Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

McGirr traces the origins and development of the conservative movement in Orange County, California from 1960 to 1980, and suggests that it can be used as a lens to examine the national rise of the New Right from its position on the “fringe” of American society to triumphal ascendancy with the election of Ronald Reagan. She identifies a number of specific factors that led to the belief and participation by white, middle and upper class suburbanites in strong, organized conservative local and state politics during this period. Many of them migrated from other parts of the country and found jobs in Orange County’s flourishing military-industrial complex, thus their economic security relied on government spending on defense and they financed their suburban houses with FHA loans, even as they congratulated themselves for their entrepreneurial success and railed against “Washington” and “big government.”

Separated from their families and friends and isolated in the suburbs, they turned to churches, both Protestant and Catholic, for a sense of belonging and community. Many of them either joined the John Birch Society, or sympathized with its statements and beliefs. They came together in study groups and coffee klatches to share and discuss books and other literature by conservatives, and began to participate in local politics, especially school boards, and then enthusiastically supported Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. McGirr argues that after his crushing defeat, the discourse shifted from anti-Communism to “single issues” as conservatives distanced themselves from the John Birch society and focused on new “social problems” such as “liberal permissiveness” and “welfare cheats.”

Although it is clear that many Orange Countians became involved in conservative politics during the 1960s, I am not sure I agree this was a true “grassroots” movement, when so much money and energy was poured into conservative publications, causes, and campaigns by the southern California business community, especially wealthy and powerful individuals such as Walter Knott. For example, McGirr notes that Knott recruited other businessmen to create the California Free Enterprise Association, which distributed literature to tens of thousands of employees, ministers, and educators. The organization “hired a staff of five employees, bought books, tapes, and films, and started a library to provide resources and direction for the grassroots activists” (p. 99).

But where is the liberal or left-wing “grassroots” movement that has had an equivalent amount of business enthusiasm and support? Grassroots implies, at least to me, an effort primarily funded and impelled by ordinary citizens, not wealthy elites--like the Populists, or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. She convincingly describes how a group culture evolved for white, upwardly mobile middle class southern Californians out of a specific set of economic and social circumstances—but it clearly took a lot of outside effort and resources to fully mobilize and utilize these people on a regional, state and national level.

She also tends to gloss over the question of race and racism with statements such as “the race issue did not inform Southern California’s conservative mobilization to the extent it did in the South” (p. 130). But just because Orange Countians did not express their prejudices with the unabashed virulence of George Wallace’s followers, certainly does not mean they did not hold fundamentally similar ideas and beliefs. It seems far more likely that they did not feel it was necessary or prudent to publicly express their true opinions about racial and ethnic minorities. But among themselves, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that they used all the same slurs and stereotyping. And middle and upper class white Orange County suburbanites obviously felt just as strongly that their homogenous suburban enclaves and property values would be threatened by fair housing laws and an influx of blacks and Hispanics as the working and lower class residents of Los Angeles suburbs such as South Gate or the white neighborhoods of Detroit. Actually, I thought her treatment of conservative attitudes toward racial minorities other than African Americans, especially Mexicans and Mexican Americans, was even more offhand and sketchy, given Orange County’s proximity to the border and the issue of illegal immigration that would soon become so important and heated.

McGirr’s examination of the importance of evangelical Christianity and its impact on the social conservatives’ (as opposed to the libertarian conservatives) emphasis on “moral issues” fails to recognize a crucial development in the Christian Right that arguably began in 1963 with the publication of Rousas John Rushdoony’s book, The Nature of the American System and continued with his 1973 Institutes of Biblical Law. Whereas earlier evangelical Christianity had tended to emphasize that the Christian’s spiritual progress and purity required a withdrawal from the temporal world, especially politics, “Christian Reconstructionism” (and its cousin, Dominionism) advocates a “takeover” of the political system and the imposition of a theocracy based on “Biblical law.” Moreover, given this avowed intent to “infiltrate,” “subvert,” and ultimately dominate the U.S. political system, as the Communists were once believed to be plotting to do, it is notable that many prominent Reconstructionists have been members of or closely associated with the John Birch society. As McGirr points out, this organization also adopted what it believed to be “communist” techniques in its recruitment and propaganda. This shift from waiting to go to Heaven after death, or eagerly anticipating the End Times and the Rapture, to an active commitment to building God’s kingdom on earth, seems to be a really important and influential development in conservative ideology, even when relatively few modern believers are consciously aware of all the Reconstructionists’ principles or goals. But as McGirr (and recent agitation against gay marriage) make clear, social conservatives are quite willing to legislate morality and use the power of the state to enforce their own religious beliefs and values.

I’m not even sure you can call Goldwater’s defeat such a total "debacle" for the conservatives—it seems highly unlikely to me that any Republican challenger could have won the election in 1964, considering the recent national trauma of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It is not necessarily true that so very many Americans rejected Goldwater for being too “extremist,” but that they were determined to remain united behind Kennedy’s successor. At any rate, I will be interested in the studies of the period between 1980 and the 2000 and 2004 elections, twenty years from now, if I’m still around to read them. It seems that nothing is really too “extreme” for a large proportion of the electorate anymore, and that what was once unthinkable, such as tampering with Social Security or using “tactical” nuclear weapons, are now considered valid ideas worth serious consideration.

Sources and further reading:

Interview with Rousas John Rushdoony at "The Second American Revolution,"

Christian Reconstructionism:

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