Talkin' John Birch History Blues

Them Birchers they was comin' around/They was in the air/They was on the ground.


Them Birchers they was comin' around/They was in the air/They was on the ground
Students for Responsible Expression

I pulled an odd sort of double duty yesterday, getting quoted as a critic of the Southern Poverty Law Center in a CNN story about the group's annual report on American "extremism" on the same day the SPLC itself quoted me in an article by Don Terry about the John Birch Society. I'll have some harsh words for that extremism report in a later post, but for now I'll direct you to the Birch piece. While I can't say I agree with all of the author's conclusions, he quoted me accurately and gave me space to make my arguments.

The first of those arguments involves the legend that William Buckley expelled the Birchers from the conservative movement:

"Being banished from the conservative movement and being banished from the National Review-approved conservative movement are not the same thing," [said] Jesse Walker, who, as a senior editor at the libertarian-leaning Reason Magazine and Reason.com, writes about political paranoia among other topics. "John G. Schmitz ran a basically Birchite third-party presidential campaign in 1972 that got over a million votes. That's a lot of people who don't take their marching orders from Bill Buckley," he said in an E-mail interview.

The second argument is my reaction to the idea that the Birchers are increasingly influential in the Republican Party:

Some of the longtime Bircher ideas and themes that have slipped into the conservative mainstream and now sound like Republican talking points include, according to [Chip] Berlet, the belief that big government leads to collectivism which leads to tyranny; that liberal elites are treacherous; that the U.S. has become a nation of producers versus parasites; that the U.S. is losing its sovereignty to global treaties; that the "New World Order" is an actual plan by secret elites promoting globalization; and that multiculturalism is a conspiracy of "cultural Marxism."

But Walker, the Reason editor, does not see the society as especially "influential in the inner circle of the GOP." The Birchers, Walker said in an E-mail, are often "deeply hostile to a wide range of policies the national Republicans have embraced."

"It's worth noting," he added, "that the JBS has evolved with the times; the modal Bircher of today and the modal Bircher of, say, 1964 would not see eye to eye about everything. It was interesting in the 1990s to watch as a group that we tend to associate with hawkish anti-Communists suddenly discovered its inner isolationism, opposed the first Gulf war, and generally moved toward a stance of skepticism toward military interventions abroad."

Before anyone rushes to correct me: I am aware that the Birchers' isolationist tendencies were there during the Cold War too, leading not just to their steadfast opposition to the United Nations but to a somewhat schizoid position on Vietnam. I think there's a difference between that and the full-scale anti-war positions they started taking in the 1990s, and that's the evolution I was alluding to.

Bonus links: I have more to say about the Birchers in a book that'll be coming out this August. Read about it here; pre-order a copy here.