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Giant Tennis Shoes

The overestimation of the John Birch Society

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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In a supreme irony, California attorney general Stanley Mosk issued a breathless report about the threat the Birch Society posed to democracy that, he said, was merely his “personal observations,” but which was regarded as authoritative since it came from the state’s chief law enforcement officer. McCarthy would have been proud. (It was the Mosk report, by the way, that originated the popular phrase that right-wing extremists included a lot of “little old ladies in tennis shoes.”) Mulloy writes that the John Birch Society was thought to be “on the verge not only of taking over the Republican Party and propelling a dangerous ‘extremist’ into the White House, but also of being a threat to the very foundations of American democracy itself, and perhaps even enabling the rise of fascism in the United States.”  

This kind of reaction from the media and the liberal establishment guaranteed that the Birch Society would prosper. Throughout the next decade, Welch displayed a consistent P. T. Barnum streak, maintaining a fever pitch with periodic “major announcements” of new insights into the latest dimensions and tactics of the Communist conspiracy. 

While the deeply conspiratorial paranoia of Birch Society analysis was ultimately its undoing, starting in the late 1960s, some of the political analysis that Welch and others at the Birch Society produced was cogent and sophisticated. Welch was equivocal about the Vietnam war at the outset, thinking the United States was being lured into a trap and making a mistake in bailing out the colonial legacies of France and Great Britain. And while he criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for reasons similar to those of Barry Goldwater, Welch nonetheless argued for desegregation in the South and worked to expunge any expression of racism in the Birch Society. Mulloy notes that the common charge that the Birch Society was anti-Semitic is wrong and that the image of the society as a hotbed of fascism is badly overwrought. 

The Birch Society posed significant problems for Republicans and for the nascent conservative movement. Mulloy goes into detail about Welch’s interactions with William F. Buckley, who dealt carefully with Welch in part because many of National Review’s early financial backers were Birch Society supporters. Buckley cleverly argued that Welch was “an optimist,” that the problems of the West were much more serious and deep-seated than what a practical conspiracy could explain. But Russell Kirk had the best riposte: “Eisenhower’s not a Communist—he’s a golfer.” 

Buckley would later take a harder public line against the Birch Society, a move that cost National Review readers and supporters, but which also began the slow marginalization of the society. (Welch struck back years later, charging that Buckley’s effete “ivory-tower” conservatism was useless and that if Buckley had not existed, Moscow would have invented him.) The society’s marginalization was not accomplished, however, before its prominence complicated Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and, to a lesser extent, Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for governor of California in 1966. Despite being urged by Buckley and other conservatives to repudiate the Birch Society, Goldwater thought he could not afford to alienate the group and its sympathizers.

While the Birch Society’s stylings were an albatross for Republicans, let me suggest something Mulloy doesn’t entertain: Liberals loved the John Birch Society—almost as much as Moscow must have loved it. Liberals secretly enjoy being terrified of right-wing-extremist threats for much the same reason so many moviegoers thrill to horror/slasher movies: They like the frisson of having strident opponents whom they don’t think they have to take seriously, especially if they can project the fringe as representing the mainstream of their political opposition.