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Arlene Stein | The Nation

Arlene Stein

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Arlene Stein

Arlene Stein's latest book is The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community's Battle Over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights (Beacon).

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In 1980, when Ronald Reagan flattened his opponents and the religious right burst onto the national political arena, many progressives could barely believe their eyes. Only a decade before, rebellion was in the air. How could so much be lost in so little time? Observers were quick to blame the fickleness of the American electorate, right-wing backlash, a tightening of belts and the "status anxiety" of American workers. They wondered how a bunch of right-wing ideologues so far from mainstream American values could capture the nation's political will so quickly.

But conservatism wasn't an aberration, a fringe movement filled with conspiracy-theory-spouting crackpots--though it certainly had its share of them. The hippies, antiwar protesters and civil rights crusaders may have been more photogenic, but beginning in the late 1950s, thousands of "ordinary" Americans--middle-class suburbanites dedicated to the notion that government and moral laxness are the root of all evil--were hard at work in the trenches, steadily building a culture and a political movement. That this conservative movement would eventually topple the nation's liberal consensus indicated just how precarious that supposed consensus was.

Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors uses the case of Orange County, California, to tell the story of the postwar conservative "revolution," highlighting that county's pivotal role in the making of the new American right. In the process, she helps us to reimagine the 1960s as not simply a moment of leftist radicalism but one of feverish conservative mobilization as well. McGirr, a Harvard historian, begins her story in the early 1960s, when droves of Southern California housewives organized kaffeeklatches for Barry Goldwater. Only a few years earlier, William F. Buckley Jr. had begun to publish National Review, and Russell Kirk's Modern Age dedicated itself to opposing "political collectivism, social decadence and effeminacy." Orange County's conservative movement, McGirr persuasively argues, was the nucleus of a broader right-wing movement spreading through the Sunbelt and West during that period--a movement that would eventually transform conservatism from a marginal group of anti-Communist crusaders to a viable electoral contender by the decade's end.

What was it about this place, which exuded such an enormous sense of possibility, that made it such a congenial home to ideologies and politics that foreclosed so many possibilities for so many? Was it in the water? The air? McGirr locates the roots of Southern California conservatism in a variety of factors: racial and class homogeneity, affluence, social mobility and a highly privatized, socially isolated physical landscape. Throw in the cultural context of cold war America and a burgeoning network of evangelical Protestant churches, and you've got the ingredients for a potent conservative cocktail. But it took right-wing ideologues like Fred Schwarz of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade and Robert Welch of the John Birch Society to give the grassroots insurgency a worldview and an organizational infrastructure.

By narrowing her focus to a particular place, McGirr is able to connect conservative ideologies to the social locations from which they sprang, painting a complex portrait of the different forces that came into play to create the neoconservative movement. Her book shares with Mike Davis's City of Quartz an attention to the importance of place, picturing Southern California as the crucible of an emergent America. Goodbye, Norman Rockwell: Middletown may be the nation's geographic center, but at least since the 1950s, the real engine of economic and cultural change has lain in the suburban subdivisions at least a thousand miles to the west.

Today the American West continues to conjure up dreams of mobility, of individualism, of becoming--which explains the shocked responses to my recent announcement that after twenty years of living in the West, I am moving back to the East Coast. The East connotes tradition, rootedness, stodginess; the West, newness. To migrate from East to West is to better oneself, to move forward, to move beyond the lot one was dealt in life; to move back suggests the opposite. How strange, then, that a place that is founded on movement, on newness, on breaking with tradition, became the home of a movement dedicated not only to untrammeled modernization but also to turn-back-the-clock notions of morality.

In reality, says McGirr, it wasn't very strange at all. Orange Countians' individualistic ethos grew out of their affluence, and their (mistaken) belief that they were self-made successes and that individual will was the only thing standing between success and failure. At the same time, their roots in small towns in the Midwest and South gave them a connection to small-town values and Protestant piety. Disneyland, "with its mixture of nostalgia for a simple American past and its bright optimism about the future," in McGirr's words, may be the supreme embodiment of this blend of modernity and tradition.

Freshly scrubbed, newly affluent Californians defined their identity in relation to Communists and East Coast "collectivists." In 1960 the conservative mobilization began when outraged Orange Countians went on a witch hunt against Joel Dvorman, who held a meeting in his backyard, having invited a speaker who publicly opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dvorman was a school-board trustee; it didn't help him that he was also New York-born, Jewish and a Yale graduate to boot. After the meeting, he was quickly denounced by angry neighbors for importing "Communist ideas" into Anaheim.

McGirr argues that Orange Countians flocked to conservative activism for good reasons--it was a worldview that resonated with their personal histories. She wants us to discard the pluralistic theories of Bell, Lipset and Hofstadter, who attributed conservatism to supposed status anxieties, persecution complexes and paranoia--psychological factors, says McGirr, that not only don't explain the overwhelming ordinariness of the grassroots conservatism but that distort reality in the process. Orange County's middle-class entrepreneurs became political entrepreneurs, spreading their vision of the Good Life, because right-wing ideas made perfectly good sense to them. Plus, in a region filled with so many new arrivals, conservative activism offered people a social outlet, a sense of community.

Suburban Warriors is a political history (unlike Davis's bricolage of politics, economics and cultural critique) that focuses primarily upon activists like Walter Knott of Knott's Berry Farm fame and elected leaders like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, whom McGirr credits with mainstreaming conservative ideas and making them palatable to the masses. But the book is most compelling when it depicts the ways that conservatism permeated the culture and everyday lives of many rank-and-file Orange Countians.

Right-wing Orange County was truly a counterhegemonic culture in the making. Walter Knott headed the Orange County School of Anti-Communism, enlisting hundreds of citizens in the fight against the Red Menace. The Santa Ana Register, where most residents got their news since the 1930s, railed against spending for schools and roads and pronounced taxation "robbery." (It didn't seem to matter to them that Orange County's growth was itself fueled by massive federal military spending.) Right-wing businessmen helped to finance the publication and free distribution of magazines like the Liberty Bell and Grass Roots, which spread the conservative gospel to ordinary Orange Countians. (Women constituted at least half of the grassroots "kitchen table" activists, though they were afforded relatively few leadership roles.) Conservative activists recognized the importance of winning over the hearts and minds of citizens in a fashion that would impress even Antonio Gramsci. If they appeared at times to be snake-oil salesmen, they were also skillful organizers, imbued with a fighting spirit and a wealth of resources that have rarely been matched on the left.

Suburban Warriors is essentially a success story, charting the ever-expanding fortunes of the conservative movement in this country, which culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious right in the 1980s. Orange County's success as a crucible for conservatism, McGirr skillfully argues, was rooted in the fact that it took tried and true American values of individualism and community, boldly exaggerated them and then recombined them in ways that accentuated their messy contradictions. "Strong stakes in [the] capitalist order," McGirr writes, "caused them to elide the very real market forces that challenged the material base upon which their lives were built." And still the movement thrived, for it articulated the dreams, fears and self-interests of its middle-class constituency.

McGirr's "rational choice" analysis of conservatism may hold true for conservatism's middle-class roots in places like Orange County, but it doesn't fully explain how the right has, over the past twenty years, managed to expand its base to so many Americans who share so few of the privileges of its core constituency. A couple of years ago I sat in the spare living room of a timber worker in a small Oregon community who told me that he regularly donates money to the wealthy Heritage Foundation, which opposes public restrictions on corporate power, though he fears that he may lose his job because of corporate downsizing. How can we make sense of the apparent contradictions at the heart of much working-class conservatism, particularly among white working-class men? McGirr is right that many observers, imagining a liberal consensus, have been too quick to paint conservatives as universally marginal individuals who respond to their hearts more than to their minds. But at the same time, we should not be so quick to discard explanations that speak to the fears and anxieties at the root of many conservative beliefs.

Still, progressive activists would do well to read this book and learn how diligent and painstaking the conservative road to power has been: how important the tens of thousands of grassroots activists were to the process of building a movement, how skillfully the right was able to transcend divisions in the interest of winning political power and how so many conservative beliefs, first publicly articulated in the 1960s, are still with us today.

Prior histories of the roots of the American right have tended to tell the story of national right-wing organizations and their leaders. By focusing upon one place--a not very typical but nonetheless pivotal place--McGirr blends political and social history and goes where few analysts have gone before: to the kitchen tables as well as the meeting halls of the early right-wing movement. This is the book's great contribution.

What has become of Orange County? It's still a hotbed of conservatism, though over the past two decades, with the decline of California's military industry, many of its residents have migrated to places like Colorado and Oregon, fleeing the increasingly multiracial cast of Southern California. The migrants are searching for cheap land, bringing with them California-style evangelical Christianity, an antipathy toward government and privatized landscapes filled with theme parks and strip malls. They set into motion a mania for tax-cutting initiatives, filled the coffers of religious-right organizations, fought against gay and lesbian rights, and sought to replicate their California Eden. In Washington a presidential administration is peppered with religious conservatives and free-market enthusiasts, thanks in part to their efforts. Increasingly, it seems, we all live in Orange County.