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.

NEXT: Federal Reserve Acknowledges ObamaCare Is Leading to Layoffs

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  1. The John Birch Society publishes the Manifesto and sells it for six bucks a pop at gatherings of its conspiracy theory-loving, U.N.-hating, federal government-despising, Ron Paul-supporting, environmentalist-bashing, Glenn Beck-watching true believers, attending, in this case, a luncheon celebrating the group’s 54th anniversary.

    God bless the JBS.

    1. Four out of five ain’t bad. But, you already said that.

  2. Just stupid to continue to lump people into groups…rich…middle class…Birchers…poor…Mitt Romney…Paulites…Dems…Rethuglicans…etc. ad nauseum. People support things for different reasons and most aren’t the least bit interested in telling someone else how to live. Politicians create that boiled pot.

    1. Eh, the JBS is a small enough group that I think it is fair to ascribe certain traits to its members.

      People support things for different reasons and most aren’t the least bit interested in telling someone else how to live

      Oh I wish that were true.

      1. I really think it is true. The pendulum will slowly swing back. After a few decades of practical dictatorship.

        1. It isn’t true though. It’s like 1% of the population who thinks they don’t have the right to order other people around. As Heinlein said:

          Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws ? always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: Please pass this so that I won’t be able to do something I know I should stop. Nyet, tovarishchee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing. Stop them for their own good.

          1. I think it’s a matter of being beaten down enough to say, FUCK YOU! Not every population chose the route of being owners of themselves, and if you think about it, it’s amazing we have a legacy of people choosing liberty over self interests. Will it ever happen again?

          2. We mess with other people indirectly, through the government, because the government intrudes so much into our lives that if we leave it alone, it makes it easier for others to use the government to mess with us.

            For most of us, the government is a negative sum pie; we’d like to ignore it as much as possible, but that makes it easier for others to mess with us. There’s a real strong incentive to eat government pie, even if the taste is awful.

            There are people that like the taste, but even then, I’d wager most of it is an acquired taste because the influence winners do get disproportional advantages.

  3. Fun fact, here’s John G. Schmitz’s daughter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Kay_Letourneau

    1. I just learned something. Mary Kay’s brother was a deputy counsel in the GHWB administration.

      1. DOD IG during Bush 43, later with Blackwater.

  4. The problem with the JBS isn’t that they thought things like “big government leads to collectivism which leads to tyranny”; it’s that they thought things like “Eisenhower is a KGB double agent”. Suggesting that the former was the reason they were being rejected by the Buckleys of the world is extremely disingenous.

    1. Well, the Right in the 50s saw the the 1952 election as their last chance to dismantle the New Deal. They were pissed about Eisenhower throwing in because instead of someone like Taft who would have attempted to roll back the New Deal, they got a guy who was not interested in ideological pushback, but instead in governing efficiently. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an Eisenhower fan, but he was the Mitt Romney of his day: competent, accomplished, and completely uninterested in dismantling the State. Which is why the JBS was so opposed to him. They saw it, I think rightly, as the beginning of the trend which has continued to this day: instead of a choice, we get an echo.

      1. Again, the problem wasn’t that the were unhappy with Eisenhower; it was that they were paranoid nuts who decided he must be a secret soviet agent who was part of a conspiracy to start a communist revolution in the US.

        1. You should probably do a little more research before making such claims about an entire organization.

    2. They’re entire philosophy was based on a conspiracy theory of history. Don’t mistake their fear of government for libertarianism. Many birchers would be perfectly happy with big government, so long as it was a right thinking big government.

      1. In what realm would an extremely anti-collectivist, anti-interventionist, anti-redistributionist, pro-individual liberty government have left to be “big”?

    3. As a partial defense of the JB’ers, we should note that the upper reaches of the Federal government really were riddled with Soviet agents in the 1940s and 50s. I mean, at one point the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury was a Soviet agent! (Harry Dexter White; look him up.)

      It is a bit of a step from there to thinking that the President was a secret agent, but it does help understand where the thinking was coming from.

  5. If the SPLC quotes you as a critic of the JBS, and CNN quotes you as a critic of the SPLC, then you must be even better than “libertarian-leaning”. You must be in the sweet spot.

    1. To be fair, shouldn’t any rational human being be critical of both the SPLC and the John Birch Society? That seems like a sweet spot that should encompass 75% of humanity.

      1. Why should a libertarian be particularly critical of the JBS? They were once the most influential minarchist political group in this country, far larger than the LP ever was. I’d guess they have about an 85% ideological overlap with most libertarians. The New American is still on the short list for pro-liberty reading.

        1. Why should a libertarian be particularly critical of the JBS?

          Because they are strongly anti-free trade.

          1. Anti-free trade or “anti-free trade agreements”? There is a hell of a lot of central planning and regulation in so-called “free trade agreements” that should be opposed. I think more trade is better and am willing to pragmatically accept the “good” over the perfect in the short term.

        2. “Why should a libertarian be particularly critical of the JBS?”

          The JBS should be an excellent warning of what could happen to us if we ever become too thoroughly identified with crackpottery.

          1. That ship sailed.

    2. If the SPLC quotes you as a critic of the JBS, and CNN quotes you as a critic of the SPLC

      While I certainly have criticisms of the John Birch Society, I think I’m being quoted here more as an analyst than as a critic.

      1. I appreciate that.

        It’s just funny how libertarians seem to become suddenly useful, for both sides of whatever issue, whenever one side wants to beat the other side over the head with something freedomy.

        It happens to us lay people here in the comment section, too, sometimes…I’ve been accused of being both a paleoconservative and a liberal–in the same thread–by different people.

        I’m sure your analysis of the JBS was perfectly fair, but I suspect the SPLC may have been quoting you for their own reasons.

  6. Famous Birchers

    Howard Buffet, Warren’s father.

    Fred Koch father of of the Koch brothers who own the CATO Institute and have probably given big bucks to the Reason Foundation.


    Clarence Manion long serving Dean of the School of Law at Notre Dame. President Eisenhower offered Manion a seat on the Supreme Court. Later he recruited Bill Buckley’s Brother-N-Law, Brent Bozell to Ghost write Barry Goldwater’s book “Conscience of a Conservative”. Then in 1963 it was Manion who convinced Goldwater to seek the GOP nomination. Both Fred Koch and Clarence Manion sat on the Birch Society Board of Directors.


    And lets not forget Robert Welch JBS founder coming out against the Vietnam war in 1964.

    Welch said some some stupid stuff like accusing Eisenhower of being a commie stooge, but for the most part the JBS has stood for liberty over the years.

    1. Don’t forget he late US Rep Larry McDonald (D-GA).

      1. Yes, and Larry McDonald who was a big fan of Ron Paul.

    2. You could do a whole lot worse than hating on communism, but let’s not go overboard.

      Quackery is quackery–even when it’s comin’ from fellow anti-communists.

      That organization became so thoroughly associated with crackpots that anti-communism itself became suspect in a lot of people’s minds. And hell, if popularizing anti-communism was one of their main objectives, then they were really good at shooting themselves in the foot.

      There’s something there somewhere for us libertarians to learn.

  7. Howard Buffet “Human Freedom Rests On Gold Redeemable Money”


  8. Sounds like the old battle between Robert Taft and Thomas Dewey.

  9. Sounds like a pretty solid plan to me dude, I like it.


  10. 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.”

    All that is true, except the matter in bold print above isn’t secret. That was the very theme of George Herbert Walker Bush’s 1988 nomination speech, the theme of George W.s 2004 inaugural address, where he borrowed language from Communist John Reed for greater world union, and it was also the theme of Obama’s 2008 Tiergarten Park speech. It’s not a secret, nor conspiracy when the leaders plead for us to accept a weakening of sovereignty for higher governing orders.

    1. Didn’t the NWO reference have something to do with the Cold War winding down?

      The future wasn’t going to be communists vs. anti-communists anymore–I took the NWO reference at the time about as serious as his statement about a “thousand points of light”.

      And those weren’t the only things the JBS went overboard with:


      Fluoridation is a communist plot!

      Sometimes? I wonder if the reason so few people take us seriously when we denounce ObamaCare, for instance, as “socialist”–is ultimately because of the JBS. Ever heard story about the boy who cried “Wolf”?

  11. Who will safeguard our vital bodily fluids if Godless telluric current relativists start teaching the elitist doctrine of evolution in the so-called ‘schools’?

    1. Thank you.

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