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Book Review: Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

by Paul Rosenberg (Review); Book By Lisa McGirr Friday, Jun. 08, 2001 at 5:06 AM
rad@gte.net

Suburban Orange County was one of the seedbeds of the modern conservative movement, and as such its local development has national significance. It should also be seen as one more example of the unfolding anti-urban politics that's the subject of Daniel Lazare's America's Undeclared War (see related review.)

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The Incubation Chamber
Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right
      Reviewed By Paul Rosenberg
  Suburban Orange County was one of the seedbeds of the modern conservative movement, and as such its local development has national significance. It should also be seen as one more example of the unfolding anti-urban politics that's the subject of Daniel Lazare's America's Undeclared War (see related review.) Highly subsidized (by military spending in addition to the auto & housing subsidies Lazare discusses) highly wasteful, and highly insulated, it gave rise to a highly unrealistic politics that now dominates elite discourse.

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right
   By Lisa McGirr
   Published by Princeton University Press
   395 pages; $29.95


Modern Anti-Modernism



"Orange County might best be understood as a prototype: the first functional form of a new conservative milieu."


Suburban Orange County was one of the seedbeds of the modern conservative movement, and as such its local development has national significance, As Harvard historian Lisa McGirr explains in her study of it, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, "Orange County might best be understood as a prototype: the first functional form of a new conservative milieu that appeared less distinctively elsewhere." This development should also be seen as one particularly extreme example of the unfolding anti-urban politics that's the subject of Daniel Lazare's America's Undeclared War, discussed in an accompanying review.



Rightwing politics is generally understood to be anti-modernand for very good reasons. Conservatives are consistently pessimistic in regarding the past as better than the present.


Rightwing politics is generally understood to be anti-modernand for very good reasons. Conservatives are consistently pessimistic in regarding the past as better than the present. Whether it was Hesiod comparing the woeful humans of his time to the Age of Gold or Trent Lott pining for the good old days of 1950s segregated Mississippi, they are perennially unhappy with the way things are, and perennially longing for a "simpler time." But movements like fascism and Naziism ought to be sufficient warning that things are not so straightforward. There was plenty of nostalgic longing in Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy, but there was also an aggressive technological futurism as well. It seems long overdue to refine our understanding of how reactionary politics not only survives in modern times, but often flourishes. McGirr explains,

    "The question of how conservative political ideology, often considered an antimodern world view, attracted a large number of people in the most technologically advanced and economically vibrant of American locales is one of the central puzzles this book tries to solve."
Big Government Nurtures An Anti-Government Stronghold



Orange County owes its present prosperity directly to the Federal Government, first due to the military then to military manufacturing.


It can't be said that she succeeds in any theoretically unified sense. Rather, she traces a variety of contributing factorsjust the sort of thing one would expect from an historian. Orange County owes its present prosperity directly to the Federal Government, first due to the military itself during World War II, then during the Cold War, due increasingly to military manufacturing:

    "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. [W]hereas virtually no Orange Countians worked in defense-related industries in 1950, there were 31,000 workers on their payrolls twelve years later."

    "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."

This growth was contagious, fueling a spectacular boom in retail sales, service industries, construction and real estate, which together surpassed manufacturing in employment, while still remaining dependent on it. And the heart of Orange County manufacturing was military.



The ability to ignore the role of the Federal Government, and reserve for themselves all the credit for their success was truly remarkable.


The ability to ignore the role of the Federal Government, and reserve for themselves all the credit for their success was truly remarkable, and it's not clear that McGirr explains it entirely. There's also another conceptual gap worth noting. By denying the connection of their affluence to decisions by the Federal Government, Orange Countians also effectively cut themselves off from a realistic, cause-and-effect understanding of their place in the modern world. This expanded the space for mythological and religious explanations to fill. McGirr never makes these connections explicitly, but presents evidence that would strongly support them. In addition, she identifies some strong contributing factors fueling the underlying process of denial vis--vis their dependence on outsiders generally and the Federal Government in particular. The size of the boom in a wide range of other, dependent sectors certainly helped to distract attention, but four other factors deserve notice as well.

Frontier Mythos

First was the pre-existing frontier mythos of local elites:



"Western resentment against the East, however, shifted from attacks against private corporate capitalists to tirades against Washington bureaucratic fat cats."

"They railed against federal interference in the West, championed individual initiative, and sought to control western resources, even while eagerly contending for federal funds to internal development projects."


    "The anti-eastern bias of the southland's elites was infused with a western consciousness that had long been fostered by the region's deep dependence on the East Coast for capital. Even after the West's economy took off during and after World War II, ending this 'colonial relationship' (and replacing it with a deepening dependency on federal funds to spur internal development), western regional consciousness remained strong. Western resentment against the East, however, shifted from attacks against private corporate capitalists to tirades against Washington bureaucratic fat cats. The region's newly powerful 'cowboy capitalists' resented perceived eastern dominance and the power easterners purportedly wielded within Washington political circles. They railed against federal interference in the West, championed individual initiative, and sought to control western resources, even while eagerly contending for federal funds to internal development projects."
Building An Insular World Without Public Space

Second was what happened to Orange County's built environment and social institutions. As McGirr explains, two superficially different patterns developed with a remarkably convergent result.



"Much of the county followed the 'planned sprawl' model of development. This led to chaotic arrangements, with one tract developed after another....

By neglecting public spaces in favor of growth, such arrangements weakened the sense of community."


    "Much of the county followed the 'planned sprawl' model of development. This led to chaotic arrangements, with one tract developed after another. Streets were bisected by new housing tracts, increasing a perception of discontinuity and chaos. This form of growth created what one may term 'free-enterprise cities,' with a strong emphasis on private development and growth and little regard for public and community spaces. By neglecting public spaces in favor of growth, such arrangements weakened the sense of community. In fact, even the existing central spaces in the old downtowns were undermined in favor of convenience, privacy, and shopping malls. The most extreme result of this pro-growth attitude was the eventual demolition of the old downtown city center in Anaheim to make room for development.

But 'planned sprawl' was only one of two patterns, both of which nurtured a conservative culture:



"[To the south] development was undertaken by large property holders who responded to sprawl, blight, and congestion of uncontrolled growth by building fully planned communities....

Yet these spatial arrangements also reinforced privacy, individualism, and private property rightsand again accentuated the need to search for alternative forms of community."


    "While development in the northwestern portion of the county followed the anarchy of the market, a second form of growth seems, at first glance, to be its antithesis. Along the south coast and in the southeast, development was undertaken by large property holders who responded to sprawl, blight, and congestion of uncontrolled growth by building fully planned communities that would maintain order and green space. Yet these spatial arrangements also reinforced privacy, individualism, and private property rightsand again accentuated the need to search for alternative forms of community. Although it sought to create more desirable and sustainable communities, this new form of development did not bring public accountability or collective approaches to growth. Controlled by private entrepreneurs, many of them former ranchers, these artificial communities were constituted by developers who had a free hand in constructing their own visions of 'community,' visions that emphasized individual privacy, private property, and public spaces defined by consumption."


Both forms of development turned people inward, and cut them off from the larger world.


Thus, both forms of development turned people inward, and cut them off from the larger world. Although big government had no hand in creating either development pattern, it still managed to take the blame:

    "The result of development along these lines, of both the corporate and the free-market models, was spatial isolation and an absence of community, which, in a complicated way, helped to reinforce a conservative ethos. One Santa Ana resident, for example, who in 1961 criticized the lack of neighborliness in housing developments and called 'more community recreational activitywhere people can get to know one another,' linked the depletion of community to government centralization."


The impoverishment of public spaces and institutions created a social and cultural vacuum, which the churches rushed in to fill....

The strength of churches and the weakness of all other social institutions recalls an America that's truly far in the past


Most significantly, the impoverishment of public spaces and public institutions created a social and cultural vacuum, which the churches rushed in to fill. (If you want to know what un-President Bush is aiming for with his emphasis on "faith-based alternatives," you should consider this vacuum-filling process and its results as a prototype-within-a-prototype.) The strength of churches and the weakness of all other social institutions recalls an America that's truly far in the past--before the 1830s when de Touquville famously observed the bewildering variety of organizations outside the church which Americans created for a wide range of social purposesexcept, of course, in the Deep South, where civic organization remained severly stunted. As McGirr explains,

    "In a privatized, physically isolated landscape, among people who had only recently arrived in their new communities, conservative churches offered a sense of stability and a space for intensive social interaction. Their emphasis on personal salvation instead of social gospel probably appealed not only because it was familiar but also because it fit particularly well with the life circumstances of entrepreneurial and individualistic Orange Countians."

The result was a social setting highly favorable to the development of rightwing politics:



"The underside of this American dream was a form of development that depleted bonds of community."


    "The underside of this American dream was a form of development that depleted bonds of community. The middle-class men and women who populated Orange County found meaning in a set of politics that affirmed the grounding of their lives in individual success and yet critiqued the social consequences of the market by calling for a return to 'traditional' values, local control, strict morality, and strong authority."
The New Immigrants

Third was the nature of those who migrated into the region. Many of them came from rural areas, but there was a wider geographic diversity in the post-WWII boom than previously.



"Traditionally, migrants to Southern California were drawn from the 'heartland' states."


    "Traditionally, migrants to Southern California were drawn from the 'heartland' states of the country: the Midwest, the border states, and the near South. The values and religion they brought with them had a strong influence on the political culture of Southern California. Nearby Long Beach, in fact, became known in the postwar period as 'Iowa's seaport.'"


This earlier immigrant population clearly set a tone that would have enduring influence.


This earlier immigrant population clearly set a tone that would have enduring influence. But the picture was changing:

    "Of persons registering a motor vehicle in Orange County between January and April 1962, in-migrants came from numerous states in almost equal numbers, with Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Florida, Michigan, Kansas, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia all accounting for 9 to 13 percent of registrants. The Midwest, the most important place of origin contributed 35.5 percent. The states of the Northeast now accounted for 13.9 percent, with the western and southern states contributing 20.4 percent and 24.9 percent, respectively."


The affluence, social isolation and consumer orientation that Lazare cites in America's Undeclared War all took their toll


As a result, the county even experienced a brief period in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans. But many of these were conservative Democrats, or children of Protestant working-class New Deal Democrats whose own politics had yet to be formed, and who proved remarkably malleable when confronted by the social forces at work in the world of Orange County. The affluence, social isolation and consumer orientation that Lazare cites in America's Undeclared War all took their toll, but with the special twist provided by the built environment and impoverished institutional landscape already mentioned. A different mix of immigrantsparticularly the Jews and blacks who so transformed Los Angeleswould have reacted quite differently, recognizing and appreciating the role of the federal government in producing the county's affluence and seeking to broaden that role to serve other social ends. Orange County's isolation from this other population of new California immigrants brings us directly to the fourth factor in promoting its anti-government denialism.

The Threat Outside



Los Angelesthough still far more homogeneous than it is todayrepresented the kind of East Coast multi-ethnic urban environment which the vast majority of Orange Countians instinctively distrusted.


This fourth factor was Orange County's relationship to the outside worldespecially nearby Los Angeles and the State of California as a whole. Los Angelesthough still far more homogeneous than it is todayrepresented the kind of East Coast multi-ethnic urban environment which the vast majority of Orange Countians instinctively distrusted. The State of Californiaparticularly through the school systemrepresented government intrusion from the outside that was potentially far more problematic than the gusher of money flowing in from Washington. The threat represented by these outside forces fueled the sense of being embattled individuals at war with outside forces conceived in terms of masses of cultural strangers and a government beyond their control.

The interaction of these various factors is captured quite well in the following passage:



"The peculiar form of mixed-market anarchy and corporate planning that shaped the built landscape also created an exceptional degree of economic and racial homogeneity, which further contributed to a favorable setting for the Right."


    "The peculiar form of mixed-market anarchy and corporate planning that shaped the built landscape also created an exceptional degree of economic and racial homogeneity, which further contributed to a favorable setting for the Right. For if the spatial and physical landscape reinforced privacy and lack of community, the middle-class character of the population helped to assure that the people there could find common solutions to their grievances, solutions that spoke to their particular class and racial group interests. The lack of a large organized working class and the near absences of racial minorities made it likely that Orange County's political rainbow would consist of relatively few colors. In 19060, 80 percent of the families in the county had annual incomes falling between $6,000 and $9,000. The median family income was $7,219, about 27.5 percent more than the national median. Orange Countians were, in other words, a privileged group."
Seedbed Of Current Confusions



The emphasis I've placed on how it all began, how a heavily government- dependent enclave became a seat of virulent anti-government politics, only serves to set the stage for a story that contains a rich tapestry of glaring contradictions.


McGirr's book goes on to chronicle the evolution of Orange County's politics from the heavy influence of the John Birch Society in the late 1950s and early 60s through Goldwater's run for President and Reagan's campaigns, first for Governor of California, then for President. It provides a wealth of insight into this unfolding process, informed by numerous interviews McGirr conducted with a wide range of activists. The emphasis I've placed on how it all began, how a heavily government-dependent enclave became a seat of virulent anti-government politics, only serves to set the stage for a story that contains a rich tapestry of glaring contradictions woven together by a compellingly self-serving logic, which increasingly dominates elite political discourse. A deep mediation on how it all began is vitally important for understanding all that followed. Paired with Daniel Lazare's longer and broader view of America's anti-urban political tradition, it illuminates profound connections between race, class and environmental politics that deserve serious attention from everyone interested in integrating the struggles for justice in these fundamentally connected major areas of struggle.

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religion - opium of the masses

by johnk Friday, Jun. 08, 2001 at 6:38 PM

people, they were unhappy in these suburbs, so they got really religious

kinda explains why there's so many nazis in huntington beach
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San Bernardino & Riverside=O.C. Clones

by Fellow Freeway Protester Saturday, Jun. 09, 2001 at 6:50 AM



What you read here about O.C. also applies to the I.E.(Inland Empire). Populated during the 50s and 60s by the same type of white supremacist immigrants from the same U.S. states-the local governments today impose their racist and corrupt policies on the poor and people of color while the Christian Jijad capitalizes on their plight.
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nice review

by Guy Berliner Saturday, Jun. 09, 2001 at 1:32 PM

Thanks, Paul, for this review that helps to develop
our understanding of the origins of contemporary
politics. It sounds like a very valuable exercise.
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