91: Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors

In Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Lisa McGirr traces the development of the Conservative movement in Orange County from 1945 to Reagan’s presidential election in 1980; she argues that the Right used religion and consumerism to create a movement that combined an emphasis on individual experience with the collectivism required to create social change.  Using archival sources and oral histories with activists and ordinary people who helped build the conservative movement in Orange County in the 1960s, McGirr builds the history of the Conservative movement from the ground up.

McGirr’s interest in telling the rise of the Right from its own perspective creates a nuanced picture of right-wing activism in Orange County.  She shows that upwardly mobile, white, educated, suburban moms and dads were attracted to Conservatism because it resonated with their own experiences as successful individuals and as Westerners who were suspicious of “liberal Washington intellectuals'” intervention in their lives.  Orange County Conservatives also included many competing worldviews, including long-held libertarianism, a religious interest in fighting godlessness and immorality, a distrust of “collectivism,” and an interest in a return to American foundational values.  Anti-Communism held these libertarians and social conservatives together (along with extremist groups like the John Birch Society) in the 1950s and early 1960s.  However, after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 the Orange County Right broke with extremist groups and forged a more mainstream, populist conservative movement under Ronald Reagan that attacked general liberal permissiveness, big government, welfare, and criminality.  The parallel rise of 1960s counterculture and evangelical Christianity in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought a host of new social concerns, state welfare programs, and religious zeal for a return to morality; this stoked a fire that spread nationally and ended up getting Reagan elected president.

While McGirr’s method is not innovative from a history perspective, her choice of subject is unusual for a study of social movements, as most social movement theorists include a progressive or left agenda and an association with an oppressed group in their definitions of social movements.  However, her grassroots analysis of the Right’s rise to power and her interest in reading members of the Right from their own perspectives provides a depth of analysis that does justice to an incredibly powerful movement.

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