Myths of Political History: John Birch Society Edition

The John Birch Society was nuts, and it’s too William F Buckley’s credit that whatever else you might say about him he tried to purge the Birchers from the conservative movement. Similarly, I think the fact that Jonathan Rauch wants to bring the conservative movement into closer touch with external reality today is laudable. But this bit of potted political history strikes me as lacking an evidentiary basis:

In October 1965, William F. Buckley made it possible for American conservatives to come in from the wilderness and govern. In his magazine, National Review, he published a 12-page “special feature section” that read Robert Welch and his John Birch Society followers out of respectable conservatism.

Welch and the Birchers saw liberalism and communism as essentially the same thing. Their kookiness, according to Buckley, threatened to discredit both anti-communism and anti-liberalism. “Mr. Welch, for all his good intentions, threatens to divert militant conservative action to irrelevance and ineffectuality,” Buckley wrote. “By the extravagance of his remarks, he repels, rather than attracts, a great following.”

Buckley’s gambit succeeded. The Birchers and their conspiracy-mongering were banished from the mainstream conservative coalition, and the stage was set for the reality-based critique of liberalism that brought Ronald Reagan to power.

My impression is that Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign more-or-less succeeded in planting serious doubts in the mind of the electorate about the wisdom of electing a rightwinger like Ronald Reagan. That’s why, for example, Reagan only managed to get 51 percent of the vote. But obviously the economic situation in 1980 was bad and Carter himself got a terrible 40 percent. If you look at the two-party split in terms of Douglas Hibbs’ famous model then 1980 looks like a very typical election:

Maybe there’s a case to be made that Buckley’s 1965 denunciation of the Birchers helped Reagan win the presidential primary 15 years later, but it seems doubtful to me. As is generally the case with ideological repositioning, I think the main reason to sideline kooks in your political movement is that governing with kooky ideas is going to be bad for the country. The badness is itself a good reason to avoid that fate, and poor governing performance is unlikely to be conducive to your own political interests.


Meanwhile, I think it’s interesting that Rauch didn’t mention the fact that the John Birch Society seems to be making a comeback as something of a player in organized conservative circles.