As it turns out, we do not have to reach too far back into the past of conservatism to find a movement that parallels what the Tea Party and its backers have become: the John Birch Society.
The JBS was a movement born in the heat of late-195os anti-Communism. Mind you, this was not the kind of anti-communism that said “we need to be vigilant against the infiltration of our government and armed forces by agents of our global rivals,” or “we need to ensure that the kind of government that rules in the USSR and China is never given purchase in America.” Rather, this was the kind of anti-communism that attacked President Dwight D. Eisenhower as an agent of communist conspiracy. It was, in short, paranoid-nutcase anti-communism that eerily echoed the ravings of the author of Mein Kampf.
But the Birch Society did not stop there. It declared government an enemy of freedom, and repudiated the Progressive era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as the beginnings of totalitarianism. Obviously, nobody explained to the Birchers why political corruption and commercial monopolies were bad, why women’s suffrage and standards for medical and legal education were good, and why having a railroad control the California state government worked against everything American.
The Birchers obviously made liberals absolutely nuts, but they really scared conservatives who saw the Society taking the country into a reactionary direction. A very small cadre of conservatives stood against them, including William F. Buckley, Jr.
The leading intellectual spokesman and organizer of the anti-Bircher conservatives was William F. Buckley, Jr., the editor of National Review. Buckley was by no means moderate in his conservatism. He was a lifelong defender of Joseph McCarthy and a foe of New Deal liberalism. But he drew the line at claiming that the course of American government was set by a socialist conspiracy, and he feared that the ravings of the extreme right would cost more balanced, practical conservatives their chance at national power. “By 1961,” his biographer John B. Judis writes, “Buckley was beginning to worry that with the John Birch Society growing so rapidly, the right-wing upsurge in the country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn rather than leading toward the kind of conservatism National Review had promoted.”
I suspect that were he alive today, Bill Buckley and I would agree on much and disagree on a lot, but I give him a lot of credit for quietly drowning the John Birch Society and marginalizing them as a political force in the country.
The way Buckley pulled that off was through a combination of activism and advocacy: activism in his support of a conservatism with broad appeal, and advocacy in his efforts to create a forum wherein ideas could replace demagoguery on the right.
That Bill Buckley is not here today is sad, but I feel that the people who need to take up his mantle need to do so with a conservatism that addresses the challenges of our age, that appeals to a broad scope of Americans, and that shows the Tea Party to be nothing more than a recycling of the same old scourge of John Birchers.
- The Strange Death of the Republican Moderate – New York Times (nytimes.com)
- Ron Paul Addresses the John Birch Society (jlue.wordpress.com)
- The Paranoid Wing Of The Tea Party (outsidethebeltway.com)