Liberalism Overthrown


During the desultory final days of the race, his lead gone, Pat Brown remained uncomprehending. “Why, oh why, my friends,” he pleaded, “would you turn this state over to a man who has never fought before a city council or a board of supervisors?” At a night rally in San Bernardino, when the electricity failed, Brown said, “They can cut off the electricity, but they can’t shut up the greatest governor California has ever had.”

ON NOVEMBER 8, 1966, REA- gan beat Brown by almost a million votes. Four years earlier, when Brown had defeated Nixon, the former Vice President, in a spasm of indignation and anger, had lit into the journalists arrayed before him. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” Brown was determined to avoid repeating that fiasco. When the votes were finally tabulated, he went before his deflated supporters and thanked California “for giving me eight wonderful, marvelous years.” When he finished, his advisers suggested he leave through a rear exit. Instead the governor stepped down from the podium and plunged into the crowd of loyal supporters. Then he walked out to his limousine, climbed inside, and started to cry.

Sam Yorty had other plans that night. The maverick mayor had refused to endorse either candidate during the campaign, but as soon as Reagan’s victory was assured, he left little doubt about where his sympathies lay; he hurried over to the hotel where the victory celebration was under way and congratulated the governor-elect.

Individual communities also told the story that day. Norwalk was one of the many Democratic working-class suburbs that had sprouted in recent years along the Pacific coast, and on Election Day 1966 Norwalk was one of many Southern California Democratic communities that voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan.

Norwalk’s rejection of Pat Brown is, on one level, strange. Three out of four voters were registered Democrats, and residents had traditionally favored liberal government programs like Social Security and workmen’s compensation. And the government had done much to ensure the city’s economic well-being; many residents worked at nearby defense and aerospace plants, and the Metropolitan State Hospital employed fourteen hundred men and women.

Yet on another level Norwalk’s support for Reagan was not strange at all. The city had been conceived in a revolt against government. Like those of many nearby bedroom communities, Norwalk’s residents resented the Los Angeles board of supervisors; simple street repairs sometimes required weeks of fighting with the county bureaucracy. The people of Norwalk wanted to control their own affairs, and in 1957 they won a charter from the county and incorporated. By the mid-sixties their grievances with government had reached the boiling point: Taxes were too high, the welfare state seemed out of control, the fair housing law was raising fears of lower property values and higher crime rates (in 1966 only three black families lived in the town), and the counterculture, the new left, minorities, and liberals seemed to have dedicated themselves to the common purpose of flouting the values that Norwalk residents held dear. Government had become a remote institution out of touch with the needs of ordinary citizens.

WHY DID CALIFORNIANS revolt against liberalism? Most studies of the sixties suggest that liberalism and conservatism were two separate, isolated political movements whose paths did not cross until the end of the decade, when liberals were already in retreat. Most books on the politics of this decade focus on some aspect of the American left: the civil rights movement, the counterculture, the antiwar movement. Studies of liberalism, of which there are surprisingly few, tend to explain the demise of the New Deal coalition as the result of internal weaknesses: failure in Vietnam and the limitations of the Great Society reforms. The few detailed studies of modern conservatism (which only recently has been recognized as a serious political movement worthy of scholarly attention) similarly emphasize changes within the movement—the growing number of right-wing organizations, the repudiation of extremists, and conservatives’ use of social issues—to explain the right’s success.

THE governor was in a “political vise” between a growing left-wing movement and a conservative revival.

These accounts are important, but they don’t explain—at least not entirely- how conservatism replaced liberalism as the dominant force in American political life. It is true that student protests, urban riots, pornography, and antipathy to civil rights did much to discredit liberalism. Liberal Democrats, after all, were the party in power, and on their watch things seemed to fall apart.