Development of Conservatism in the United States

According to Lisa McGirr, why did conservatism emerge as a powerful political force from the late 1960s through the early 1980s? Do you agree with her assessment? If so, why? If not, why not? In your analysis, did conservatives win the national political debate or did liberals lose it? The autonomous definition of conservatism defines the concept as “an autonomous system of ideas…defined in terms of universal values” (Huntington, 1957, p. 455). This system of ideas is generally considered to be valid and applicable to any group of individuals who hold such a system of ideas.

In this sense, in order to be considered a conservative it is a necessary and sufficient condition that an individual holds conservative beliefs. As opposed to this, the situational definition of conservatism defines the concept as an “ideology arising out of a distinct but recurring type of historical situation in which a fundamental challenge is directed at established institutions and in which the supporters…employ the conservative ideology in their defense” (Huntington, 1957, p. 455).

In this sense, in order to be considered a conservative it is a necessary condition that an individual use the tenets of conservatism as a means of ensuring the continuation of a particular social order. It is important to note that the situational definition of conservatism is dependent upon the autonomous definition of conservatism since the later is reliant upon the universalizability of the beliefs and values which are a part of the conservative ideology hence one might state that conservative politics involves the belief as well as the practice of conservatism.

In line with this, Lisa McGirr in her book Suburban Warriors argues that the rise of conservatism as well conservative politics during the later part of the twentieth century [specifically between 1960 and 1980] may be traced to the movement’s ability to accommodate the changes within the United States during that period. She states, Post-World War II American conservatism…explodes as an easy dichotomy between tradition and modernity…its strange mixture of traditionalism and modernism, a combination that suggests the adaptability, resilience, and thus perhaps, intractability of the Right in American life.

(McGirr, 2002, p. 8) The rise of conservatism as a political movement, according to McGirr, can be traced to its ability to provide a meeting point between the two seemingly opposing viewpoints within the country. It is important to contextualize this claim by presenting an overview of the occurrences during this period in the United States. McGirr argues that the rise of modern conservatism can be traced to Orange Country, California.

She notes that the appeal of conservatism to the members of Orange Country may be traced to “the constellation of conservative concerns over the United Nations, communism, liberal schooling…(which) were powerful symbols over which they fought for the dominance of a vision of a free and just society” (McGirr, 2002, p. 148). To be more specific, McGirr traces this adherence to modern conservatism to four factors, these being Christina evangecalism, in-migration of middle-class Midwesterners, Bible Belt conservatism, and the growth of high tech defense industries.

She states that this “strong emphasis on private development and growth with little regard for public and community spaces” has led the members of the population to adhere to the tenets of conservatism (McGirr, 2002, p. 40). In addition to this, she notes that it is exactly from these conditions that the conservative “warriors” gained there advantage after 1964. She states, “they won adherents…because they failed to account for the material causes for the social breakdown…(caused by) the free market and the deep class divisions it generated” (McGirr, 2002, p. 257).

In this sense, the development as well as growth of modern conservatism during this period may be traced to its ability to adapt to the changes which occurred within American society during the post-World War II period. One might state that given the rise of the number of adherents to modern conservatism, the political debate during this period [especially regarding the case of the State’s regulation of abortion] was won by the conservatives however it is important to note that there was no consensus amongst the members of the movement regarding the issues within the political debate.

For the case of abortion, Sullivan noted that “the conservatives…weren’t (initially) looking at that as a big political issue” (qtd in McGirr, 2002, p. 235). In addition to this, McGirr argues that when they considered it a political issue, “not all agreed on the role the state should play” (2002, p. 235). The reason for this mainly lies on their choice to consider the debate regarding abortion as lying outside the political sphere.

The appeal of the movement may thereby be traced to its choice to overlook the issues within the political sphere that may in a sense disrupt the ideals of individuals within a changing world. In summary, the development of modern conservatism between the period of the 1960’s and 1980’s in America may be seen as taking the form of situational conservatism wherein individuals [specifically those within the Orange Country] chose to employ the conservative ideology in order to defend their vision of a free and just society.

As I see it, however, although McGirr was able to consider the effects of the post World War II as the result of modern conservatism, McGirr failed to fully take into account the effects of racial inequality in the rise of the conservative politics during the period [e. g. the significance of the white backlash in the growth of modern conservatism].


Huntington, S. (1957). Conservatism as an Ideology. American Political Science Review 51. 2, 454-473. McGirr, L. (2002). Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton: Princeton U. P.