You Can't Go Home Again

Something is not right in Orange County, though at first it's hard to see. In the morning, women with tight ponytails and yoga pants still walk briskly up the Southern California canyons. In the afternoon, high-school girls still fly through the Fashion Island shopping mall clutching lattes and their parents' credit cards. The smiling faces that fill the bars and restaurants in the beach towns at night are still almost exclusively white.

And, still, this string of suburbs south of Los Angeles, a birthplace of the modern conservative movement, is unmistakably Republican. On its front page, The Orange County Register announces a new arrival, John Yoo, distinguished visiting professor at Chapman University's School of Law. In blue enclaves, Yoo is reviled for his advocacy of torture during his time in the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel. At Berkeley, where he previously taught law, he clashed with "hippies, protesters and left-wing activists," he says. Orange County is different. Yoo loves the lifestyle, a "total change of pace."

But the Register itself, the nation's premier clearinghouse for Western conservative thinking, is losing money and readers. Cruising through the county on a summer Sunday last year, Barack Obama picked up a cool $1.2 million. In November, a place that fancies itself "the reddest county in America" gave the Democratic nominee for president nearly 48 percent of the vote.

At his law firm in an office park near John Wayne Airport, county Republican chairman Scott Baugh is unconcerned about his party's local pros-pects. Last fall was an anomaly, he says. The GOP was forced to play a horrible hand, and it strayed from its core beliefs. But Republicans shouldn't worry: "Every 16 years, the Democrats come to power and instantly overreach. In less than 100 days … that's what we've seen from President Obama." Faced with a "march towards socialism," he says, Republicans need only "be true to our old ideas."

This is the best hope for the Republican Party now—that the enemy implodes and the old magic still works. The 2008 election, the party faithful pray, was a misguided and momentary lapse. More desperately than ever, Republicans want to believe in the old idea of Orange County—that a suburban nation wants freedom and traditional values.

For half a century, this idea has served Orange County well. In the two decades after WWII, the county's population quadrupled, absorbing new residents seeking a piece of California's postwar prosperity. This wave was largely white, Midwestern, conservative— solid working folk who defined themselves in opposition to Eastern elites and the urban, ethnic muddle on the other side of the Los Angeles County line. As historian Lisa McGirr describes in "Suburban Warriors," they embraced a conservative ideology that spoke to their core beliefs, offered a coherent prism through which they could view their new lifestyle and provided a community that, in isolated suburbs, was not always easy to find.

Confidently, they bulldozed through the contradictions inherent in modern conservatism. It didn't matter that a large part of the county's newfound prosperity came from federal defense spending—residents wanted the U.S. government out of their lives. It didn't matter that their idyllic suburban tracts were fed by superhighways, that they depended on modern conveniences in their homes—they wanted to return to a simpler way of life. This was their right as middle-class Americans, they believed, a right the conservative movement could help fulfill.

The county worked hard to help the movement do its job. In 1964 a grassroots army from the county spread across California on behalf of Barry Goldwater, delivering him the state's primary (and with it, the Republican nomination). Goldwater was crushed in the general election—he joked he'd won "five states and Orange County"—but the seed was planted. The suburban warriors played a crucial role in Ronald Reagan's 1966 gubernatorial campaign and helped elect Richard Nixon president in 1968. Reagan's election in 1980 was the national acceptance of the Orange County idea. "Orange County," the Gipper quipped, was "where the good Republicans go to die." In 2004 George W. Bush led John Kerry by more votes in the county than in any other nationwide.

By that point, however, Orange County's brand had lost some of its luster. In a slew of popular TV shows—"The O.C.," "Laguna Beach," "The Real Housewives of Orange County"—the county was depicted as a haven for America's empty overclass. "Arrested Development" followed the hapless Bluths, who drink and spend and party even as they squander their fortune. The idea of Orange County, then, was no longer one of smart conservatism, but the worst kinds of Bush-era excess.

Meanwhile, the real O.C. was changing. An influx of Hispanic residents—by 2006 they made up 38 percent of the population—left the county still middle-class and suburban, but less white. The newcomers—culturally conservative, increasingly middle-class—could be Orange County Republicans were it not for the immigration issue. It's likely that the proliferation of Hispanic voters will lead the GOP to moderate its stance, lest it become irrelevant in the West. This is a scenario that will no doubt frighten rock-ribbed Orange County Republicans. In reality, it's their best hope. If immigration is their only real problem, another 50 years of dominance is plausible. To attract young voters, they'll just have to figure out how to put the teachings of Milton Friedman onto Facebook and Twitter.

But there's a sneaking feeling beneath the sunshine that the very idea of Orange County has expired—that in the suburbs, Americans have resigned themselves to increased dependence on the government from here on out. The Republicans of Orange County are counting on that not being the case. In this troubled time, this may be the county's most attractive promise: that despite the evidence, we can always go back to the way things were.