Kurt Schuparra. Triumph of the Right: The Rise of the California Conservative Movement, 1945-1966. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 1998. xxiv + 221 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7656-0277-0.
Reviewed by Thomas R. Wellock (Department of History, Central Washington University)
Published on H-Pol (September, 1999)
Paranoid No More
In 1994, historian Alan Brinkley lamented that "twentieth-century American conservatism has been something of an orphan in historical scholarship." Culturally cosmopolitan and politically liberal scholars of modern America, he alleged, included right wing movements in their histories only for a ritual condemnation as evil or paranoid groups rather than as subjects of legitimate study. Such is no longer the case. Publications abound that take conservative movements and their ideas seriously.
A welcome and important addition to the scholarship on conservatism is Kurt Schuparra's Triumph of the Right: The Rise of the California Conservative Movement, 1945-1966. Part of M.E. Sharpe's series The Right Wing in America, Schuparra's highly readable, thoroughly researched study traces the emergence of a powerful ultraconservative network that brought Ronald Reagan to power in Sacramento after years of defeat and disarray in California's historically moderate political climate.
Organized chronologically around California gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections between 1958 and 1966, Triumph of the Right focuses on the political campaigns in Southern California, particularly in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, where a discernible conservative movement began to coalesce in 1957. Despite repeated defeats at the ballot box, the GOP right wing rapidly took control of the state party in time for Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential primary campaign.
Refuting a generation of scholars such as Richard Hofstader, Seymour Martin Lipsett, and Daniel Bell, which viewed the right wing as a lunatic fringe, Schuparra argues that such a description only applies to a fraction of the conservatives he studied, such as members of the John Birch Society. Ultraconservative positions such as anticommunism and opposition to New Deal statism were popular among most party loyalists. "Though the ultraconservatives occasionally alienated the temperate right-wingers (and vice versa), they forged a formidable movement and eventually found the right candidates to achieve the significant electoral victories they had long sought . . . . This movement helped turn public opinion rightward . . . creating a conservative era that arguably still prevails" (xxiv). Thus, Schuparra concludes, most ultraconservative opinions were in fact mainstream.
Contemporary observers of the 1950s saw not the seething resentment of those on the political margins, but relative calm and an end to ideology in politics in general. As the GOP fielded moderate candidates such as three-term governor Earl Warren and Dwight Eisenhower, right wingers bridled at efforts to remake the GOP into the "party of progress" led by "Modern Republicans" (24-26). Warren's compulsory health insurance proposal and initial opposition to anticommunist loyalty oaths was proof enough to ultraconservatives that the GOP was flirting with socialism. Unable to directly challenge these two immensely popular politicians, however, the ultraconservative faction, as one reporter observed, spent most of the fifties, "patiently biding its time"(25).
With Warren's elevation to the Supreme Court, the right had a chance to put one of their own in office. The 1958 gubernatorial election offered a stark lesson for California Republicans in the possibilities and limitations of their rightward drift. The campaign of Senate Minority Leader William Knowland, and a "right-to-work" voter initiative, Schuparra argues, "gave many conservatives their initial sense of unity and mission, thus providing the spark for ensuing political activism" (28). Working together for the first time were Southland financial business interests who would be critical to the success of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. The price the GOP paid for courting ultraconservatives, however, became clear on election day. Knowland's ideologically-charged campaign slogan "Freedom v. Tyranny" was popular with party regulars, but it exposed him to charges of anticommunist extremism that Democratic candidate Edmund "Pat" Brown readily exploited.
Knowland's defeat did not discourage ultraconservatives who continued to consolidate their control of the GOP in Southern California. Orange County was isolated from the strife of Los Angeles' minority communities with a long tradition of white-only homeowner associations and heavy employment in the defense industry, and the largely white middle-class residents of Orange County were receptive to the conservative message regarding the sanctity of private property and rugged individualism. Schuparra is particularly effective in his portrayal of the political personalities that emerged from the rabidly anticommunist, antigovernment communities of the Orange Empire. The county was a fascinating mixture of libertarians and traditional conservatives. By the early sixties, a well- established coalition of business interests, grassroots organizers, and politicians stood ready to work with messianic fervor for conservative candidates. At the local level, ultraconservatives succeeded in sending to Congress anti-communist and openly racist politicians such as James Utt and John Schmitz, and eventually set their sights on statewide elections.
Perhaps the most revealing chapter in Triumph of the Right as to the extent of this right wing shift in California details Richard Nixon's ill-fated run for the California governorship in 1962. Despite his impeccable anticommunist credentials, the former Vice-President had trouble warding off the challenge of a political unknown, the ultraconservative state assemblyman Joe Shell. Fearing Nixon's links to Eisenhower's Modern Republicanism, conservatives refused to support Nixon. Having sabotaged Nixon's candidacy by splitting the party, the right would turn to a more ideologically inspirational, if unelectable, candidate in the 1964 presidential race.
The significance of Barry Goldwater's run for the White House, Schuparra argues, lay not in its right-wing excesses, as Richard Hofstadter purported, but as a transitional election in the conservatives' rise to power. For the GOP, Goldwater's primary victory over Nelson Rockefeller was the final triumph of ultraconservatives over California moderates. Moderation on the issues was also cast aside. Goldwater ran on a 1920s platform of limited government--voluntary Social Security and championing states' rights--and the Western myth of rugged individualism. Such themes did not help Goldwater overcome his extremist label. But the ideals of individualism and limiting federal power were popular among the white middle-class and held out promise for future GOP candidates in exploiting racial divisions. The senator demonstrated the possibilities of this strategy in his efforts to woo white voters through racially charged, but not overtly racist, issues, such as crime and welfare. In condemning welfare for turning recipients into "dependent animal creature[s,]" Goldwater drove a wedge between the boot-strap ideology of the middle-class and what whites supposed was a minority culture of dependency, without any mention of race (89). The Arizona senator's extremist image, particularly his loose talk regarding the use of atomic weapons, undercut his successful exploitation of racial divisions. Goldwater's landslide defeat was also significant because it finally put an end to the right's demand for ideological purity within the party.
A rightward public shift in the wake of campus unrest, the Rumford Fair Housing Act, and the Watts riots offered Republicans an opportunity for victory, if they could avoid past schisms. The California right-wing turned to the ideologically conservative but rhetorically moderate candidacy of Ronald Reagan. "California moved to the right," Schuparra notes, "prodded by events and Reagan's message, unique abilities, and appeal" (144). Much like his later campaign for the presidency, Reagan's amiability allowed him to convey the conservative message free of the taint of extremism that marred Goldwater. "Reagan, in his avuncular way, demonstrated that the politics of race could be highly effective in attacking 'Big Government' outside the South" (146). Like Goldwater, Reagan did not speak directly to racial issues, but to the sanctity of property rights and the dangers of crime and a welfare culture. Reagan successfully painted the Democrats as the party of extremism that tolerated "beatniks, taxes, riots, crime" and the passage of the "Rumford Forced Housing Act" (138-139). Pat Brown's efforts to link Reagan to the John Birch Society, by contrast, were less persuasive as memories of McCarthyism waned. The book ends with Reagan's overwhelming victory in 1966.
Despite the overall quality of the book, there are two weaknesses. While Schuparra effectively discredits the Hofstadter "paranoid style" scholarship, he is revisiting a dated controversy. As Leo Ribuffo, one of the leading interpreters of modern conservatism, argued several years ago, "Daniel Bell, Richard Hofstadter, and Seymour Martin Lipsett were wrong about the Right in ways that have been documented for twenty-five years." Triumph of the Rightis a more effective book when when it addresses recent scholarship. Schuparra needs to do this more consistently and often.
Schuparra ought to be more skeptical in his discussion of race and the conservative movement. Schuparra's commendable effort to treat the subjects of his study with an even hand shades over into a face-value acceptance of their motivations. He admits that "Goldwater and Reagan in the mid-1960s provided a lasting cloak of conservative legitimacy for positions on social issues that often served, on one level or another, discriminatory interests" (146). But Schuparra absolves Goldwater, in particular, of personal guilt by citing the senator's oft claimed stand in favor of states' rights (95). Goldwater's actions and words, however, indicate that his was a practical rather than a principled decision. Goldwater was a believer in both civil rights and state's rights, but made a political calculation to disregard the former principle in favor of the latter to win votes among whites. The Arizona senator told supporters in Atlanta that the GOP was "not going to get the Negro vote . . . so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are." Nor can Goldwater's aversion to federal power explain the defeat of an anti-extremism plank by his supporters at the GOP national convention that would have condemned the Ku Klux Klan. Schuparra needs to be a little less willing to accept political propaganda as personal conviction.
Nevertheless, Triumph of the Right is an engaging and important piece of scholarship that locates, in part, the origins of the New Right in the affluent suburbs of Los Angeles. In this regard, his work challenges the contention of historian Dan Carter that it was George Wallace who was "the alchemist of the new social conservatism . . . as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution that reshaped American politics in the 1970s and 1980s." Schuparra's study suggests that Ronald Reagan needed no instruction from the Alabama governor on how to take advantage of racial divisions with appeals to the right of private property and the need for community control, law and order, and cultural conformity. The inspiration of Reagan's message came from his own abilities, local circumstances and regional influences rather than the alien, rougher style of Wallace's Southern resentment. Reagan's "feel good encapsulations of the politics of resentment . . . enabled him to capitalize on those resentments with a greater number of voters than the abrasive Wallace could ever hope to win over" (151). As Schuparra suggests, the genealogy of modern conservative politics is more complicated than the "Southernization of America" thesis implies.
The fascinating history of conservative politics in Southern California that Schuparra details offers up a different branch of the conservative family tree, and it was much more successful in presidential politics than its Southern cousin. "Learning from earlier electoral disasters, Reagan's initial political backers believed that he alone possessed the requisite attributes as a candidate that would enable him to transcend his liabilities and enable him to remove the stigma of extremism from conservative Republican philosophy--first in California and then throughout the nation. Indeed, Reagan's political career attests to the sagacity, if not certitude, of that judgment" (144).
This book is highly recommended to students of conservatism, recent American politics, California, and the west.
. Alan Brinkley, "The Problem of American Conservatism," American Historical Review 99 (April 1994), 409; Michael Kazin, "The Grass Roots Right: New Histories of U.S. Conservatism in the Twentieth Century," American Historical Review 97 (February 1992), 136.
. Leo P. Ribuffo, "Why is there so Much Conservatism in the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything about It?", American Historical Review, 99 (April 1999), 439.
. Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995), 218.
. Ibid., 11, 12.
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Thomas R. Wellock. Review of Schuparra., Kurt, Triumph of the Right: The Rise of the California Conservative Movement, 1945-1966.
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