Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

by Lisa McGirr

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Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right by Lisa McGirr

In the early 1960s, American conservatives seemed to have fallen on hard times. McCarthyism was on the run, and movements on the political left were grabbing headlines. The media lampooned John Birchers's accusations that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist puppet. Mainstream America snickered at warnings by California Congressman James B. Utt that "barefooted Africans" were training in Georgia to help the United Nations take over the country. Yet, in Utt's home district of Orange County, thousands of middle-class suburbanites proceeded to organize a powerful conservative movement that would land Ronald Reagan in the White House and redefine the spectrum of acceptable politics into the next century.

Suburban Warriors introduces us to these people: women hosting coffee klatches for Barry Goldwater in their tract houses; members of anticommunist reading groups organizing against sex education; pro-life Democrats gradually drawn into conservative circles; and new arrivals finding work in defense companies and a sense of community in Orange County's mushrooming evangelical churches. We learn what motivated them and how they interpreted their political activity. Lisa McGirr shows that their movement was not one of marginal people suffering from status anxiety, but rather one formed by successful entrepreneurial types with modern lifestyles and bright futures. She describes how these suburban pioneers created new political and social philosophies anchored in a fusion of Christian fundamentalism, xenophobic nationalism, and western libertarianism.

While introducing these rank-and-file activists, McGirr chronicles Orange County's rise from "nut country" to political vanguard. Through this history, she traces the evolution of the New Right from a virulent anticommunist, anti-establishment fringe to a broad national movement nourished by evangelical Protestantism. Her original contribution to the social history of politics broadens—and often upsets—our understanding of the deep and tenacious roots of popular conservatism in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691165738
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/02/2015
Series: Politics and Society in Modern America Series
Edition description: Updated edition with a New preface by the author
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 562,845
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Lisa McGirr is professor of history at Harvard University.

Read an Excerpt

Suburban Warriors

The Origins of the New American Right

By Lisa McGirr


Copyright © 2001 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-16573-8



ON July 17, 1955, Walt Disney opened his visionary new amusement park in Anaheim, California. After years of planning, Disneyland stood ready to provide packaged and planned family fun to hosts of tourists from around the nation and to the growing number of Americans who made Southern California their home. Women, children, and men crowded the sidewalks to witness the festivities: Life-size cartoon characters paraded through the streets of a sentimentalized "Main Street, U.S.A.," "Frontierland," "Tomorrowland," and "Fantasyland." In keeping with its founder's vision of Disneyland as an alternative to the chaotic Coney Islands of the East, with their "tawdry rides and hostile employees," clean-cut employees strove to maintain order and a friendly attitude.

Walt Disney could not have found a more fitting home for his ambitious theme park, with its mixture of nostalgia for a simple American past and its bright optimism about the future, than this booming western locale at midcentury. No state in the nation in the mid–twentieth century represented the promises of the United States more than California, and no part of California stood for this dream more than the southland—the stretch of towns and cities extending from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Having packed their bags and said good-bye to their families and friends and the old "Main Streets" of their childhoods, millions of migrants settled in Southern California in the decades following World War II to realize their American dream. They took new jobs in high-tech industries, professions, and services, settled in single-family homes, and raised their children. In so doing, they formed part of a seismic demographic shift that would eventually forge the Sunbelt. Los Angeles stood as the prime destination in this migration, but just to the south of the City of Angels, Orange County came into its own in the 1960s as the land of promise for hundreds of thousands of Americans drawn by its job opportunities, climate, and suburban lifestyle. One of the thousands of migrants to Orange County noted years later that "it was God's country.... It was the dream of being able to get somewhere."

This suburban heartland was not only home to Walt Disney's visionary new park, to thousands of new California families and new towns and cities; it was also the birthing ground of a powerful grassroots political movement. A revitalized and militant Right—fueled by a politics of antistatism, virulent anticommunism, and strict normative conservatism—burst onto the scene nationally in the early 1960s, and nowhere more forcefully than Orange County. At living room bridge clubs, at backyard barbecues, and at kitchen coffee klatches, the middle-class men and women of Orange County "awakened" to what they perceived as the threats of communism and liberalism. Sensing an urgent need for action, they forged study groups, multiplied chapters of national right-wing organizations, and worked within the Republican Party to make their voices heard. In so doing, they became the cutting edge of the conservative movement in the 1960s. But before we examine the movement these people built, it is necessary to understand the setting in which it grew: the region's history, political and cultural traditions, and its economic development. The characteristics of Orange County's development—its specific form of economic growth, the domination of its politics by an antiliberal and anti-eastern business elite, and the experiences of the people who settled there—created a favorable context for virulent right-wing beliefs.

* * *

Orange County lies at the geographic center of the Southern California basin, bounded by Los Angeles County to the northwest, Riverside and San Bernardino to the northeast, San Diego County to the southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. Approximately 800 square miles in size, about 575 square miles of which are inhabitable, it is a geographically diverse region. In its easternmost recesses to the north and south, beautiful mountains, rolling hills, and forests break the monotony of the thousands of acres of plains that made Orange County so well suited to farming. On its westernmost reaches, the sparkling waters and soft, sandy beaches of the Pacific Ocean beckon Orange Countians to enjoy its pleasures.

A migrant family from a small town or urban center in the Midwest or border South moving into one of the many new suburban tracts in 1960 would likely have been first struck by the county's lack of internally bounded towns and communities. Towns flowed together with little spatial distinction, intersected by a complex web of superhighways. It had not always been so. Only twenty years earlier, the county consisted of distinct small townships and cities, surrounded by ranches large and small. But spiraling growth led to a centrifugal form of development that lessened the importance of city centers and town units. Individuals and families may have resided in Garden Grove, Fullerton, Anaheim, Huntington Beach, or Costa Mesa, but, more important, they lived and increasingly worked in Orange County, a cohesive spatial unit with a self-definition distinct from neighboring Los Angeles.

Despite its centrifugal growth, Orange County did have distinct geographic areas defined less by the twenty-two cities incorporated there by 1960 than by three differentiated regions. In the northwest, the rapid growth of suburban tract housing in the 1950s and the commercial and industrial establishments that sprang up in their wake created unending miles of suburban sprawl. Here, cities such as Anaheim, Garden Grove, Buena Park, and Santa Ana provided affordable, albeit uninteresting, single-family homes for the middle classes. While this region was predominantly lower-middle- and middle-class, north Fullerton and east Tustin were home to some of the wealthiest enclaves within the county, and central and southern Santa Ana contained some of the county's poorest areas.

The coast made up the county's second distinct region. In contrast to the inland north, the central and south coast grew more slowly due to its distance from Los Angeles and its controlled development. The beaches of Orange County, extending forty miles from Seal Beach in the north to San Clemente in the south, had long been a favored retreat for weary Angelenos. Consequently, resort towns and beautiful homes dotted the Orange County coastline as early as the 1920s. But a large portion of this land was owned by the Irvine Company and released for development only in the 1950s and 1960s. Its setting, and the exclusive homes the company built on the land, made it a playground of the wealthy, who leased or bought the expensive properties of Newport Beach and Balboa Island, creating exclusive townships and some of the most valuable houses within the county.

Agribusiness gave the southeast, the county's third region, a distinctive rural flavor throughout the 1960s. Suburban home construction proceeded slowly and, as in the coastal areas, only in a highly controlled fashion. This area was home to the 60,000-acre Cleveland National Forest and to vast working farms owned by a few modern-day land barons. In 1959, only ten landowners held more than 200,000 acres. The Irvine ranch alone covered almost one-fifth of the county. These landowners slowly sold their land to developers or went into development themselves, transforming profitable working farms into huge development companies that created corporate visions of the American dream and packaged communities for the wealthy.

Like much of the West, Orange County's history was one of contest and conquest, of winners and losers, of boom and bust. In its early days, before the United States conquest of California in 1848, the area's economy was dominated by a small number of cattle rancheros who had been given massive land grants under Spanish and Mexican rule. When California was admitted as a state in 1850, legislators eager to assert control over the region nullified all land titles and forced landowners to spend exorbitant sums of money to defend their property. Anglo-American entrepreneurs bought land at cheap rates from the ruined Mexican ranchers and quickly became the new ruling class of the southland.

A host of other colonists, ranging from merchants to small farmers to religious utopians who bought up the property so avidly hawked by local real estate speculators joined the few large ranching families who dominated the economy. Unified in their desire for local control over their new townships in the wake of the speculative boom of the 1880s, they broke away from neighboring Los Angeles in 1889. The county experienced the boom-and-bust cycles the old West was famous for—with town maps filed for cities that have long since been forgotten. But Anaheim, Santa Ana, Orange, and Tustin thrived, and other towns, such as Buena Park, Fullerton, and Laguna Beach, plotted during the real estate boom of the 1880s, just managed to survive. By 1890, Orange County's population stood at 13,589. While developers broke up the holdings in the western part of the county, the new American ranch owners in the east and south passed their holdings almost intact to their heirs. As a consequence, landholdings remained extremely concentrated.

Agricultural crops had replaced the cattle industry as the driving force of the local economy in the 1870s and remained a basic source of income into the mid–twentieth century. Farmers produced sugar beets, truck crops, beans, and dairy, but no crop proved more important to the county's economy than citrus fruits. By 1930, lemon and orange groves covered the soft hills, slopes, and plains of Orange County. Small, thriving commercial centers and townships, along with packinghouses and the cottages and shacks of Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican laborers, dotted the landscape. The slightly pungent scent of oranges permeated the air, and the balmy climate and small townships lent an idyllic atmosphere to the place. Although an oil boom in the 1920s brought in an important second industry, the county remained a prosperous, though sleepy, agricultural region. As late as 1940, only 113,760 people lived in the area.

World War II transformed the American West and, with it, Orange County. A watershed in the region's development, it set in motion a chain of developments that would eventually turn Orange County into a sprawling metropolis. Taking advantage of their strategic location on the Pacific Coast, local businessmen, real estate speculators, and boosters who had long envisioned a bright future for the county sought to entice the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force to locate bases there. To encourage the military to settle in Orange County, the Santa Ana City Council obtained an option to lease a 412-acre berry ranch south of the city and offered to subcontract the property to the War Department for the symbolic sum of one dollar per year. The War Department accepted the offer and built the United States Air Corps Replacement Training Center, later renamed the Santa Ana Army Air Base. Two years later, the navy added a Naval Ammunition Depot at nearby Seal Beach and, in 1942, the United States Naval Air Station moved from Long Beach to Los Alamitos. El Toro became the home of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station, an installation that remained important during the Cold War.

The military was thoroughly entrenched by 1950, and the bases provided one of the county's main sources of income. Thousands of military personnel moved to the area, enticing some farmers, battling a destructive plant disease and facing stiff competition from Florida, to take advantage of the new demand for housing and development and subdivide their land.

World War II foreshadowed other, even greater, changes for Orange County and the nation. Rising tensions with the Soviet Union meant that the development model that had spurred the economy during wartime could serve as a catalyst for growth, even in times of peace. The Cold War and its close relative, the military-industrial complex, shaped U.S. economic development in the postwar years. New industries sprouted up to feed the voracious appetite of Uncle Sam for new weapons in a spiraling arms race. From 1950 to 1959, contracts by the Department of Defense amounted to the staggering sum of $228 billion nationally. This was an increase of 246 percent over these ten years; during the same period, the nation's business as a whole expanded by only 76 percent. By 1962, defense had become the nation's largest business, and from 1946 to 1965, 62 percent of the federal budget went to defense. These huge expenditures catalyzed the "affluent society" and directly and indirectly affected the lives of every American.

While defense money drove national economic growth, the regions that profited most directly were the Sunbelt South and West, and the biggest beneficiary was Southern California. The federal funds that poured into California created the nation's largest urban military-industrial complex. In 1953, California topped New York as the leading state in net value of military prime contracts awarded. Throughout the next decade, awards to the Golden State amounted to twice as much as the annual amount any other state received. These federal funds, plus the annual military and civilian payroll of the Department of Defense in California, funneled more than $50 billion in defense dollars into California for approximately the ten-year period from 1950 to 1960. And no region received more funds than Southern California. With the exception of Santa Clara in the north, Los Angeles County, San Diego County, and Orange County received the lion's share of defense moneys. As a result, whereas virtually no Orange Countians worked in defense-related industries in 1950, there were 31,000 workers on their payrolls twelve years later.

World War II and subsequent defense spending transformed Los Angeles and Southern California into a new regional power. Los Angeles, at the heart of the initial growth, received 61 percent of California defense outlays in 1959, making it a "world city" and a leading international industrial center. It grew from a population of 1.5 million in 1940 to close to 2.5 million by 1960. The metropolitan region included more than 6 million inhabitants by 1960. The phenomenal growth of Los Angeles spilled over into sleepy Orange County, turning it into a sprawling suburban region. Los Angeles's new bedroom community soon attracted its own manufacturing base (with defense leading the way), making Orange County the second most populous county in California by 1967.

By the early 1960s, Orange County had become an important center for defense-related industries in its own right. Between 1957 and 1961, Hughes Aircraft moved into the county, employing 10,000 people; Autonetics made its home in Anaheim, adding 10,000 workers to its payroll; Ford Aeronutronics set up facilities in Newport, bringing 2,800 jobs. American Electronics came to Fullerton, generating 380 jobs; Beckman Instruments also chose Fullerton when it moved its headquarters into Orange County, employing 3,100 workers; and Nortronics settled in Anaheim, hiring 2,300 employees. By 1960, more people worked in manufacturing than in any other sector. Orange County had become a "military-related suburb." Electronics was the fastest-growing manufacturing industry, accounting for about 40 percent of all manufacturing employment in the county. By 1964, of the thirteen manufacturing firms in Orange County employing 500 or more workers, nine were in the electronics-instruments-missile-aircraft classification. The growth of these industries, as Spencer C. Olin has argued, was the result not only of the vast defense outlays but also of the availability of a pool of technical and scientific labor, low rates of unionization, and the existence of venture capital. These factors drew the burgeoning new growth industries in defense and electronics not only to Orange County but also to other regions in the West and South. At the same time, the older northern industrial cities of the East and Midwest saw a decline in their manufacturing base.38 The resulting demographic and economic changes would eventually help shift the balance of economic and political power in the nation increasingly southward and westward.

The military-industrial complex brought equally impressive employment gains in other sectors. Retail sales and service industries that provided the amenities, the fast food, the household furnishings, and the appliances for the growing suburban communities trailed closely behind manufacturing in providing jobs. The demand for housing and commercial buildings brought a frenzied construction boom, along with phenomenal profits for the building industry. New lots and rising land prices brought with them a mushrooming real estate industry as property development became a vast business. Together with retail and services, these three sectors employed the majority of workers in the county, more than manufacturing itself. The underpinning of the local economy, however, was the defense-related manufacturing sector.


Excerpted from Suburban Warriors by Lisa McGirr. Copyright © 2001 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface to the New Edition xi

Acknowledgements xxvii


CHAPTER 1 The Setting 20

CHAPTER 2 "A Sleeping Giant Is Awakening": Right-Wing Mobilization, 1960–1963 54

CHAPTER 3 The Grassroots Goldwater Campaign 111

CHAPTER 4 The Conservative Worldview at the Grass Roots 147

CHAPTER 5 The Birth of Populist Conservatism 187

CHAPTER 6 New Social Issues and Resurgent Evangelicalism 217


Notes 275

Bibliography 351

Index 379

What People are Saying About This


In her impressively researched, gracefully written book, Lisa McGirr convincingly demonstrates that historians, who have been preoccupied with the Left in the 1960s, need to develop a deeper comprehension of how conservatives in places such as Orange County reconfigured American political culture. Readers will find her attempt to understand them, rather than dismiss or condemn them, both rewarding and challenging.
William E. Leuchtenburg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

William E. Leuchtenburg

In her impressively researched,gracefully written book,Lisa McGirr convincingly demonstrates that historians,who have been preoccupied with the Left in the 1960s,need to develop a deeper comprehension of how conservatives in places such as Orange County reconfigured American political culture. Readers will find her attempt to understand them,rather than dismiss or condemn them,both rewarding and challenging.

Kevin Starr

Something happened to the Republican Party in the 1960s, changing it forever. How did a crypto-liberal, Northeast-dominated, establishment-oriented party become a populist, counter-liberal crusade? Here's the story: exhaustively researched and presented with telling analysis and narrative verve.
Kevin Starr, State Librarian of California

Michael Kazin

A landmark study that will enlighten anyone who cares about the evolution of American politics since World War II. With Lisa McGirr's thorough, sophisticated, smoothly crafted exploration of Orange County conservatism, the history of the modern Right has finally come of age.
Michael Kazin, Georgetown University, coauthor of "America Divided" and "The Populist Persuasion"

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