When Losers Win

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the american Consensus, Rick Perlstein. Hill and Wang, 671 pages, $30.00.

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

The rise of the right has been a subject of fascination to writers on the left ever since they started taking it seriously--generally about five years after it sunk in that Ronald Reagan was president. By now, the tale has achieved canonical status through books like The Rise of the Counter-Establishment (1986) by Sidney Blumenthal and A World Turned Right Side Up (1996) by Godfrey Hodgson. (Both are pale imitations of George H. Nash's more sympathetic work The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945.) When told by liberals like Blumenthal, the story gives intellectuals the central role. By this standard account, it was when conservatives realized that "ideas have consequences" (a phrase coined by the southern reactionary Richard Weaver and later claimed by Jeanne Kirkpatrick as if it were an actual discovery) that the right finally displaced postwar-consensus liberalism.

In this history, conservatism triumphed when the grumpy midwestern businessmen who thought Franklin D. Roosevelt was a communist yielded to brainy expatriates, neoconservatives, and members of exotic fraternities like the Mont Pelerin Society, an Alpine refuge for free market economists. Over time and through the generous support of various foundations, these intellectuals became the more presentable characters who now occupy endowed chairs at major law schools and appear on the Fox News Network.

There is something vaguely self-serving about this retelling of the tale by intellectuals, about intellectuals. It justifies the argument to the left that if only we build the think tanks and media outlets, our day will come. That's all true, of course: Ideas do have consequences, and progressives need think tanks and publications. Or at the least, we need a clearer sense of our fundamental principles and a more aggressive way of bringing ideas into the public debate.

But we should also remember that ideas alone don't make a political movement; and they certainly don't win primaries. The Nobel Prize–winning scholar Friedrich Hayek never took over a local school board. The other half of the story of the rising right features brilliant, relentless, message-driven political organizing. From backyard parties in Orange County, California, to marathon battles for control of institutions like the Young Republicans, conservatives started in 1960 to wage a movement-building effort that quite possibly ranks as the most successful example of door-to-door organizing in the postwar era--traveling from lunatic fringe to the White House in 20 years.

This movement is the subject of two new retellings of the right's rise. Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm and Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors could be called "history from the bottom up," except for the fact that all the protagonists are affluent. The celebrities of the traditional account, like William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman, appear only briefly in these books, offering bad advice or writing bad speeches. In their place are angry midwestern businessmen, slightly deranged pamphleteers, indefatigable political tacticians, marginal evangelists, and distressed housewives.

Though he brought on his party's worst electoral defeat since 1912, Barry Goldwater nonetheless achieved something that has eluded many candidates since: He used a doomed-from-the-start presidential campaign to build a citizens' movement that outlasted the campaign. Ralph Nader pretended to be doing this in 2000, and various Democrats--from George McGovern to Jerry Brown to Bill Bradley--have more seriously attempted to do the same; but only Goldwater's crew pulled it off.

Before the Storm suggests that the formula for using a campaign to build a movement involves beginning long before the campaign kickoff, starting with small fights, and placing allies everywhere. A long-frustrated New York GOP operative named F. Clifton White convened a group that started thinking about a Goldwater candidacy years before Goldwater did, and created webs of supporters in key states that took the Republican establishment by surprise. In fact, it was a network that the candidate himself barely appreciated and was eager to replace with unsophisticated Arizona cronies--among them, a young lawyer named William H. Rehnquist, who helped craft Goldwater's tortured libertarian argument in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Perlstein shows the development of another aspect of the conservative crusade: the political use of morality and scandal. The right fueled its enthusiasm for Goldwater with tales of Lyndon B. Johnson's malfeasance, taking particular glee in LBJ aide Walter Jenkins's arrest for an attempted homosexual liaison with an undercover cop at the Dupont Circle YMCA. Although Goldwater's conservatism was of the purely libertarian variety--and many years later, he was the first notable conservative to speak out for gay rights--Perlstein says that the Goldwater campaign found its voice when the candidate began to talk about a decline in morality in American popular culture. The formula for conservative success--crime, race, sexual scandal, and attacking government--has remained virtually unchanged since.

Perlstein ends his story just after the confetti was swept up from election day in 1964 and leaves it to the reader to find the Goldwater campaign's connection to more recent events. One that may not be obvious is the way a Goldwater style is still being marketed today--by Goldwater's political heir, Senator John McCain. It usually surprises liberals who were rooting for McCain in last year's Republican primaries to learn that McCain inherited from "Mr. Conservative" more than just his Senate seat, his precise committee assignments, and much of his war-hero biography. He also holds the same positions on most issues as Goldwater did, and they have received virtually identical high ratings from the American Conservative Union over their careers. Even the one issue that puts McCain at odds with most conservative Republicans, campaign finance reform, came from Goldwater: In the mid-1980s, the counterpart to today's McCain-Feingold bill was called Boren-Goldwater. In Perlstein's book, Goldwater comes through as genuine, blunt, and sweetly guileless, much like McCain. Of Goldwater, Perlstein notes, "Almost alone among successful politicians, he took slights personally." The same has been said of McCain, whose hostility toward George W. Bush shows no sign of abating.

How is it, then, that Goldwater is still seen as an extremist, while McCain wears the mantle of moderation? It probably has less to do with either of them than with the nature of the Republican establishment, that powerful conformist force in American politics against which both rebelled. "The establishment can't stand having someone they can't control," Goldwater complained. In the central drama of Before the Storm, the establishment--represented by Governors Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, and William Scranton, along with Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.--schemes ineptly to stop Goldwater.

In 1964 the Republican establishment was moderate, old money, northeastern, and generally pro–civil rights. (Goldwater was one of only six Republicans to vote against the Civil Rights Act.) To challenge that establishment meant being on the side of conservatives, southern whites, and Sunbelt suburbs like Orange County, and being against civil rights. Thirty-five years later, reshaped by Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" and by Ronald Reagan, the establishment was conservative, new money, southern, and opposed to affirmative action, gay rights, and reproductive freedoms. To challenge the establishment now is to be on the side of the moderate voters in Michigan, New Hampshire, and New York who backed McCain over the establishment's choice. Thus, the very same figure can emerge at one moment on the party's right and later on its left. Senator Jim Jeffords's recent defection from a Senate seat that the GOP had held without interruption since shortly after the party was founded in 1854 marks the final move in the transfer of Republican power from the Northeast to Mississippi.

Unlike McCain, though, Goldwater wasn't very smart and he wasn't a particularly interesting person. Even he questioned whether he had the brains to be president, and he lacked Reagan's ability to take hold of a few broad principles and convey them with passion. In Perlstein's account, he comes across more like George W. Bush, relatively uncurious and governed by a few unquestioned conservative beliefs, principally that government never did a damn thing for him or his constituents. (The fact that they lived in an air-conditioned desert must have appeared just a happy accident or a tribute to their hardworking western spirit.)

A biography of Goldwater could not be anything but dull. Perlstein solves that problem brilliantly: His book is hardly about Goldwater at all. Characters like Scranton, Lodge, Clifton White, Indiana businessman Clarence Manion, and even several Democrats are as well developed as Goldwater himself. Before the Storm is really a series of riffs linked loosely by Perlstein's main story. Most of his asides work well and are interesting in themselves, such as a concise account of LBJ's venture into urban renewal and the beginnings of white backlash in the cities. Sometimes he tries too hard, though: A frame-by-frame recounting of the plot of Dr. Strangelove is a waste of three pages unless you've never seen the movie, and it fails to support Perlstein's odd claim that it was director Stanley Kubrick--rather than, say, the Cuban missile crisis--that changed America's attitude toward nuclear weapons from fascination to fear and therefore made Goldwater's apparent indifference to the tactical use of nuclear weapons suddenly shocking.

There is much in Perlstein's book that seems intended to earn the jacket blurb "reads like a novel." And so it does, but not really like a novel with a central protagonist and a single plot. It's more like John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy or one of James Ellroy's novels set in the 1960s. It conveys a sense of atmosphere, lingo, and white men in thin ties smoking Tareytons. Dozens of characters, some important and others forgotten, weave in and out of one another's lives and make history.

Where Before the Storm uses one moment in time as a lens on the whole conservative movement, Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors takes a single place for the whole. Orange County, California, is where--as one of her sources puts it--the "remnant" of the Goldwater movement was transformed into the state and national majority of the Reagan movement. It is where the emergence of the military-industrial complex, the dislocations and anxieties of suburban life, the newfound mobility of American families, and the periodic rise of conservative evangelical Protestantism all came together.

McGirr's book is built around a gem of original research: interviews with two dozen fairly ordinary political activists, most of whom did not start out that way. It is less concerned with the strategists, thinkers, and politicians who moved public opinion than with those who were moved. For students as well as housewives in the early 1960s, becoming "politicized" almost always meant going right, not left. For some new activists, it was a fight to unseat a school board member who was active in the American Civil Liberties Union; for others, a battle to defeat a fair-housing law; and for many, the Goldwater campaign itself.

Most of McGirr's informants are people who believe they would never have stepped out of their private lives were it not for some shock that jolted them into seeing the threat of big government, secular education, or one-worldism. Few of the men and women McGirr interviewed were born in California. Most are from the Midwest, and they do not come from particularly political or Republican families, although one woman's mother forbade her from dating until she had read Whittaker Chambers's book Witness. (Was this a political statement or a creative-abstinence program?) Although they became mobile by choice and by affluence, there is a sense in which these families were driven to action by their dislocation into a new kind of community held together by shared economic interest and not by the gentler ties of extended families and racially homogeneous but economically diverse towns. The Orange County activists sought--and found in politics--forces that might explain the disruptions and dislocations in their own lives.

McGirr notes that the conservative movement was actually helped in the early 1960s by its failures. The national Republican Party was still guided by the relative moderation of the Eisenhower years; the right's earlier national figureheads, Senators Joseph McCarthy and Robert A. Taft, were dead. This forced the activist right to build movements from the ground up, working at the state and local level. It also forced them to do something that Taft and McCarthy, who concentrated on big, abstract threats, had never done: create a narrative that helped citizens connect everyday issues to broader political questions. McGirr shows how the right in Orange County linked the role of government and the threat of communism with growing concern about schools, integrated housing, and crime in order to reach angry citizens who hadn't considered themselves interested in politics.

McGirr's book is academic compared with Perlstein's, but it is well written and authoritative, enriched by the voices of the Orange County conservatives she interviewed and by deep archival research. It is most valuable as a study of the social and psychological forces that lead individuals to become politicized; many of these forces apply to any form of political action.

Both books challenge the idea, as proclaimed by the "vital center" intellectuals of the time, that the early 1960s was a period of ideological consensus. McGirr challenges historian Richard Hofstadter's thesis that the conservative movement was a paranoid response among those losing status in a changing society. She and Perlstein prove that it was the right-wing movement and its reaction to the first stirrings of racial equality and campus free speech that broke the illusion of consensus--not the left-wing activism that came later in the 1960s and gave the decade its unforgettable images.

Together, their history of the right should be a profound reminder that it is persistent and aggressive citizen-organizing that makes the difference between ideas that have consequences and those that are just ideas.

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