May 8, 2006
Lisa McGirr, Suburban
Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (2001)
Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors chronicles the rise of conservative politics from the early 1960s to 1980. By using Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as bookends of the conservative evolution, McGirr elucidated the origins of the American Right, while providing a much-needed corrective to the liberal-dominated historiography. With neutral prose and an analytic approach, McGirr explored how religion, grassroots organization, consumerism, rights-based liberalism, the free speech movement, and Cold War ideologies enabled conservatism’s rise to prominence. Interestingly, she traced the broad, national movement through a focused study of one relatively small area: Orange County, California. This middle-class suburb provided the particular context for which McGirr measured conservatism’s pulse. In no way did McGirr argue that Orange County typified or mimicked the national conservative movement. Nonetheless, Orange County did, to a degree, epitomize the very constituency that facilitated the popularity of the Right. As McGirr revealed, the strength of conservatism stemmed from a new group of middle-class men and women, many of whom recently migrated to the nation’s Sunbelt, living in tract homes, attending Sunday church services, and playing bridge with their like-minded neighbors. It was in the halls of worship, inside community bookstores, at study groups, and at the schools in suburbs like Orange County that conservative politics moved from the extreme to the mainstream.
In the opening years of the 1960s, political pundits and liberals characterized the Right as a paranoid group of fundamentalists. Even consensus scholars, such as Richard Hofstader, marginalized the Right as a mere blip in “the tireless forward march of American liberalism.”1 Yet, as McGirr highlighted, the ascendancy and staying power of political conservatism belied the prognostications of liberals. Indeed, conservatives and their platforms became less extreme throughout the 1960s, allowing for a wider and more diversified constituency. As the pace with which middle-class engineers, doctors, and dentists in Orange County flocked to the Republican Party showed, the Right’s mobilization could no longer be accurately described as a rural or extremist movement.
The conservatism that McGirr’s Orange Countians embraced in the early 1960s combined libertarianism with a normative conservatism. In terms of economic policy, they championed a form of libertarianism that favored individual property rights, private business, and laissez-faire capitalism. McGirr’s “suburban warriors” had grown disillusioned with Washington bureaucrats who regularly took their hard-earned money in order to fund social welfare programs. Paradoxically, as the Right sought to curtail government interference with individual business interests, conservatives looked to the federal government to ensure that the moral and religious righteousness, on which they believed the country was founded, endured the onslaught associated with the New Left’s rights-based liberalism. Perhaps above all, however, it was anti-communism that linked the Right in the early 1960s. In Orange County and elsewhere, McGirr described the popularity of anti-communist societies and schools (essentially a program of lectures and films warning children about the evils of communism).
Within the context of the Cold War, Barry Goldwater emerged as the Republican champion of anti-communist ideology. His support from committed conservatives earned the staunch conservative the 1964 Republican nomination for President, thus signaling a shift to the right within the Republican Party. Although Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide, the zealous grass roots activism among Goldwaterites laid the foundation for future Republican politicians. Conservatives had proven that they could mobilize. Only two years later, they would be out in force again, this time backing the former actor, Ronald Reagan, in the California gubernatorial race. McGirr described Reagan as a “populist conservative” who maintained Goldwater’s mix of antistatist libertarianism and a conservative moral agenda, but importantly, lacked his abrasiveness and political record. Further boosted by “fratricidal wars within the Democratic Party,” the Watts race riots, and the Berkeley Free Speech movement, Reagan succeeded in attracting moderate democrats.2 McGirr illustrated how the conservative agenda, in the wake of the “extreme” protests for civil rights and free speech, resonated with a wider audience.
Following Reagan, McGirr argued that the march toward conservatism continued with the 1968 election. Not only did Richard Nixon take the White House, but segregationist George Wallace also won an impressive 13.5 percent of the vote. Now, with established roots inside the state and federal governments, the Right preached to a larger crowd. It was at this point that the Right, still infused with religious undertones, became focused on fighting single issues such as abortion, prayer in school, sex education, and gay rights (that is, against gay rights, of course). The bulk of McGirr’s study spans the early 1960s until the 1968 Presidential election. She did briefly cover the period between Nixon’s victory and the ultimate establishment of the new American Right: Ronald Reagan’s two-term Presidency. Overall, Suburban Warriors explains the transition from Cold War liberalism to a “New American Right.” To be sure, the rise of conservatism was more than just a backlash to years of liberal rule. And as McGirr made clear, the movement encompassed a population well beyond farmers in the South and Midwest. Indeed, middle-class suburbanites provided the fuel for the rise of conservatism, which to this day, has yet to be derailed.