Problems in Suburbia(n Studies), Part 1

Orange County Suburb

Okay, so I made up that name—“suburbian studies.” But, several historians, Lisa McGirr of Harvard, have taken up the subject and revitalized urban history in the last decade. Scholars have noted the significance of the suburbanite (suburbian?) to the rise of the conservative Right and the formation of, well, just about everything since World War II. McGirr’s work Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right is one of the canonical works in the field. And I found it less than satisfying, but I’m having trouble pinpointing why. But, my problems with it have a lot to do with how she treats the ideological logic of the emerging movement, her dismissal of race and gender (and sexuality), and her argument concerning “modernization.”

First, to be fair to McGirr’s book, it’s generally very good. It’s just not as good as I expected, especially given how often it’s touted. It’s assigned to graduate students and acclaimed by some of the biggest names in the field. One review in Reviews in American History even calls Suburban Warriors “history at its best.” This reviewer then goes on the praise the work for its “objectivity” in the matter—something that, well, is a mistake. McGirr certainly treats the subjects she studies fairly, and fills a scholarly gap in studying the average people (of Orange County, California) who helped nominate Barry Goldwater for President and then to successfully elect Ronald Reagan to the California Governorship. However, the work covers a lot of valuable ground tracking how a grassroots movement of white middle-class Protestants went from extremism to the mainstream—from Barry Goldwater to Nixon and Reagan—and how they themselves helped shape the political pathway of America.

Another scholar praises the work for pointing out that the grassroots activists of the New Right—the folks who got their start in the conspiratorial John Birch Society and by calling people who held ACLU meetings communists—were “highly rational.” This is again where both reviewer and author err. First of all, I’m not sure where “rationality” comes into play with evangelical Christianity. This is not to argue that they or conservatives on the Right are “kooks,” “zanies,” or “crackpots” (all terms from the two reviews mentioned above). To argue, as those reviewers do and McGirr does as well to a degree, that to not label the conservative Right as “highly rational” is to demean them. Most things in life aren’t rational. A lot of the Left isn’t “rational” either. Having empathy is actually, one could argue, a highly irrational emotion. But, religion isn’t exactly the bastion of the Enlightenment tradition. It may fill a necessary human need for many, but being rational isn’t a central characteristic.

The recently backrupted Protestant mega-church Crystal Cathedral of Orange County.

This doesn’t hold for only the social conservatives of McGirr’s narrative either. The libertarians are perhaps a more illustrative example. McGirr does an excellent job in letting these activists speak for themselves. She really opens to door into their world. She just misses some opportunities to point out misconceptions and ideological contradictions. In chapter one, she points out that many conservative Orange Countians believed they were fulfilling the American Dream while working for—wait for it—the military industrial complex. They also liked to lambast the “Washington planners” of the Federal Government while apparently not admitting that all of their prosperity was coming from contracts supplied by—wait for it—the Federal Government. The social amnesia that must take place for such a thing to happen seems amazing, but is not critically engaged by the author. Moreover, one wing of the conservative Right—represented by the likes of Friedrich Hayek—held laissez-faire economics as sacrosanct, as the guarantor of all personal freedom. The historical erasure (or was it ignorance?) that must occur to forget the great suffering and disparities of the Gilded Age is, again, staggering. Certainly they were rational in looking out for number one, but in little else.

That McGirr takes many of her interviewees at their words is important, and I do not mean to diminish her research or the contribution she does make to the field. But she does so to such a degree that she fails to critically analyze the thoroughly irrational characteristics of the New Right’s ideological contradictions. Indeed, the best part of the book (and the central point I’ll actually remember in years to come) is in explaining how the social conservative wing allied itself with the libertarian, laissez-faire wing of the party. To simplify, both held strong beliefs in “personal responsibility” and knew they didn’t like whatever it was (whatever they imagined it to be) that was emerging in the mid to late 1960s and 1970s. One group placed their faith in the free market and one in a Christian God.  They both blamed the Left (via anticommunism) for creating an immediate threat in the form of economic regulation (which they saw as being one short step away from totalitarianism), sit-ins, long-haired Berkley students, abortion, “obscenity,” and birth control. Ultimately, it was political pragmatism that soothed their fiery rhetoric and gained them respectability among mainstream Americans. They realized they could not win presidential elections with such rhetoric: Goldwater, their champion par excellence, was soundly demolished by LBJ. These grassroots conservatives realized they couldn’t rely on the likes of George Wallace (“Segregation then, segregation now, segregation forever!”) or even Goldwater (who would use “tactical” nuclear weapons in combat) and instead turned to, first, Nixon and Reagan second.

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