The Magazine

Giant Tennis Shoes

The overestimation of the John Birch Society

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Mulloy’s generally straight and unbiased account of the Birch Society falls into this familiar rubric on either end of the main body of his narrative. He thinks the John Birch Society, rather than being mostly a sideshow, “played an essential role in the revitalization of conservatism both as a political philosophy and as a vehicle for the attainment of practical political power in the United States.” Does anyone still revere or study Robert Welch as an icon or thinker comparable to James Burnham, Russell Kirk, or William Buckley? Is it really plausible that the conservative movement would not have made the progress it did without the Birch Society? The Tea Party, Mulloy thinks, represents “a revival of sorts” for the John Birch Society, which misses the distinction that the Birch Society depended almost entirely on the leadership of Robert Welch and elected very few people to public office, while the Tea Party, which has no figure remotely comparable to Welch, has succeeded in winning a number of significant races (as well as committing a number of blunders).  

Like many histories of conservatism written by nonconservatives, The World of the John Birch Society treats the ideas of conservatism lightly or not at all. For all of the interesting detail in this narrative, Mulloy’s strained interpretive conclusion will leave many readers puzzled about how the conservative movement actually thrived and prospered in the aftermath of the Birch Society’s shooting star.

Steven F. Hayward is the Ronald Reagan distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.