Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Ideology, New Right, Conservatism, the West.

One of the more important books in the recent wave of scholarship on the rise of the New Right, Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors focuses on the conservative stronghold of Orange County in an attempt to understand the social and economic reasons for its fervent embrace of Goldwater-Reagan republicanism. While drawing on prior studies that have focused primarily on the disgruntled swing vote (the race-conscious, welfare-loathing Reagan Democrats), McGirr's book devotes "more attention to social forces, to regionalism, to enduring political traditions outside the liberal consensus, and to the political movements that ordinary men and women create." As such, Warriors "seeks to illuminate the world of the men and women who rejected the liberal vision and instead championed individual economic freedom and a staunch social conservatism. In short, then, this book explores the Right as a social movement." (12)

McGirr traces several conservatizing influences at work in the formation of Orange County, despite the federal largesse (mainly in Defense Department dollars) required first to develop and later to maintain the region. One on hand, the early influence of conservative Protestantism had given Orange County a reputation for a strict, individualistic moralism even by the turn of the century. The defense boom of WWII and beyond encouraged the influx of anti-tax, pro-business land and real estate speculators (among other types of free-market worshipping entrepreneurs and "cowboy capitalists"), culturally conservative, Eastern Establishment-loathing Midwesterners, and rabidly anti-Communist and pro-military defense contractors. In the cultural atmosphere of staunch individualism that followed, the connective tissues of community were sorely lacking - a lack quickly remedied by the explosion of evangelical, Pentecostal, and fundamentalist churches throughout the area.

What with all the anti-tax, anti-East, anti-government and anti-liberal sentiment pervading Orange County, all this tinder box of cultural conservatism required was a spark to set it alight. That spark was anticommunism. As McGirr puts it, "anticommunist initiatives flourished" in Orange County, cloaking "conservative concerns with American liberalism -- fears of federal government centralization and apprehensions over the penetration of liberal ideas into the nation's schools, churches, and communitiies -- under an overarching discourse of 'communist subversion.'" (55-56) These anticommunist organizations ranged from anti-ACLU school board gatherings to the John Birch Society, and were led primarily by recent immigrants to the area, who shared "not only relative wealth but also the experience of social mobility that affirmed their faith in the possibility of individual achievement." (87-88) Moreover, these organizations gave conservatives their first taste of organizing into a broader movement, and formed the skeletal structure of what would later become the Goldwater grassroots in Orange County.

The experience of the Goldwater campaign (as superbly illuminated in Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm) proved a double-edged sword for Orange County conservatives. On one hand, it propelled them onto the national arena and helped them to reach new heights in organization and mobilization. On the other, the landslide victory of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 seemed a convincing repudiation of conservatism on the national level. Despite this setback, Goldwater's army soon found a more capable and media-savvy standard-bearer in Ronald Wilson Reagan --- who intuitively understood how to meld conservative ideology and populist appeal -- and vaulted him to the governorship of California in 1966 (See also Matthew Dallek's The Right Moment.)

How did conservatism catch fire in California enough to make this B-movie actor and non-bodybuilder the Governor of California? According to McGirr, California right-wingers "embraced a set of beliefs whose cornerstone element was opposition to the liberal Leviathan that was, in their eyes, the postwar federal government." Whether these members of the Right were "antistatist libertarians," fearing the encroachment of federal power on local initiative, or "social/normative conservatives," despising the secularism, relativism, and permissiveness apparently encouraged by the liberal state and its elites, they could agree that the liberal welfare state created by the New Deal and promoted by the Great Society was the enemy. In addition, these two wings of conservatism were further connected by a mythic view of the nation's past, whereby conservatives were the true heirs to the "national heritage" of the Founding Fathers. (In other words, as McGirr notes, the Right were both antistatists and nationalists.) Similarly, both wings of the movement were united by their virulent anticommunism and their phobic terror of the United Nations (a possible global Leviathan even more distant and powerful than Washington.) [As an aside, some recent commentators have suggested that the virulence of anti-Clintonism on the Right is in part a product of the fall of Communism. In other words, conservative ideologues needed "Billary" to replace the Evil Empire as the connective hatred of the conservative movement.]

As demographic trends (such as the rise of the Sunbelt) coincided with the travails of liberalism (most notably with regard to civil rights and Vietnam), the conservative movement shifted anew. Anticommunism faded into the background (in part due to the ridiculousness of the John Birchers), and single-issue movements - against pornography, sex education, abortion, etc. - came to the fore. In addition, fueled by a "search for authenticity, the rejection of liberal rationality, a middle-class counterrevolution against 1960s 'permissiveness,' and a search for community," evangelical Christianity gained a wealth of new converts in the late 60s and 70s. Ministers such as Chuck Smith combined premillenialist doom and gloom with fundamentialist chic, evangelists such as Robert Schuller embraced the modern tenets of consumer spectacle and a therapeutic ethos to sell antimodernism, and preachers such as Ralph Wilkerson traveled across the country offering that old-time religion of faith healings and pentecostalism. This new conservative message, cloaked in the garb of populism and religion, worked to propel Ronald Reagan once again, this time into the presidency. After only twenty years of organizing, the Right's moment had come. In conclusion, McGirr discovers that, despite the prevailing elite notions that conservatism is antimodern and that the spread of education and modernization should have further marginalized it, "conservative forces have instead flourished, and they have done so most recently in areas considered least conducive to them: modern suburban regions...

Let's move this over some more.They have been able to do so because, in Orange County and elsewhere, conservatives have meshed preservationism with adaptation. While embracing ideas often thought of as incompatible with modernity -- in particular a rejection of secularism, egalitarianism, liberal relativism, and the tendency toward a centralized state -- conservatives have conceived of themselves as a modern force. Just as importantly, they have accomodated aspects of American pluralism and jettisoned older unpalatable ideas (of anti-Semitism, biological racism, and anti-Catholicism, for example) in the face of new circumstances. At the same time, however, they have carried forward a core set of older assumptions about the nation, God's place within it, law and order, and limited government precepts that resonated with the new circumstances of life of many post-World War II middle- and lower-middle-class (especially white) Americans -- Catholics and Protestants alike -- particularly in the South and West. They have addressed real dilemmas that faced Americans in the post-World War II period: concerns about the erosion of local autonomy, of community, of individualism, and a disparagement of tradition in a familiar language. They have done so, moreover in a way that seemed to safeguard a way of life and set of power relations its adherents wished to preserve. Conservatism has been both a reactive and a proactive force, a mixture that helps to explain its strength and endurance." (18-19)


In sum, concludes McGirr, "it is the combination of preservationism and adaptation that helps explain the Right's staying power and that promises the Right a place in American life in years to come. (273)

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