Weve Been Nuts for Decades

"Suburban Warriors" sounds like the name for some future fleet of hulkier, deadlier SUVs, but it's the title of a book by Harvard historian Lisa McGirr in which Orange County figures as the epicenter of "The New American Right." McGirr's book comes in the same season as Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, and both books ride a wave of historical revisionism that says the '60s were less about a sociocultural revolution propelled by the Left than they were about a shrewder, more enduring conservative counterrevolution that's resulted in Republican victories in six of the last nine presidential elections, a "centrist" Democratic party that's all but given up its liberal tradition, and a Supreme Court that's one vote shy of rolling back many of the gains in civil rights, privacy and equality issues, environmental protection, and free speech that the Left—slackers that they are—assumed they'd burned indelibly into the national psyche.

McGirr's "suburban warriors" were part of a widespread grassroots movement of almost entirely middle-class, white Protestant Orange Countians who heard the clarion call of Joe McCarthy's anticommunism in the late '40s, refused to believe he was nuts (even after his disgrace), dug themselves a deep ditch of paranoia where they could hunker down with suspicions that communists (and later blacks, or hippies on dope, or women on the pill) were plotting a takeover of Their (i.e. "God's") America, and then went about the serious business of building the political base that would throw into national prominence Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, as well as help elect Richard Nixon, George the Less, and George the Even Lesser.

This isn't McGirr's characterization, of course, but then she doesn't have to live here. McGirr's book is academic and "balanced": where you or I might call the OC Right's contempt for the civil-rights movement a pretty good example of racism, McGirr calls it merely "expressing concern with social . . . change in the 1960s," "a deep ambivalence toward popular democracy," or (God help us all) an attempt to stand up for the Ninth Amendment principle of "states' rights." In fact, one of her theses is that the Right in America generally—and in OC specifically—has been mischaracterized by liberal historians like Daniel Bell, Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset, who haughtily dismissed it as marginal and "anti-intellectual" and tended to think of conservative principles as "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." McGirr goes to great lengths to try to legitimize the Right's ideological pedigree and bends over backward not to "psychologize" (i.e., call it "nuts") the reactionary Right's devotion to conspiracy theories even Nixon wouldn't buy into.

I must say I'm impressed with her restraint, though not much with her understanding of human motivation, and I'm certainly perplexed by her reference to the great Left historian Eric Foner, whom she calls her "model of engaged scholarship."

Still, McGirr offers an eye-opening account of how Orange County got to be Orange County. Until 1940, OC's economy centered on agriculture and oil, and the population stood at a sleepy 113,760. Twenty years later, the population had more than tripled to 703,925. What happened? The defense industry is what happened. The Cold War jump-started OC as a megaplayer in the nation's military-industrial complex, and hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly from the culturally traditional, Protestant Midwest, migrated here to get well-paying, mostly government-subsidized jobs. It bears repeating: this geographical bastion of get-government-off-our-backs conservatism wouldn't be here in the absence of a federal government that funneled billions of dollars into the county between 1950 and 1960. Even McGirr gets the irony, stating that the county's "economic growth took place as a result of the largesse of Uncle Sam" and then musing, "it seems paradoxical that a region so dependent on the federal government decried governmental influence." Seems "paradoxical" to me, too, though I can think of more descriptive words for it.

The blind hypocrisy of OC conservatism, complete with business leaders, local government officials, preachers in the pulpit, and R.C. Hoiles' Santa Ana(now Orange County) Register sounding a constant drumbeat for "individualism," "free enterprise," and "Christian values," (and against "collectivism") ballooned in the '50s and '60s, and a remarkable grassroots movement blossomed among the men and women in all those new tract houses.

McGirr's account of this new activism is illuminating but baffling: Why were suburban housewives going to coffee klatches to discuss None Dare Call It Treason? Why were 7,000 people attending a session of something called (I swear) "Fred Schwartz's School of Anti-Communism"? Why were hard-working professional white men suddenly falling in love with "states' rights" at Bircher meetings, when they knew full well that states' rights was code for local governments preventing black people from exercising precisely the liberties that conservatives held as a rock-bottom value? Why were hundreds of people crashing school-board meetings, determined that their kids would never learn that the way you make a baby is to have a sperm penetrate an ovum?

The answer, according to McGirr, is that Orange Countians were "expressing their concerns." But it doesn't take a genius to see that what panicked these people—the revolutionary changes of the 1960s—dealt with, at their core, unbearably psychological issues for white Americans: the fear of death, the fear of sex, and the fear of angry black people. The suburban warriors were "virulently anticommunist" because the prospect of nuclear war was too paralyzing to be borne; anti-sex education and "anti-smut" because liberated sex terrified them; and anti-civil rights because black people gave them the heebie-jeebies.

Most of the country understood this at some level, which is why Barry Goldwater, who wouldn't have gotten the Republican nomination without Orange County's support, went down to such rousing defeat in '64.

What's startling, though, is that while the Republican establishment nationwide drifted to the center after Goldwater's debacle, OC's Far Right actually intensified its fervor and was instrumental in getting Reagan elected governor in '66. (Sample stump speech, given in the wake of the Watts riots: "For the law-abiding, the policeman is a friend. For all our science and sophistication, for all our justified pride in intellectual accomplishments, the jungle is waiting to take over." The italics are in the original.) After lying relatively low during the Nixon and Carter years—McGirr reports engagingly on the Jesus Movement that flowered in the early 1970s, particularly the rise of Chuck Smith's apocalyptic Calvary Chapel—the suburban warriors consolidated their forces once again to help get Reagan to the White House, and the Right's triumph was complete.

McGirr's prose is conscientiously dull, like architecture in Irvine, but some of her anecdotal portraits of suburban warriors—of, for instance, Congressman James Utt, who "made national news in 1963 with his suggestions that 'a large contingent of barefooted Africans' might be training in Georgia for what he hinted could be part of a United Nations military exercise to take over the United States"—are golden. She regards anecdotes like this as "fringe," but then again, she doesn't have to live here. She regards the rise of OC's Right as a more or less rational response by modern men and women to tumultuous social change, but after reading her book, this county's politics seem to me less comprehensible and more deeply strange than ever.

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right by Lisa McGirr; Princeton University Press. 395 pages, hardcover, $31.95.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >