Title: Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right
Author: Lisa McGirr
Categories: Political History, Conservatism, Sunbelt, California, Libertarianism
Place: Orange County, California
Time Period: 1945-1980
Lisa McGirr writes a "bottom up" history of the rise of the conservative social movement during the 1960s and 1970s in Orange County, California. McGirr argues that far from being the backwards-looking fringe radicals that consensus historians such as Richard Hofstadter describes, the ordinary men and women who created a grassroots conservative were often deeply enmeshed in modernity - upwardly mobile migrants who embraced entrepreneurialism and often worked in the high-tech sector in southern California. McGirr outlines their ideology as embodying two main pillars: libertarian antipathy for the central government and social, often heavily religious, conservatism. McGirr describes how this movement adapted. It began as a more extreme one that focused on anticommunism (exemplified by the John Birch Society), but after Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964 shed the extremist label and embraced more single-issue social conservatism that culminated in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.
McGirr begins by charting how new post-war migrants (many from the South and Midwest) built on an existing strand of conservatism in the region's ranchers and small businessmen. Many of these individuals flocked to Southern California and embraced a laissez-faire view of the world that, despite the region's heavy reliance on the military-industrial complex, stressed individualism, faith in the market, and minimal government interference - a kind of "cowboy capitalism." These dentists, engineers, and doctors all lived in a growing suburban sprawl that exacerbated individual isolation and racial homogeneity. Instead of focusing on the movement's intellectual leaders, McGirr looks at the ordinary men and women who worked at a neighborhood level - the "kitchen-table" activists that contributed to the movement rather than the more visible individuals such as William F. Buckley Jr.
In the early 1960s, these conservatives emphasized virulent anti-communism that culminated in their successful insurgency within the 1964 Republican presidential primary. Many conservatives were appalled by the drift towards moderate conservatism by Eisenhower Republicans and simultaneous sweeping action by ever-more liberal Democrats under Kennedy and Johnson. Their successful nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 marked a stunning achievement for hard-line conservatives, but Goldwater's devastating loss in the general election emphasized the need to shed its earlier extremism. They managed to do in part by jettisoning anticommunism as their ideological glue and embracing moral issues - a tactic that first launched Ronald Reagan to the governorship in 1966. In the following decade, the movement embraced a host of social issues that dovetailed with concurrent evangelical revivalism sweeping the region and nation. Spurred on by reactions against student protests, black and youth culture, their own racism, and the women's rights movement, conservatives sought to restore morality to society and reign in the excessive control of the federal government by attacking egalitarianism as an unfair social engineering experiment. The movement culminated in the successful election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Ordinary people behind grass-roots conservatism (rather than intellectual/political leaders)
- Adaptability of conservative movement: how they moved from 1950s and early 1960s anti-communism to shedding their extremism after 1964 Goldwater defeat
- Twin ideological strands of libertarianism and social conservatism
- Combination of preservationism + adaptation = conservative success
- Conservatives embraced many aspects of modernity (not backwards-looking)
- Built environment of suburbs contributed to individualist conservatism
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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