Why Now? Episode 20: Extremism in Defense of Liberty Is No Vice

A conversation with historian Matthew Dallek about his new book, Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right (Basic Books, 2023)

In the late 1950s, the John Birch Society may have been on the fringe of the Republican Party. Still, it was not an insignificant force in American politics. Gathering the remnants of Senator Joe McCarthy’s supporters, white supremacists, libertarians, and former America Firsters under one umbrella, the John Birch Society was playing an active role in American politics only four years after it was founded.

John Birch Society sign advocating US withdrawal from the United Nations, Pittsburgh, PA, May 2008: Ron Paul was running for president, and his campaign sign was strategically placed to the left. Photo credit: TheZachMorrisExperience/Wikimedia Commons

By 1962, Birchers were running for office as Republicans, and some were winning. More often, like other ultra-right organizations that would evolve from the John Birch Society, during campaign seasons, these zealots provided an army of willing labor for far-right Republicans trying to topple the eastern, elite establishment that the Birch-affiliated activist Phyllis Schlafly dubbed “the king makers” in her 1964 self-published book, A Choice, Not An Echo.

Who were the kingmakers? They were the business and political establishment within the GOP, Schlafly charged, who foisted candidates on the people. These soft conservatives, who would later be derided as “squishes,” were comfortable with the status quo. Like Democrats, they were soft on communism, spent taxpayer dollars on foreign entanglements, believed in big government, and left Americans vulnerable to crime, immigrants, and the whims of international financial interests.

And in 1964, the Birchers got their presidential candidate: Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Although Goldwater was not a member of the John Birch Society, he certainly sounded like one in his acceptance speech.

Goldwater lost, but the effort to elect him had strengthened ultra-conservatives in the GOP, and they continued to organize. 

As a result, Birchers’ ideas took hold in the Republican Party in the following decades, and they began to build new conservative institutions. Bircherism became part of the populist Republican insurgency that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980, promoted the presidential candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan in 1992, strengthened the 2008 presidential bid of libertarian Ron Paul, produced the Tea Party, and elected the Tea Party’s Congressional arm, the Republican Freedom Caucus.

Listeners may remember that the Freedom Caucus bent the Republican Party to its will during the contested election of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in January 2023. And we all know that since the 2016 election, Welch’s radical ideas have become mainstream among conservatives: isolationism, returning to the gold standard, a government plot to weaken the American people and make them vulnerable to international financial elites, slashing the federal government, using the military against civilians, states’ rights, and xenophobia.

You can download this podcast here or subscribe for free on Apple iTunesSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or SoundcloudFor show notes, go to my Substack, Political Junkie.

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