The John Birch Society is still influencing American politics, 60 years after its founding

The retired candy entrepreneur Robert Welch founded the John Birch Society 60 years ago to push back against what he perceived as a growing American welfare state modeled on communism and the federal government’s push to desegregate America.

Although Welch’s group has never amassed more than 100,000 dues-paying members, it had garnered an estimated 4 to 6 million sympathizers within four years of its 1958 formation.

Robert Welch in 1961. AP Photo
As a scholar of political history and social movements, I find many parallels between today’s far right and its predecessors. Just as the John Birch Society emerged in the midst of the civil rights movement, today’s far-right movements formed as a reaction to the election of Barack Obama – a milestone for racial equality.

The Birchers

The original “Birchers,” as John Birch Society supporters are known, were Republicans who believed their party had grown too moderate. Like the tea party movement that arose half a century later while the nation debated expanding health care coverage, same-sex marriage and immigration reform, they objected to the federal government’s growth, and ardently opposed federal intervention into what they considered to be state and local affairs.

Birchers expressed a belief in domestic communist conspiracies. They went so far as to accuse President Dwight Eisenhower and Chief Justice Earl Warren of being communist dupes and agents – building on the legacy of Sen. Joseph McCarthy whose movement of predominantly Midwestern Republicans found the society’s agenda appealing.

Although these allegations relegated Welch to fringe status as a political leader, the John Birch Society amassed a national base among staunch conservatives.

In their heyday, far-right groups that subscribed to “Welchian” conspiracy theories propagated their views on over 500 radio broadcasts each week – with the John Birch Society alone producing a program on 100 stations – and a widely circulated newsletter.

A string of Birch bookstores doubled as local headquarters for meetings and distribution centers for fliers, films, rally tickets and bumper stickers, spread its influence.

Even though Welch understood racism and bigotry would hurt his cause, the John Birch Society’s opposition to the civil rights movement attracted Americans sympathetic to racist paranoia. For example, it consistently published reports accusing civil rights leaders of communist subversion and alleging that people of color were plotting to divide the country and control the world.

In 1964, backing from the John Birch Society in Republican primaries, such as California, secured the right-wing-backed candidate Barry Goldwater’s Republican presidential nomination.

“All those little old ladies in tennis shoes that you called right-wing nuts and kooks,” Goldwater’s organizational head reportedly told him about the campaign volunteers who appeared to be Birch sympathizers, “they’re the best volunteer political organization that’s ever been put together.”

Despite Goldwater’s loss to incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide, many political scientists and conservatives believe that Goldwater’s failed bid made way for the modern conservative movement by passing the torch to Richard M. Nixon’s “silent majority,” ending decades of liberal dominance.

Contemporary counterparts

The John Birch Society is also directly linked to conservative politics today.