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Reviews in American History 30.2 (2002) 322-332

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Rescuing the Right

Heather Thompson

Lisa McGirr. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. ix + 395 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).

A full decade ago, historian Michael Kazin lamented what he saw as an overwhelming tendency among scholars to ignore the study of America's conservative elements in favor of chronicling how those with a more progressive vision of the future struggled to make their mark in society and politics. As Kazin put it, "the only conflict that counted, it seemed, was the one between corporate liberals and the grass roots champions of social equality and economic democracy." 1 But, according to this respected academic, a new day was finally dawning. Historians were beginning to take grass-roots conservative activism seriously, generating works on the Right as sensitive to "cultural fabric and community context" as any of "the studies of republican artisans and assertive wage earning women that continue to roll off academic presses. 2

Not everyone, however, shared Kazin's opinion that the American Right was well on its way to getting the scholarly attention that it deserved. Indeed, a full two years after Kazin's piece appeared in the American Historical Review, historian Alan Brinkley still felt compelled to address what he called the "problem of American conservatism" in that same journal. According to Brinkley, historians continued to face the difficulty "of finding a suitable place for the Right . . . within our historiographical concerns" and he hoped to begin a discussion about why this was the case. 3 Responding with some irritation to Brinkley's assertion that the Right was not being taken very seriously in the academy, as well as to his particular views on why this was allegedly so, historian Leo Ribuffo referenced numerous books on the Right which indicated not only that the study of American conservatism was alive and well, but that it had been so for quite some time. 4 But even Ribuffo seemed unsure whether scholars yet saw the Right as a political player equal to the Left or the Center in the United States. In fact, in his response to Brinkley, Ribuffo thought it prudent to remark that "the 'sixties' was not a radical era but a polarized era. Movements to expand the welfare state, end the Vietnam War, foster secularization, legalize abortion, and secure equal [End Page 322] rights for blacks, women, and gays produced opposite and, for a time, at least equal reactions." 5 Apparently, while it was not necessarily true that nothing worthwhile had been written about the Right, it was still true that conservatism had not made it into the larger historical narrative of how American politics evolved. Either not enough historians had yet engaged in the process of "rescuing" the Right, or too many of them still refused to accept the fact that conservatives, liberals, and leftists were equally seriousabout securing power as the twentieth century unfolded.

In 2001, Princeton published a book about American conservatism that quickly captured the attention and respect not only of academia, but also of a lay audience. Unlike studies of the Right before it, this richly researched book managed to speak to an ordinary citizen's curiosity about the dramatic rise to power of the Reagan Right, and also to "solve" the "problem of American conservatism" as historian Brinkley had framed it. Within six months of its publication, periodicals as diverse as The New Republic, The Nation, and The Boston Review, had each given Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right highly favorable reviews. 6 And even though reviewers often assessed McGirr's book in concert with, or in comparison to, an assortment of other new books on the Right, they repeatedly singled out Suburban Warriors for praise. 7 Rightfully so. In the ten years since Michael Kazin had opined that "much spadework into the grass-roots Right remains to be done," Lisa McGirr has managed to dig deeper into, and uncover more about, American conservatism than...


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