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Harvard Professor Researches Rise of Goldwater Conservatism

A Harvard history professor re-examines the impact of conservatism in California's Orange County in "Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right."

Much has been written about the mobilized left in the 1960s. Its colorful flower children, longhaired hippies and successful anti-war movement captured the imaginations of many people, especially American academics, who wrote volumes about the era. Lisa McGirr, an associate professor of history at Harvard, sets her sights on a less studied, but just as radical political movement that arose at the same time: Goldwater conservatism.

McGirr focuses tightly on the rise of this movement in Orange County, Calif., where a suburban counterculture arose that mixed hardcore conservatism, libertarian opposition to government, fervent anti-Communism and religious traditionalism into a potent, radical and fairly wacky stew that would eventually put Ronald Reagan into the California governor's mansion and, ultimately, the White House.

San Francisco's counterculture had nothing on Orange County in terms of outlandishness. Orange County was home to the world's first drive-in church, with parking for 550 cars. In the early 1960s, high school auditoriums were filled to the rafters with students excused from classes to attend Fred Swartz's Southern California School of Anti-Communism.

Walter Knott, inventor of the boysenberry and owner of the amusement park Knott's Berry Farm, ran a right-wing foundation from the park's premises that distributed materials to visitors on topics such as "The Socialist Plan for Conquest" and "Communism on the Map." And it was in Orange County that the John Birch Society, named after a Baptist missionary killed by Chinese communists, really took off, spreading its message of impending communist revolution and United Nations plots to destroy the U.S.

Probably because of intense paranoia about communism expressed by Orange County conservatives, the few scholars who did investigate the rise of this movement explained it in psychological terms. American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that these kinds of conservatives were simply paranoid and suffering from "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy." Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset argued that they suffered from "status anxiety," meaning that they felt that their social group was rapidly losing ground to other groups.

For the most part, though, American academics ignored this movement, a fact that led Columbia historian Alan Brinkley to write in 1994 that "American conservatism has been something of an orphan in historical scholarship."

Instead of presuming a psychological defect on the part of conservative activists, McGirr instead asks them why they took up the cause. She speaks with housewives who held coffee klatches for Barry Goldwater, activists who led John Birch Society chapters and prominent local business leaders. McGirr's interviewing technique successfully brings to life the motivations of her subjects and at least partially puts the lie to the Hofstadter and Lipset analyses.

Orange County's conservatives did not suffer from status anxiety — on the contrary, they had status. As McGirr writes, these people "were immersed in a high-tech world" and "enjoyed the fruits of consumer culture" and "worldly success." They came to California not to flee poverty, but to take advantage of economic opportunities afforded to them by the area's burgeoning military-industrial complex.

Their commie-baiting had rational roots, since conservatives' livelihoods were so tightly hooked up with the military and the Cold War. McGirr's most important scholarly contributions are these findings, which reveal the failings of previous academic analyses.

What McGirr fails to do is press her interview subjects on their rank hypocrisy. For an avowedly libertarian and antigovernment movement, Orange County conservatives sure didn't mind receiving large paychecks from the federal government.

McGirr appears perplexed by this contradiction, pointing out "it seems paradoxical that a region so dependent on the federal government decried governmental influence." Yet she never forces her subjects to address this.

McGirr's interviews fail in another respect — her subjects are allowed to practice revisionist history, prettying up their pasts to avoid any suspicion that their actions were motivated by racism. Orange County was lily-white until the late 1970s, and conservatives tried to keep it that way.

McGirr's book cites several cases of racial hatred: in 1954, a Korean-American Olympic medal winner was twice unable to purchase a home in Garden Grove; not long after, an African-American Air Force lieutenant was faced down by a hostile group of more than 50 people after he purchased a home in Garden Grove; and in 1961, another African American had the windows of his apartment shot out.

Ultimately, McGirr makes somewhat light of this situation, pointing out that racism was endemic to the whole country and adding that "the race issue did not inform Southern California's conservative mobilization to the extent it did in the South."

In fact, much of Goldwater's rhetoric about "lawlessness" and rising crime rates used coded references to blacks and "the civil rights and student movements," something McGirr admits. She also acknowledges these conservatives' general hostility towards the civil rights movement, but buys her interviewees' dubious claims that this hostility was based more on "states' rights" reasoning than race.

Researchers always walk a fine line. They must be careful not to allow their investigative techniques to obscure the data they're collecting. At the same time, they have an obligation to poke around a bit — to see what lies beneath the surface.

McGirr ultimately doesn't poke around enough. Her interview techniques lead her to discount far too much the importance of race to conservatism and the parallels between Southern conservatism and Orange County conservatism of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The fact that Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., the infamous place where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, should put the lie to McGirr's contention that racism wasn't a central value of the movement.