Why the Right Wins
June 1, 2001
Jun 1, 2001
9 Min read time
Two new books tell compatible tales of two smallish groupings that made history move.
Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus
Hill and Wang, $30 (cloth)
Little groups make big history, though, as Marx suggested, not just as they please. Neither Jesus’s apostles nor the American Revolutionaries nor the French Jacobins nor Lenin’s Bolsheviks nor Hitler’s Nazis accomplished what they did by sheer force of talent or will, and one could easily imagine circumstances in which each group would have flopped. Then too, one can think of millions of failed groupuscules—Trotsky’s, for example, or the Russian military plotters of 1991, or Marx’s own grandly named Communist International.
Still, it remains true that over and over again in history there appear small but identifiable groups possessed of intense convictions about unpopular ideas, groups that collect larger and more effective associations around them, spawn movements that ride larger currents, hang on for dear life in unpropitious moments, and eventually—often decades after they started out—rise to power. Conspiracy theories thrive partly because crackpots are ever eager to give history the gloss of rationality, but also because, perversely, the theories capture the correct intuition that small groups can produce huge consequences.
The two books under review—both thorough, both readable, and both important—tell compatible tales of two smallish groupings that made history move. Lisa McGirr, an assistant professor of history at Harvard, writes of the Orange County zealots, John Birchers, evangelicals, and anti-tax libertarians who were pivotal in the far-right seizure of the California Republican Party in 1964. That takeover enabled Barry Goldwater’s race for the presidency that year and culminated in Ronald Reagan’s election as governor in 1966—which set the stage for Reagan’s eventual presidential success and the rightward shifts in American political culture that followed. Rick Perlstein, a journalist, writes principally of the campaign to draft Goldwater, an unenthusiastic Westerner, as the 1964 Republican nominee, and pit him against Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election. Goldwater lost by an enormous margin, but his defeat prefigured a Southern Strategy that turned the Republican Party into a born-again successor to the Confederacy. Between them, McGirr and Perlstein, writing three decades deep into history, offer much background on the remarkable fact of contemporary politics: most of our major political institutions (the White House, the House, the Supreme Court, and until Sen. Jeffords’s conversion the Senate) are today owned by the right, although, issue by issue, the causes of the right are unpopular.
Perlstein has a nose for pungent detail. It is hard to imagine that he has missed any interesting or delicious fact about Goldwater or his circle of devotees. (Among my favorites: When Strom Thurmond broke the filibuster record during the 1957 civil rights debate, Goldwater, who had begun his political career hiring a black woman and, as a city councilman, helped end legal segregation in Phoenix schools, spelled him for bathroom breaks.) Perlstein is scrupulously fair, noting how Daniel Schorr of CBS got off a cheap (and inaccurate) shot on the verge of the Republican convention with a claim that Goldwater was planning to start his campaign in Bavaria—when what the senator had planned was a vacation.
Where Perlstein’s account is spunky and rollicking, McGirr’s is sometimes plodding and repetitive. But McGirr is enlightening, offering much solid research on the devoted berserkers who seized the Republican Party in 1964 to foist Goldwater on an unwelcoming nation, only to roar back with a warmer-and-fuzzier version of Goldwater named Ronald Reagan in 1966. Having tracked down and interviewed some twenty surviving right-wingers and rummaged through many archives, McGirr has uncovered something important about the activists of the right. Some of the best social scientists (Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset) and journalists (Richard Rovere) of the day saw the Orange County legions as losers, driven into reaction by a sense that the world was passing them by. Historian Richard Hofstadter joked that politics provided conservatives with “a kind of vocational therapy, without which they might have to be committed.”
McGirr discovered that the righteous legions were not losers at all. Far from being uprooted, unnerved Midwestern reactionaries, they were the children of thriving new industrial parks. Not anti-modernist insecurity but suburban prosperity fueled their rage at Communists, one-worlders, and secular humanists. In their personal lives, they were winners. Many had well-established jobs in the military-industrial complex. In the 1950s and ‘60s, manufacturing was booming, 40 percent of all manufacturing employment was electronics, and much of the work was military-related. Orange County was a prime beneficiary of Cold War largesse, and the enemy in Washington was their prime economic supplier. They were not strong on irony.
• • •
Suburban Warriors shows how activists of the John Birch Society, the Christian Anticommunist Crusade, and many other such groups fumed against the New Deal and wimpy, crypto-Communist softness in Washington not because they were victims of liberalism but because they were beneficiaries with moral passion to spare.One of the fast-growing counties in America, Orange County in the 1950s was a paradise of homeowners, “a developer’s dream come true.” The activists went home from their military-industrial compounds with organizational skills. One right-wing activist was the secretary to the commander in charge of Douglas Aircraft’s air force office; her comrades were aerospace engineers, technical writers, doctors, dentists, military officers, and army wives. For them, success was not a vague dream, but a life story. No hairy-palmed subliterates, they read books like William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale and W. Cleon Skousen’s The Naked Communist. They reveled in American dreams, felt entitled to American comforts, and it was precisely because of their entitlements that they feared enemies at their gates. In Orange County and other Sunbelt boom zones, they found fundamentalist ministers, anti-Communist lecturers (not least, movie stars), and bookshops to steel their nerves, grace their platforms, and stoke their apocalyptic imaginations.
They were crystal-clear, these organizers of the last third of twentieth-century America. Their programs might have been vague, or self-contradictory, or factually challenged, but their passion was fierce. Even before the backlash from civil rights and antiwar movements, the counterculture, and feminism gave them national resonance, they knew what they wanted—a rollback of Communism and a shrinking of the welfare state. They were, in a word I mean neutrally, fanatic. They opened their homes for meetings, showed movies, knocked on doors, passed around petitions. They used bridge clubs, coffee klatches, and barbecues. They flocked to meetings on minor matters so that, after years of work, they might—to take one example—eventually choose a school superintendent who in 1963 declared the United Nations a topic unfit for classroom discussion.
Confident in their cause, they didn’t mourn when they lost—they simply redoubled their efforts. As Perlstein points out, more than one million people donated money, mostly in small sums, to the Goldwater campaign. Of course, Orange County conservatives and the draft-Goldwater movement also got financial infusions from right-wing businessmen like Walter Knott (of the eponymous Berry Farm) and Carl Karcher (of Carl’s, Jr. hamburgers). The progress of right-wing organizing—from the self-motivating avatars of a “Christian Republic” in the 1950s to the Goldwaterites to the Christian Right activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s (many of whom are still working with their successors in current politics)—seems clear enough in retrospect. Yet it went largely undetected by smug pundits and wishful liberals, who celebrated a rock-solid “American consensus” and ignorantly dismissed critics as anxious losers, “no better organized than [Goldwater’s] own mind,” in the words of one commentator quoted by Perlstein.
They were disciplined, these young conservatives. Ideologically, they felt no ambivalence about authority. In 1960, Goldwater told a youth group that was promoting him for vice-president, “Turn your group into a permanent organization of young conservatives.” Wrote sponsor William F. Buckley Jr. about the founding meeting of Young Americans for Freedom that he hosted at his Sharon, Conn., estate in 1961: “What was so striking in the students who met at Sharon is their appetite for power.” F. Clifton White, who dreamed up Goldwater’s grassroots campaign, learned his organizing tactics fighting Communists in the American Veterans Committee after World War II. He put together “cells”—a tactic he later deployed in taking over the Republican Party and converting the irregulars of Citizens for Goldwater-Miller into a fighting force that would thrive beyond the election day defeat.
They were, above all, practical. They rarely had pipe dreams of deliverance by third parties. (Perlstein does describe the short-lived attempt to team up Goldwater and the racist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus in a conservative ticket for the 1960 election, but neither one took the bait—to the great benefit of the right, as it turned out, as their eventual takeover of the Republicans proved immensely more successful than a third party bolt.) The right did not mistake intellectuals or political operatives for masses. Even after the Goldwater debacle, no less a fanatic than Walter Knott was able to say, “I’m not a fanatical Republican. It’s not party that’s the main thing … although I think that you have to work through a party…. [I]f you don’t, you would be pretty ineffective.”
Fanatical, disciplined, practical—a bright line runs from the Orange County coffeeklatchers of the 1950s to the YAFers of the ‘60s to the heartland evangelicals of the ‘70s to the Reaganites of the ‘80s, all the way down to the Republican squads gathered in Florida at the behest of the Bush family to organize stormy demonstrations at recounting offices. After years of ground-level work, the Republicans had placed legions of fact-makers on the ground—the Florida governor, the secretary of state, the legislature, all ready to roll up their sleeves in any contingency. If they were not enough, in the end, the 2000 election came down to a Supreme Court majority under a chief justice who as a Goldwater speechwriter in 1964 denounced those who would “compel children to attend certain schools for the sake of so-called integration.”
For now, California has left behind McGirr’s suburban warriors, former Governor Pete Wilson having lost his bid to turn their xenophobia into the base of a new political majority. Latino immigration trumped race hatred. But equivalent activists remain at work in Cobb County, Ga. (Newt Gingrich’s old stomping ground), Scottsdale, Ariz., and Colorado Springs. They were the infrastructure, if not the money, for the anti-Clinton mobilization that began by the time he moved into the White House in 1993 and never let up for eight years. Aided by scurrilous politicians, focused foundations, and the useful idiocy of the pundit class, they ran rings around the opposition in Washington.
And the left? Though the 1960s are often regarded as a high-point for left-wing activism in the United States, these books make clear that for much of the decade the ranks of the right were growing just as quickly as the left, and forming more lasting organizations. Perlstein notes that Young Americans for Freedom had 5,400 members in the summer of 1964, compared to some 1,500 in Students for a Democratic Society. Most of SDS, like the rest of the left, was sloppy about anything so practical as membership lists. From the 1960s down to the present day, the left hardly has been obsessed by the “appetite for power””
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June 01, 2001
9 Min read time