33 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2001
A marvelous cultural history of conservative political and religious activism in Orange County, CA circa 1960 to 1980, Suburban Warriors evocatively renders the rise of New Right and the SunBelt, and argues persuasively that Orange County, CA was at the epicenter of the conservative revolution of the late 20th Century. Combining interviews with activists with larger demographic analsyses of the immigrants who came to populate the area during the post-WWII economic boom, along with an economic history of the growth of the area, McGirr deftly points a portrait of a time and a place and a people who were uniquely ready to create a new post-modern, politically conservative future. But it is her description of how it was done that makes for the most compelling reading.
McGirr is particularly good at pointing out certain ironies that undercut the Conservative agenda. For instance, she notes that Orange Country was and is anti-tax (anti-egalitarian, anti-collectivist, anti-communist, anti-Federal government interference, anti-fair housing), but that the boom it enjoyed in the 60s was fueled primarily by federal defense spending. The Rugged Individualist, Boot-Stapping Entreprenuerial Businessman was in many ways beholden for his economic success on government expenditures. More recently, Orange County, following it's own free-market, low/anti-tax philosophy went backrupt due to investments in esoteric stock market products, investments the County felt forced to make because of budget shortfalls.
She also notes that the conservative philosophy spawned during that era partook of two incompatible philosophies: social conservatism (the moralizing, anti-sex education in schools, anti-abortion beliefs) and libertarianism (the Ayn Rand inspired Objectivist movement was particularly strong in Orange County). She notes that these philosophies share many of the same values, but that they have different endpoints. She also notes that while social conservatives battled government or "secular humanists" interference in their lives, they also attempted to get the McGuffey's Reader into their local classroom (textbooks from the 1920s which had lessons about God and morality). In addition, she notes that the conservative position on property rights -- the property owners' rights are absolute (which justifies race discrimination in the renting or selling of property)-- fails to recognize the "natural rights" assigned to citizens by the US Constitution: equality under the law.
These examples may make it sound as if McGirr is a liberal. I apologize if that is the case. She may well be, but if she is, it is difficult to discern it. Indeed, McGirr does us all a great favor by demonstrating it is possible to write about the often deep divisions in US politics fairly, with respect and insight. Balanced, deftly told, deeply researched, SUBURBAN WARRIORS may cause liberals to reexamine some of their deeply-held prejudices against this movement, it goals and its philosophy. The Left is just as guilty of demonizing its enemies as the Right. McGirr does such a splendid job of maintaining distance and objectivity that even a "liberal" can better understand the beginnings of a movement that was often dismmissed in its early days as nostalgic at best, and at worst, pathological.
(A confession: I grew up in a liberal suburb adjacent to Orange County and so part of my enthusiasm for this book is related to my nostalgia for that time. We were liberal Easterners from New York, who came to California to eventually take advantage of the post-war boom and eventually, the terrific, free, state-sponsored college education system -- which came to an end under Reagan before we could do so. I don't blame Reagan, by the way, we had moved to New York State by then where the old liberal promises were still, at least to a degree, in place.
75 of 99 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2001
The best part of McGirr's book about Orange County conservatism and the rise of the New American right is the first chapter on the setting. She discusses how Orange Country boomed under the post-war military buildup. One of the wealthiest counties in the country, thoroughly dependent on federal largesse, anti-communist ideology conveniently covered up that embarrassing fact in endless cant about individualism and the corrupting effects of the welfare state. In particular this homogenous county was peculiarly dispersed in its geography, encouraging an atomization and emphasis on consumerism that limiteed the development of a real community feeling. Into this vacuum the paranoia of the John Birch Society and a revived Fundamentalism rushed in. Instead of the rural communities of the South, or the anglophobic minorities of the Midwest, the banner of the radical right would be held by unequivocally modern upper middle class technicians and entrepreneurs of the warfare state. One could go, as McGirr does not, about how this wealthy stratum got government subsidized highways and tax deductions for their mortgages, while their racial exclusivity was backed up by Federal and State Housing authorities. Meanwhile a new Southern elite was subsidized by the state as it shucked off its black tenants. After getting so much power and wealth from the New Deal State, the radical right indignantly denounced it the minute the government tried to make a few measures to help the poor its plight it had helped to worsen.
The flaw in McGirr's book is that it does not really emphasize the essential selfishness of this posture. There is the occasional ironical mention of the role of the state and how evangelicalism never really faced the innate radicalism of the free market. But otherwise this is a book heavily dependant on the centrist consensus which, being naturally opportunist and prone to move to the winning side, tends to view Reagan's success as a victory against the "elitism" and "radicalism" of the Democrats. The flaws in this account are numerous. When Alan Brinkley, in a contribution to a fetschrift on the sixties repeats Kevin Phillips' assertion that the Nixon-Reagan victory was a triumph of the "middle class revolt," one must ask in what way were the Democrats and Liberal Republicans tribunes of the undeserving poor? Allan Matusow's The Unravelling of America makes it quite clear that the main beneficiary of LBJ's Great Society was the middle class. Peter Novick points out that more than two-thirds of New Yorkers though that civil rights were going "too fast" in 1964, before the Voting Rights Act.
McGirr's account is not helped by her narrow focus. She concentrates on those Birchites and Goldwater activists she was able to interview 30 years after the event. Now if I was being interviewed after the fall of Communism, I probably wouldn't volunteer my belief that Eisenhower was a Soviet agent, or that I opposed open housing because I don't like black people. There is not enough critical analysis of these interviews. At one point McGirr says Orange County residents rejected George Wallace because he was pro-union, which is fantastic. When McGirr writes about conflicts over abortion, or divorce or pre-marital pregnancy, I would have liked some discussion of how these things actually happened in Orange Country, rather than reading pious Conservative rhetoric about them. At one point McGirr quotes that Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestantism boomed in the seventies and eighties because many people found secular values uninspiring. But does this not assume a Protestant valuation of the situation? A non-Protestant, after all, may find Fundamentalism uninspiring and turn to secular values. Clearly something more is involved than the relative merits of the two ideologies. A contrast with Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis reveal McGirr's weaknesses in every respect. Sugrue is far more critical, far more detailed and far more sophisticated. He starts his narrative in the late forties becuase he is aware that industrial decline and racial segregation started there. By contrast McGirr starts in the late fifties, and although there are brief mentions of the campaign against open housing, the homogeneity, the anti-union atmosphere, and the class structure are taken more or less for granted. Ultimately, this is a disappointing book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Lisa McGirr's book, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, chronicles the birth of the modern conservative movement from its beginnings in Orange County, California in the late 1950s through the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States in 1980. Though conservatism grew from one issue, namely anticommunism, the movement came to encompass much more. Suburban Warriors' six chapters begin with "The Setting," describing demographics and economics in Orange County. Next, "`A Sleeping Giant Is Awakening': Right-Wing Mobilization, 1960-1963," describes the beginnings of the conservative movement; "The Grassroots Goldwater Campaign" highlights the involvement of Orange County residents in the 1964 presidential election; and "The Conservative Worldview at the Grassroots" defines and analyzes the conservative ideology. Finally, "The Birth of Popular Conservatism" introduces Ronald Reagan as the conservative standard bearer and "New Social Issues and Resurgent Evangelicalism" describing new social issues and a renaissance of the evangelical movement. McGirr concludes the text with an epilogue which brings the reader forward to the twenty-first century. Though Suburban Warriors' implications affect the entire country, McGirr uses "...Orange County as the lens through which to explore the social base and ideological waters..." to explore conservatism, and does so with the use of first person testimonials and statistical data.
Appropriately, the first chapter, entitled "The Setting," describes Orange County, California, through the use of statistical and census data. One could surmise early on in this chapter that the author gets the reader lost in numbers at times, like the list of defense contractors and the number of employees in each company for example. Nevertheless, the history of the county and its subsequent growth is important for the reader to know so that an understanding of the birthplace of the modern conservative movement can be appreciated. Knowing there was a presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s can further the understanding of how the John Birch Society became strong there in the 1950s. Moreover, the growth of fundamental Christian organizations and churches only emphasize the coming Evangelical religious movement that flourished in the region.
Throughout the second chapter, "`A Sleeping Giant Is Awakening': Right-Wing Mobilization, 1960-1963," the beginning of the conservative movement is documented. Here, the leaders of organizations like the School of Anti-Communism and the John Birch Society are identified and their groups defined. The John Birch Society, for example, was started by a candy manufacturer named Robert Welch who became fundamentally disenchanted with the Republican Party. In Welch's eyes, the party did not do enough to thwart the spread of socialism and communism. This group was organized into small chapters that met at member's homes and participated in talks about communism and conducted other "grass roots" measures like "...letter-writing campaigns, showed films, and passed out recruiting literature." Although small in membership, it provided the groundwork for the battles that were yet to come. Financial capital was also needed to fund these organizations. Men like Walter Knott of Knott's Berry Farm and Adolph Schoepe of the Kwik-Set Lock Company, were available to provide the necessary funding to help the movement grow.
Looking back today at the 1964 presidential election, it would seem as though conservative Republican candidate Barry Goldwater had no chance of winning. "The Grassroots Goldwater Campaign" details how the conservative movement, including groups like the John Birch Society, mobilized to get Goldwater elected. Although it failed miserably, the foundation was laid to increase conservative chances in the future. Further, it introduced Ronal Reagan and moved him to the forefront of conservative politics.
In the chapter entitled, "The Conservative Worldview at the Grassroots," McGirr lays out the conservative philosophy and ideology. From school prayer, abortion-on-demand, sex education for children, to anti-communism and a host of other subjects, a reader unfamiliar with conservatism can gain a good understanding of the movement. Further, some of the more radical viewpoints are also highlighted, like the disdain for the United Nations and the belief that the UN was making an effort to take over the United States and form a one-world government.
Chapter five, "The Birth of Populist Conservatism," chronicles Ronald Reagan's successful campaign for governor of California in 1966. Though conservatives were despondent over the loss by Goldwater in 1964, Reagan did not allow them to repeat the mistakes that cost them victory. He called for party unity and harkened Republicans to follow the "Eleventh Commandment...Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican...." Nonetheless, he also adopted a strategy of avoiding the appearance of extremism and distanced himself from groups like the John Birch Society.
Richard Nixon's election to the presidency in 1968 ends chapter five and begins chapter six, "New Social Issues and Resurgent Evangelicalism." With success at the state level in California with Reagan and at the national level with Nixon, many involved at the grass-roots level dropped out of the broad-based organizations and focused more on single-issue campaigns. The John Birch Society, once the bedrock of the conservative movement, saw a sharp decline in membership, primarily because the leadership moved even farther right and made members uncomfortable. More importantly, they lacked new ideas. McGirr concludes the chapter with a discussion on the resurgence of the fundamentalist Christian movement, using Robert Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral as one example.
Throughout the text McGirr used average, everyday people to speak about their participation in the modern conservative movement. In the epilogue, she interviews those mentioned earlier and tells the reader what they are doing today. One example, Rufus and Peggy Pearce, were quite active in the 1960s. After Reagan was elected president, their activities in the movement declined, saying it was time for others to become active.
Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, was an excellent history of the modern conservative movement. Those unfamiliar with the beliefs of today's conservative spokespersons like Patrick Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh, and Laura Ingraham can learn more about the roots of their beliefs from this book. Rather than focusing on the movement at the national level, McGinn focused on a national phenomenon at the local level, condensing it into an easy-to-read digest of the conservative movement.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
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This book represents both a fascinating study of the evolution of `60s politics as well as a historical attempt to document and explain the perplexing fact that a country flirting with the danger of a social and political revolution from the left suddenly veered so much farther to the right toward a broad-based popular conservatism. Herein Lisa McGirr, a gifted author and Harvard professor comes closer to making her prose swing than one would expect of a book of this type. Meanwhile, she also spins a convincing argument regarding the origins of the American neo-conservative revival in the late `60s and early `70s. At the time, domestic conservatism had been badly eclipsed by the burgeoning youth culture and their radical leftist notions. To her credit, the account rendered here is not only academically spirited, but is written in a way that makes this serious work of scholarship accessible to the general public.
She focuses meaningfully on the activities within a specific congressional district, in Orange County California, where, she argues quite persuasively, the seeds of the neo-conservative revival were most fruitfully planted and sown. Within this district, literally thousands of affluent and educated suburban "warriors" combined to launch a powerful movement destined less than a decade later to propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. In the process they also helped to chisel a new agenda into the granite pillars of the American pantheon, one that helped to define the very nature of domestic political battles for decades to come.
This book gives us a graphic and detail introduction to these hearty, healthy and enthusiastic warriors; housewives arguing political strategy over coffee and Danish, young and well-educated defense engineers arriving to live out the American dream, impressionable young religious workers convinced that the only way to save the country and themselves from Hellfire and brimstone was to work fervently against the designs of the "godless democrats". From this well-detailed work we begin to see how the movement came into being, how it organized itself, what motivated the individuals as well as what their evolving political agenda became and why.
McGirr demonstrates that this was far from being a movement of marginalized or isolated extremists; on the contrary, from the beginning it was more accurately characterized as an intensely enthusiastic enterprise, one formed and energized by the social, economic, and political elite, people with both means and motive for becoming involved to better control their own futures as well as those of the country at large. In what is perhaps her best set of insights, she demonstrates how these young and innovative neo-conservatives established a new set of political philosophies and precepts, forged in a alloy of Christian fundamentalism, misguided nationalism, and more traditional true conservatism (i.e. an old-style libertine attitude).
This is a seminal work, an effort at true scholarship which dares to look at Rosemary's baby in the face by searching through the afterbirth of the not so immaculate birthing of modern neo-conservatism. What she discovers and demonstrates along the way may often upset our traditional notions of what happened and why, but it never fails to inform or edify us as to what transpired or why. This is an interesting and worthwhile book, and one that I can heartily recommend. Enjoy!
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2004
McGirr's book traces the rise of what I would call the (white, middle-class) suburban right and the Christian right, beginning in the early 60s. The new right coalesced around anti-Communism, laissez faire capitalism, states' rights and local government, the "traditional" family, Christian values, individual economic responsibility, and low taxes.
It was the suburban Christian right that first brought these views together. Barry Goldwater, who ran for President in 1964 against Johnson, was an early exemplar of new right views. However, his strong opposition to the Civil Rights acts won him the lower South and, along with his virulent anti-Communism, helped him lose the rest of the country.
The suburban Christian right shed the virulent and conspiratorial anti-Communism that they initially directed at domestic enemies; south-eastern politics moved away from the New Deal order and shed legal segregation and overt biological racism; they all joined their Christian and conservative forces and formed a conservative coalition behind Ronald Reagan.
McGirr's is a "bottom up" analysis that begins with the grass roots social base of the suburban Christian right, using Orange County as a prototypical case study. She also examines the interplay of grass roots leaders, rank and file members, regional business elites, and national intellectual and political leaders.
The book doesn't delve into how the suburban right teamed up with south-eastern conservatives, but their shared Christianity, shared social conservatism, and shared opposition to civil rights, busing, and affirmative action makes it fairly easy to guess what that part of the story in general looks like. However, McGirr's would be a better book if she examined some of these connections, at least briefly. This is what makes the book good but not great.
Post-script: Today, the Cold War is over, terrorism has replaced communism as America's global enemy, and George W. Bush has combined the Christian right with the post-Cold War, neo-conservative, neo-imperialist right. Bush has tried to combine anti-terrorism, neo-imperialism, and Christian conservativism without provoking Christian-Islamic antagonisms--antagonisms already strained by Christian conseravtive and neo-conservative support for Israel. These topics would make an interesting post-script to McGirr's book.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2005
This book is neat precisely because it takes a scholarly approach to examining the new right. Instead of writing a frenzied treatise why the right is bad, Lisa McGirr lets readers draw conclusions from her fact-based historical analysis.
The suburban new right emerged in the 1950's and early 1960's out of a desire for self-preservation. People in these newly emergent suburbs were alternating between the 'self-reliant' model of conservative libertarianism and 'big-government' social conservatism which placed its premiums on social and political conformity as a tool for ensuring order in the community. The then cold war united the two periodically disparate strains of conservatism into a unified school of thought; conformity was good for national security.
Because it upheld the values which they supported (and felt were in the best benefit for America) the people who would become part of the New Right honestly did not mind when they and/or their companies received economic subsidies from the government. They had to defend the country against the reds after all. This was not mooching off the system, but ensuring the country would be able to produce the best resources and the brightest people to outmatch 'the reds'.
The 'red-baiting' and 'race-baiting' which I and other people have publicly and psychologically associated with the right only came into existence when the status quo was being threatened.
The same people who had not protested (and in fact welcomed) government benefits for themselves became genuinely anxious upon realizing that the civil rights movement was attempting to reconfigure the American state to offer more benefits to more groups of people. This exposed contradictions in the American state as it currently existed and hinted that a reconfigured American state would not provide exactly the same order of things as they had known it to exist.
Fearful of these 'other' people, some southern states undertook the-then shocking action of voting for Barry Goldwater in 1964, disrupting the solidly Democratic south. Prior to this time, a southerner voting Republican was unthinkable. The party of Lincoln after all was responsible for both emancipation and reconstruction.
Although Goldwater would loose to Johnson, his candidacy and campaign positions (including against the civil rights act) further laid the foundations for the present day situation. Voting shifts in the 1964 presidential election ultimately encouraged the Reagan revolution of the 1980's and George W. Bush's promotion of faith based initiatives today.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2009
In "Suburban Warriors," Lisa McGirr tackles the rise of the American "New Right" by analyzing it from the "bottom up," using Orange County, the arguable epicenter of the movement, as her bell-jar. Using interviews and an impressive array of primary source documents within a set and strictly adhered-to time frame ending in 1980, McGirr's disciplined and sometime-dry approach to her subject is both satisfying and unbiased. Her lengthly endnotes reveal reliance on sober authorities, and I saw nowhere where she played "fast and loose" with her source material. It is clear that whatever her background, McGirr takes her dispassion very, very seriously (even, and a little annoyingly, going so far as to say so a little overmuch).
What develops is therefore one thoughtful and eminently credible interpretation of how the "grass roots right" in Orange County was born, developed, and spread its beliefs deep into some facets of the modern day conservative consciousness. It is a frank and candid discussion of the beliefs, social stressors, and even myths and "urban legends" that gave "the new conservatism" ideological life, explains how midwestern evangelical Christianity emerged as a force within it, and how it all dovetailed in the unlikely alliance of faith, business, and a national exceptionalist narrative accepted as uncritically true. And, all of this "pure gold" is bound up in a beautifully done and fascinating nutshell history of Orange County as the movement's "proving ground." It is a story rife with contradictions never acknowledged or confronted but which still somehow spoke to the deepest concerns of many in an uncertain time.
I do have a problem with the subtitle, "The Origins." I would have said "One Origin" or "The Main Origin." Something along those lines. And I say so for the simple reason that in her time frame, for example, southern variant conservatism was also asserting itself with some noteworthy differences as compared to the "Orange County" variant. And McGirr's fidelity to her model simply does not allow for much discussion of such considerations. While this makes for a disciplined presentation with a crisp clarity, it does perhaps leave the impression that "Orange County stands alone," a fact she freely acknowledges but could have brought into a little sharper focus. Still, this is a minor point. I also found that she occasionally made some assumptions about midwestern emigres to Orange County that cast them as a shade monolithic. I would have liked a little more development there as well, but again, the point is a very minor one indeed and might have muddied the waters needlessly.
A fine work, balanced, beautifully researched, amply supported by credible authorities, and true to sources. Highly recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2010
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If you want to understand the Tea Party today and the Republican strategy in general, Read this book. YOu don't have to agree with it or with the stand of the any political party. But to understand how we got into the mess we are in where collaborative governance seems impossible, read this book. It old but still current. It will help you understand the role of Popular Education and its effect on policy development. And make you wonder why we do not engage in Education on a massive scale for improving how people thinking and learn, not just sway opinion. We are a nation at risk without this critical practice being restored.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2010
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When I first saw this book I thought there would be no way I would want to read it, it looked like it would be conservative propaganda - but it is not at all. This is a very unbiased, academic look at the rise of radical right-wingers in the 1960s (which is a time one does not usually associate with radical conservatism). Its very interesting and extremely relevant to today's political climate, and something even a liberal would find fascinating.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2011
"Suburban Warriors" ranks with Sidney Blumenthal's "Rise of the Counter-Establishment" as one of the most acute books available that examine the American Right. Lisa McGirr's book traces the pivotal role of Orange County in Southern California in midwifing the conservative, hard Right ideology, of which the "Tea Party" is merely the latest incarnation.
In the late 1950's and early 1960's, Orange County was the perfect brew of affluence, rootlessness and the Western "frontier mentality" which served to incubate a virulent strain of reactionary thought. A peculiar marraige occurred between libertarianism and Christian fundamentalism, which shared similar inclinations toward black-and-white moral absolutes. Orange County played a key role in the political fortunes of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. It was a hotbed for movements like the John Birch Society, Young Americans for Freedom, and Robert Schuller's success-worshipping "Hour of Power" evangelicalism. Fertile ground even for Ayn Rand's Objectivism and Phyllis Schafly's "Eagle Forum", Orange County's receptiveness towards nearly any form of fringe-Right radicalism earned it the tag of "Nut Country."
But such radicalism has been remarkably resilient in its staying power over five decades in America. When members of the Tea Party lionize Joseph McCarthy as a "hero", or demonize the ACLU, the United Nations, Planned Parenthood, or liberalism in general---in essence, they are parroting the same paranoid slogans that appeared in Orange County in the 1960's. John Stormer's cry of "None Dare Call it Treason" has merely morphed into Ann Coulter's present day anti-liberal screeds.
For anyone wanting to understand the origins of the modern-day American Right, this book is an excellent place to start. Since it covers the years 1950-1980, it does not cover the so-called Neoconservative movement, which largely consisted of disaffected liberals who became conservatives under the influence of Ronald Reagan's presidency.