Images of the sixties are abundant in our national consciousness. Students surrounding a police car; police hosing down protestors; lines of marchers getting pushed back by the cops; Martin Luther King giving his “I Have A Dream” speech. Remarkably, none of these images involve the conservative movement going on in the country at the time; there wasn’t a conservative movement as far as most of us know. Lisa McGirr wrote Suburban Warriors to correct the situation. Throughout, she works hard not to marginalize the movement as a fringe group of lunatics as most scholars have done, but as deep-seated and permanent; she does so while describing the unique combination of religious conservatism and libertarianism that was so potent in Orange County.
McGirr starts her book with a history lesson on Orange County to set the stage. Until the 1950s, Orange County was dominated by farmland; then its population exploded because the military moved in and Los Angeles urban sprawl had made it to the county’s borders. The county had been conservative Republican for decades, but briefly elected a number of Democrats during the fifties and sixties, as migrants became the majority. But because so many people who moved in got rich quickly and “on their own” (thanks to the lucrative defense business); because many of them were moving into liberal school districts for the first time; because people in Orange County became so concerned with the Cold War; and because their (rapidly growing) churches often told them too; migrants began to vote Republican on a combination of religious and libertarian ideals.
More important than those who simply voted Republican were the conservative activists. The first major actions in the county were all centered around anti-communism; as in the week-long Orange County School of Anticommunism; organized by conservative groups and attended by thousands, including many students who had been excused from school by their Boards. In light of these activities, it is not surprising that the ACLU got into so much trouble for inviting an “identified communist” to speak about the dangers of the House Un-American Activities Committee: the John Birch Society exploded in popularity throughout the county, and a man was eventually removed from the School Board for hosting the “communist.” When conservatives later dominated the School Board, though, their tactics (in illegally vetting teachers) were so authoritarian the entire Board was eventually recalled. This, along with the Francis Amendment — which sought to deny the Communist party and “subversive organizations” political status in California” — led liberal thinkers at the time to warn the country against the Right’s methods, and to begin marginalizing its methods as those of paranoid. Unfortunately, such a view led people to misdiagnose the motivations and longevity of the movement, which put a strong emphasis on literature and community (often among churches) and consisted not of society’s outcasts but usually of the upper-middle class, technical workers and doctors, and women in surprising proportions.
The conservative movement began building up among the organizations used in the School Board and similar cases to the point that, in 1964, conservatives managed to take over the Republican Party from the moderates who had once controlled it. Barry Goldwater won the California state primary; his win shows just how important the grassroots effort was: he won in only 4 counties of the state’s 59; and 3 of those counties had extensive conservative organizations who had been pounding the pavement for months or even years. The 1964 campaign highlighted the remarkable disconnect between conservatives and the rest of the country: even most of the Republican Party decried the John Birch Society (or at least its leaders) as paranoid extremists, but Goldwater refused to do so since they were some of his primary supporters. This disconnect showed in Goldwater’s policies and his huge defeat in the national election. But out of the ashes shone hope for Orange County conservatives: they had control of a major party, and their next standard-bearer was clear, largely thanks to a fundraising speech he gave: Ronald Reagan.
Chapter 4 discusses the motivations and political beliefs of the movement. Generally speaking, there were two camps melded together: the religious conservatives and the anti-statist libertarians. Often, these beliefs were mixed together in a single individual. Libertarians disliked the established state largely over the expanding welfare state and expansion of civil liberties at the expense of property rights; religious conservatives disliked the state for invading the private space of the family, replacing faith in God with faith in government, and valuing personal freedom over order; both groups scapegoated it as responsible for the isolation and erosion of morals they found prevalent. And while cracks in the alliance sometimes appeared — as over prayer in schools, drugs, and atheism — the similar assumptions both groups had — distrust of the state; commitment to an objective authority, whether God or property rights; equation of all freedom with economic freedom; and hostility towards liberal equalitarianism. The initial bonding cry was anticommunism, but as the movement aged and tried to become more mainstream, they moved on to other topics like the UN and blaming secular humanists and liberals in general for what they had once blamed solely on communism. Eventually, as the Left moved farther left, conservatives moved slightly, and the mainstream rebounded from the counterculture, the conservative groups that had once fought to elect Barry Goldwater were suddenly mainstream!
Chapter 5 goes back to Reagan, who as we recall had just been anointed as the conservative darling at the end of Chapter 3. After Goldwater’s defeat, conservatives felt they had no voice and needed one to correct the “liberal largesse” and “permissive society” that had led to the Berkeley student protests and LA race riots. Reagan was able to leverage (or was leveraged by) these conservative groups in a sustained grassroots campaign that, at the request of party leadership, was carefully designed to avoid the mistakes of Goldwater. In light of new, calmer campaign tactics and an imploding Democratic party (which was moving towards civil rights and destroying the old New Deal coalition along the way), Reagan successfully courted Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats to win all but 3 counties in the California gubernatorial election based on his opposition to open housing and to problems he successfully blamed on Democrats. His campaign evidently served as a model for Nixon, who went to the White House on similar ideas.
And suddenly the conservative movement had its place in politics. This led to a number of changes, notably including the fall of the John Birch Society as members realized it was conspiracy-ridden, moved out for ease in politicking, or just plain moved on to more active groups. Corporate groups stopped supporting the movement as a whole (i.e., the Freedom Enterprises and massive libraries) and started focusing on single issues. Conservatives got to fight over issues like abortion, pornography, and sex education — some of which started splitting the libertarians out of the movement until things like taxes brought them back together, as in the eventual passage of a bill restricting California from taxing property at more than 1% of its value. Conservative churches continued enjoying growth, and some even started reaching out to the counterculture.
Then Reagan got elected President, solidifying the conservative position at last. The conservative movement of the early sixties had succeeded in moderating its language, moving beyond anticommunism, and just surviving until voters were ready to hear its message; the liberal New Deal state was partly dismantled; and conservatives maintained their strange mix of modernity and traditionalism. And, as McGirr’s history admirably demonstrates, conservatives were no fringe group and clearly here to stay.