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Journal of Policy History 14.3 (2002) 331-339

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A History of the Conservative Movement from the Bottom Up

Lisa McGirr

I was pleased to learn that William Rusher seems to have liked Suburban Warriors. As a prominent figure in the conservative movement throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (and chronicler of the movement), he was engaged with some of the events described in the book. I appreciate his praise of my book as a major work of social history and his effort to situate my work within the historiography (or, as he rightly emphasizes, until recently, lack thereof) on American conservatism. I also appreciate Rusher's appraisal of the book as "fair and judicious." It has been gratifying that since its publication the book has received praise not only from reviewers of liberal and left persuasion but from individuals—like Rusher—whose personal politics differ starkly from mine. I take this as a strong sign that I have gotten the story of conservatism's ascendance right.

As Rusher notes, Suburban Warriors uses the case of Orange County to tell the story of the postwar conservative "revolution"—highlighting the county's pivotal role in the making of the new American Right. Rusher seems to agree with the stages of movement progression I chart—from the movement's early mobilization as a marginal force tagged as extremist in the early 1960s to the movement's emergence as a viable electoral contender in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As important, he seems to embrace my analysis of the blossoming Western and Sunbelt grounding of the modern grass-roots conservative movement. In his review, he has nicely laid out some of the major points my book makes, so I do not need to reiterate them here. As a result, my response is foremost one of appreciation for the careful reading the book received in his hands.

Still, in Rusher's spirit of productive engagement and critique, I would like to take issue with him on a number of grounds. Before doing so, however, let me comment upon Rusher's evaluation of why historians have, until recently, neglected the Right. There is more [End Page 331] than a grain of truth to Rusher's observation that historians' liberal inclinations have to some extent blinded them from studying right-wing movements. This is not, as Rusher contends, because liberal historians have perceived the Right's rise as a "painful episode" but for different reasons. First, as Michael Kazin pointed out some years ago, social historians have been averse to "research projects about past movements that seem to them either bastions of a crumbling status quo or the domain of puritanical, pathological yahoos." 1 But there is also a more fundamental factor that helps explain the neglect of the history of the conservative movement. As Rusher acknowledges, historians have only recently gained sufficient distance from the events of the last half of the twentieth century to place them in proper perspective. It is not too surprising that for the generation of historians who lived through the 1960s, it was difficult to see the Goldwater movement as anything other than the massive defeat it appeared to be to many contemporaries. Added to this, the psychological paradigm then in vogue to explain right-wing adherents, which treated conservatism as a kind of clinical disturbance, did nothing to encourage scholars to take the Right seriously as a social and political movement. It was only the Right's triumph in the national arena in 1980 that prompted a reevaluation of this dismissive assessment of the conservative movement.

While left and liberal social movements have, as a result of such inclinations, received more attention—it is not quite as late in the day, as Rusher contends, for conservatism to receive the attention it deserves. As Alan Brinkley astutely noted, in the twentieth century at least, American conservatism has been "relatively late in developing as a major intellectual or political force." 2 Moreover, since the historiography on the post-World War II period and, especially, on the history of...


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