest of the country. Her study of the history, demographics, and geography of the county is interesting and helps explain why Orange County became so conservative. But what does that tell us about regions that are nothing like Orange County except that they were really conservative? She never really goes into why Orange County can be seen as a “symbol” for the conservative movement.

Like Nixonland, Suburban Warriors makes the argument that Barry Goldwater’s quixotic Presidential campaign in 1964 was what sparked the conservative fire. It may seem odd that a candidate who was beaten so handily could serve as a rallying point for a new movement but when Goldwater won the Republican primary it convinced millions of conservatives that their grassroots movement could indeed influence policy. Democrats, who believed they had just gotten a mandate to undertake dramatic reforms, were unprepared when the newly energized conservative movement reared its head.

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