The Orange Revolution

How "nut country" conquered America


Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, by Lisa McGirr, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 395 pages, $31.95

For such a perfect place, Southern California's Orange County breeds a lot of dissatisfaction. The sprawling county located between San Diego and Los Angeles seemed so quintessentially American that Walt Disney chose it as the home for Disneyland. The weather is nearly ideal, if sun, sea breezes, eternal blue skies, and year-round mild temperatures are your bag. It's a land of fruit groves, gorgeous beaches, and tract houses in planned suburbs carved out of rolling hills.

Yet this prosperous and Edenic scene was the breeding ground for a radical '60s counterculture that indelibly stamped America. It was home to a conspiracy of militant malcontents who, while never representing a majority of Americans' concerns, raised such a well-organized fuss that they took over a major political party. American politics and culture would never be the same.

This counterculture wasn't the one exemplified by those loud, dirty kids from Northern California, who made such a splash with their sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Orange County's was a suburban counterculture of housewives, engineers, dentists, businessmen, and veterans who embraced a hardcore conservatism that combined libertarian disdain for centralized state power with unyielding anti-communism and moral traditionalism. They may have dressed straight, but their beliefs were no closer to the American norm than Wavy Gravy's.

Orange County was the place, after all, that once boasted mass ocean baptisms by the legendary "Jesus Freak" leader Rev. Chuck; high school auditoriums filled to the rafters with thousands of kids excused from classes to attend Fred Schwartz's traveling "School of Anti-Communism" (Schwartz authored that thrift-store classic, You Can Trust the Communists—To Be Communists!); and school boards that banned UNICEF Halloween coin collections and any mention of the United Nations in the classroom. In 1968, Fortune quite casually—and not without evidence—condemned Orange County as "nut country." The combination of rabid anti-communism, staunch social conservatism, and anti-Washington sentiment placed the county's right-wingers far outside the postwar consensus, both intellectual and popular.

Lisa McGirr, a historian at Harvard, guides us through Orange County conservatism's rise and influence in Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. She makes a good case that standard political histories of postwar America concentrate too much on North-South divisions, and on race relations as the one vital issue. If we really want to see the true heart of postwar political change, she suggests, we should look closely at the pleasant suburbs of the Sunbelt, especially those in Orange County.

McGirr is among a growing number of political historians that considers the '60s movements on the right to have been as significant—if not more so—to contemporary America as the decade's better-known movements on the left. She treats her subject with commendable fairness and has written a rigorous, if somewhat dry, book, one deeply informed with dozens of interviews and serious archival work. While she is certainly no partisan for Orange County conservatism, her disagreements with it break through in only a few sentences. The result is a book that, like Gregory L. Schneider's Cadres for Conservatism (1999) and John A. Andrew's The Other Side of the Sixties (1997), adds greatly to our understanding of the '60s as a thoroughly antinomian period, one in which even conservatives proposed radical ideas that fundamentally reshaped the political and cultural landscape.

Most Orange County residents in the '50s and '60s were migrants, largely from the Midwest. This didn't make them hayseed traditionalists out of place in the modern world, as some liberal critics have insisted. Orange County's suburbia was fueled by high-tech and defense money, and it was populated by people who overwhelmingly chose to be there. In moving to California, such folks were the very definition of American modernity, seeking out a futuristic good life in Lotus Land.

These migrants, McGirr writes, mixed with Orange County's "cultural traditions, its conservative regional elite, [and] its mode of development…[to provide] the ingredients from which the Right would create a movement. First, there were the 'old-timers,' the large ranchers and small farmers, merchants, shop owners, and middle-class townspeople who had embraced a strong individualism and strict moralism for many years. Added to this older conservatism were the southland's 'cowboy capitalists,' the new boom-time entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in the post-World War II era of affluence and spent their capital and their energy spreading the gospel of laissez-faire capitalism and an anti-Washington ethos. Together with ranchers-turned-property-developers, county boosters, and real estate speculators, they created a built world that affirmed the values of privacy, individualism, and property rights and weakened a sense of cohesive community, providing an opening for organizations, churches, and missionary zealots that could provide one."

McGirr notes the irony of an individualist, anti-state philosophy dominating a place whose prosperity was heavily dependent upon Washington and Big Government projects. Military bases and high-tech manufacturing for defense purposes were the linchpin of Orange County's economic growth in the 1950s and '60s. The bulk of Suburban Warriors is a walk through the big battles and shifting concerns of Orange County right-wingers up through the end of the '60s.

In her account, Orange County's conservatives first began to feel their oats in a 1961 fight over Joel Dvorman, an elected school board trustee with the Magnolia School District in Anaheim. Dvorman made the mistake of inviting to a backyard meeting a speaker who publicly advocated eliminating the House Un-American Activities Committee. Appalled right-wingers organized, got Dvorman and two liberal colleagues recalled from the school board, and installed their own candidates.

The new board, writes McGirr, began to send home "monthly bulletins with its more than 6,400 pupils that meshed fundamentalist religion and a hostility toward modern experimentalism with a call for conservative renewal." One such bulletin stressed that America "was, is and must always be a God-centered nation." Principals started to resign en masse. By 1964, the radical rightists had themselves been purged from the Magnolia School Board. (As McGirr reminds us, hard-right conservatives were never a majority, even in Orange County.)

Still, in the wake of that initial victory, many right-wing groups organized to spread the word about how imperiled our precious traditions were and how Washington was illegitimately encroaching on local and state governments; most also propagandized in favor of free markets. The new groups ranged from local chapters of the John Birch Society to homegrown organizations such as the California Committee to Combat Communism, the Orange County School of Anti-Communism, and the California Free Enterprise Association. Area businessmen such as Walter Knott, the boysenberry magnate whose theme park Knott's Berry Farm is still a Southland tourist attraction, helped lead the way with money and encouragement. Publisher R.C. Hoiles dedicated the county's biggest paper, the Register (now the Orange County Register), to the cause of liberty; he called his chain of papers the "Freedom Chain."

Local churches were also breeding grounds for right-wing thinking, particularly the many Baptist congregations and the Catholic parishes under Cardinal Francis McIntyre, whom McGirr calls "the most extreme right-wing member of the American Catholic hierarchy." The cardinal regularly hyped the John Birch Society in the archdiocese newsletter. Interestingly, the most fertile breeding ground for right-wing activism was the suburban coffee klatches. Simple personal proselytizing in living rooms and kitchens helped win many converts for conservative activism, particularly among the housewives who actually had the free time to organize, canvass, hold meetings, write letters, petition, and get out the vote.

With support from the churches, the press, and grassroots groups, Orange County conservatives won control of the California Republican Assembly, an unofficial statewide body of GOP activists. Once in power, they endorsed the conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater over moderate New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the 1964 California presidential primary. Goldwater won California, and thus the Republican presidential nomination. From a contemporary perspective, it might seem unremarkable that a steadfast right-winger would win the GOP nomination, but in 1964, it was roughly the equivalent of Jesse Jackson winning the Democratic nomination today. Goldwater, of course, went on to be drubbed with unprecedented severity by Lyndon Johnson in the general election.

But his network of supporters in Southern California didn't give up or go away after that crushing defeat. McGirr tells how, bloodied but unbowed, they rallied behind Ronald Reagan and propelled him into California's state house in 1966. By electing Reagan governor—thereby putting him on the path to the White House—Orange County's right-wingers played a key role in what ultimately became a national political shift.

By the time Reagan became governor, however, the concerns of Orange County's right-wingers were themselves shifting. Dirty hippies were running amok at Berkeley, sex education was in the schools, and pornography was on sale at the corner newsstand. Blacks were rioting in Watts and domestic law-and-order issues seemed more pressing than an imminent invasion by the Russkies (though there were still those who blamed the commies for all of America's problems). The coalition that defined grassroots activism in Orange County started breaking apart. The businessmen-types especially opted out. With one of their own running the state, and with increased conservative power in the GOP, they no longer saw grassroots education or activism as their main concern. Directly petitioning or greasing the wheels of power was more of an option. But even as the Orange County coalition fell apart, a version of its conservatism went national. By 1980, that California right-wing nut Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States.

As McGirr indicates, a fault line every bit as large and active as the San Andreas ran through the Orange County right. That fault line is more relevant than ever to the very broadly construed national coalition of libertarians and conservatives. It's the disjoint between the libertarian belief in unbridled freedom from a powerful state and the conservative belief in using state power to fight international communism or enforce traditional morality. The communism question is moribund; the morality question lives on and is a source of constant tension between libertarians and conservatives. Conservatives, for example, tend to crave state action to halt the availability of porn and "illicit" drugs; libertarians do not. A similar rift is growing over foreign and trade policy, too, with conservatives tending to favor military engagements (some are even calling to make China our adversary in a new Cold War) and withdrawing from commerce with "immoral" countries.

McGirr more or less sloughs over the importance of the libertarian-traditionalist splits in the coalition she writes about, noting that although they sometimes "looked at one another with discomfort and suspicion…libertarians and social conservatives shared enough grievances against their common enemy, the liberal Leviathan, to forge a political movement." (She does note that some Orange County anti-communists were annoyed at Hoiles' Register for taking a consistently libertarian line against waging war on the Soviets.) One wishes she might have looked more closely at the nascent tension between the two factions, especially since it is clearly an issue in today's politics.

Still, Suburban Warriors is a welcome addition to contemporary American history. It is the first long look at activists who have been woefully understudied, given their influence on the course of recent politics. It also helps show that the American pageant is far richer than we're usually told; the '60s, it turns out, were even more of a social and political cornucopia, a home to a wider range of anything-goes weirdness, than many ever acknowledged. Surely, it enhances our understanding of the period to recognize that even as the Yippies were trying to stop the Vietnam War by levitating the Pentagon, right-wing suburbanites in Orange County were girding themselves to fight the centuries-old Illuminati conspiracy.