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.