If you want to understand just how extreme and conspiratorial many in the “mainstream” Republican party have become, look no further than a resolution on Agenda 21 passed quietly in January.
Agenda 21 is a completely non-binding international framework for sustainability passed in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. The framework, which sets out very loose aspirational goals for making communities more efficient and less carbon-intensive, was signed by then President George H.W. Bush and later upheld by Presidents Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush.
Since the framework was adopted, right-wing conspiracy theorists have pushed bizarre theories about Agenda 21 being a central tool for the United Nations to create a one-world government and take away the rights of local property owners. In recent years, elevated by the megaphone of extreme pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, these conspiracies made their way into mainstream politics. Today, Agenda 21ers — many affiliated with the Tea Party and the John Birch Society — are peddling fears about Agenda 21 in order to stop basic efficiency and renewable energy programs on the state level.
Conspiracy theorists active in politics have called Agenda 21 “socialism on steroids” that would cause Americans to be “herded into centers like the UN wants.”
And in an April presentation on Agenda 21, activist Victoria Baer had this to say about John McCain’s support of ethanol, which she also claimed was part of a UN plot: “We should have left him in Hanoi with Jane Fonda…he is a traitor, a pure traitor.”
Yes, Baer called John McCain — a decorated Vietnam War veteran who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war — a traitor who should be “left in Hanoi” because he supported minimal increases in domestic ethanol production.
Baer also claims that the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. National Parks Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture — agencies founded more than 100 years before Agenda 21 — are “all out of the UN to have these wonderful little furry animal organizations to cut our land away from us.”
In fact, the Agenda 21 language explicitly states that countries and local communities have “the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies.”
So what do these historically-challenged and completely inaccurate claims have to do with the Republican party? The Republican National Committee has officially adopted these conspiracy theories as its national platform. In January, the RNC adopted a resolution calling Agenda 21 “insidious” and “covert.”
The United Nations Agenda 21 is being covertly pushed into local communities throughout the United States of America through the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) through local “sustainable development” policies such as Smart Growth, Wildlands Project, Resilient Cities, Regional Visioning Projects, and other “Green” or “Alternative” projects
The Republican National Committee recognizes the destructive and insidious nature of United Nations Agenda 21 and hereby exposes to the public and public policy makers the dangerous intent of the plan.
Interestingly, Agenda 21 activist Victoria Baer is a big supporter of Florida Tea Partier Ted Yoho, a man who unseat Republican Representative Cliff Stearns in a major upset during a primary race yesterday. Along with supporting the Agenda 21 conspiracy, Yoho also believes we should abolish the Department of Energy — the agency tasked with protecting our nuclear waste and nuclear weapons arsenal.
This is where the mainstream Republican party is headed.
So what are the origins of this bizarre shift in policy? And why have Agenda 21 activists gained such prominence within mainstream politics?
To explore the issue, I spoke with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Potok has been tracking the rise of the Agenda 21 movement, which is rooted in the John Birch Society — a radical right-wing group that opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because they said it infringed on states’ rights. But Potok says that the issue is much broader than one single conspiracy and one single group.
Stephen Lacey: Many folks within the Agenda 21 movement have come from or are loosely aligned with the John Birch Society. So give us some background, what is the John Birch Society, how did it get formed, and what does it represent today?
Mark Potok: Well, it’s no surprise that it’s the John Birch Society that seems to be the primary pusher of the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory. I say that because they are most infamous, really, for two things. One is accusing President Eisenhower of being a “Communist agent,” which was a surprise certainly to Eisenhower. And the other, which is perhaps more like Agenda 21, is for their promotion of the idea that putting fluoride in drinking water is a plot to convert our children and all the rest of us to Communism. In other words, this is an organization that from the very beginning has touted completely ludicrous and baseless conspiracy theories. And, in fact, the John Birch Society was essentially driven out of the Conservative movement because it was such an embarrassment.
SL: But they’ve made a resurgence in recent years. What do they represent today? How are they becoming aligned with supposedly more mainstream Conservatives? And how have they regained a foothold in politics?
MP: It is hard to understand exactly how the John Birch Society has made itself more palatable to “mainstream” conservatives. The John Birch society began to reappear in a fairly significant way back in the 1990s when virtually every gun show in America, or every large gun show, had a booth with the organization. Back then, they were very heavily promoting the militia movement, as well as various conspiracies they believed the federal government was involved in. Then they sort of went quiet with the rest of the militia movement, which more or less petered out at the end of the 1990s. And in the last few years they have suddenly reappeared with quite remarkable success.
So the real answer to your question is that I do not quite understand how the John Birch Society has gotten so many city councils and county commissions and even state legislatures to listen to their nonsense. But they have. I suspect that it is related less to them having a huge amount of money or enormous numbers of people, and more to do with the idea that we’ve become so polarized politically as a nation that this kind of tripe really sells today. You know, what is most astounding of all is that the Republican National Committee has adopted oppositions to Agenda 21 as a core part of its platform and has asked that Mitt Romney include it as a part of his convention platform when the GOP convention gathers later this month.
SL: Well, let’s get into Agenda 21 more. For people who are paranoid about the UN promoting a One World Government, this is a gold mine for conspiracy theories. How has this group evolved and become more vocal?
MP: This is very similar to what we see going on with regard to arms control, gun control. The fact is, Barack Obama has done literally nothing on gun control except to allow further loosening of gun regulations to go forward — for instance, to allow people to open carry weapons in National Parks. And yet, there are groups out there that say that as soon as he is reelected — if in fact that happens — he will grab all Americans’ weapons and throw anyone who resists into concentration camps that have been secretly built by the government.
I think what’s happening with Agenda 21 is something very similar. There is an enormous, enormous amount of misinformation and plain foolishness being touted in the political mainstream as fact. We live in an era in which a Congresswoman [Michele Bachmann] is perfectly happy to accuse someone in the Department of State, with absolutely no basis whatsoever, of being an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood. My own Congressman, Spencer Baucus, from the middle of Alabama, has claimed that he personally knows that there are 17 Socialists secretly in the Congress. Alan West, another Congressman, said the other day he knew of 70 Communists in the government.
So, you know, this is the kind of garbage we are seeing every day now. And this has been going on for quite a little while. Let’s not forget that a candidate for President of the United States, Sarah Palin, just a few years ago, suggested that the President’s attempts to pass some kind of national healthcare plan, or extension of healthcare to more people in this country, was actually a plot to set up Death Panels to decide whether your and my grandmothers would live or die. So I just think that we live, sadly enough, at a time where conspiracy theories are pretty much destroying any kind of reasonable political dialogue in this country.
SL: You point to political partisanship as a main factor. But as you look throughout history at how conspiracy theorists and hate groups have grown, what other conditions need to be in place to make these theories so prevalent?
MP: I think that what is really going on is that the world is changing. And in our country, we’re seeing change in fairly dramatic ways. So, you see these kinds of crazy theories pop up at a time when major changes are a foot in our society — changes that really cause people to struggle, that make a significant number of people out there genuinely uncomfortable.
There are many things happening right now. Probably the most significant is that we, as a country, are losing our white majority. The census bureau has predicted that whites will fall under 50 percent of the population by the year 2050. Well, you know, that’s an enormous change. It’s already happened in California 12 years ago. And as a result, the politics of that state changed significantly. So it’s those kinds of changes, along with the very serious dislocations caused by economic globalization and by the kind of decline in the power of the nation state.
Apart from this, I think, we also have an extremely long tradition — in this country in particular — of distrust of the federal government. There’s also distrust around our government engaging in any kind of an international institution like the United Nations. You know, this fear of One World Government, of some sort of government forcing us all into a kind of global socialist hierarchy, goes all the way back to the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s support for it. And really even before, as early as the 19th century, you see people on the extreme right in this country and in Europe voicing fears of One World government.
This country in particular has really been plagued with an irrational fear of the United States somehow being sublimated to a global government. The reality of Agenda 21 is it’s not a treaty, it’s not a legally binding agreement, it forces absolutely no one to do anything at all. It is purely and utterly voluntary. And yet it is being portrayed by the Republican National Committee, among others, as sort of a diabolical plan to strip away private property and to generally impose Socialism and Socialistic ideas upon this country.
SL: What does it say to you that the modern Republican party has adopted this as its official platform?
MP: I think it’s simply astounding that today’s RNC has adopted this this idea as a core part of its platform. We are looking at a very different Republican party than we were a mere 30 years ago. We’re looking at a very different Republican party than we were a mere 20 years ago. You know, when George H.W. Bush signed this agreement it was not controversial. Bush was one of 178 national leaders that signed the agreement. It seemed at the time like a perfectly sensible idea — this seemed to be simply a good faith, low-key effort to think about ways we might act better in the future for the benefit of all of us. And today that perfectly sensible, perfectly logical, and very much unenforceable plan on sustainability has morphed into a global plot to impose Socialism on the United States. It’s just ludicrous, and I think it speaks to what politics in this country have really devolved to.
SL: And finally, what kind of impact will this brand of politics have on the political future of the U.S.?
MP: Well, I think, this kind of politics is clearly hurting us as a nation. It is making it extremely difficult to move forward in any rational way. We can’t debate immigration rationally because we think there is a conspiracy to steal a part of our country on the part of Mexico. We can’t discuss homosexuality or same-sex marriage rationally because these groups tell us that gay people are seeking to forcibly convert our kids to being gay, and so on.
It just seems that on issue after issue after issue we are no longer having disagreements about a certain set of facts. Instead we have two sides presenting absolute alternative realities. And the bottom line, I think, is that from the political right, or the far right, that we are seeing almost nothing but a string of conspiracy theories that have virtually nothing to do with reality. So we cannot even have a rational debate about things that we admittedly disagree about. Instead, we spend our time fending off utterly baseless, fear-mongering conspiracy theories that prevent us moving forward in any way as a society.
At the turn of the 21st century we are facing very major problems. We are at a time of great social and environmental change and we need to seriously address them — not poison ourselves with the conspiracy theories and baseless fear-mongering that we see today.