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FreedomWorks and the John Birch Society

Alex Constantine - June 2, 2015

"... The Birchers have piggybacked on Tea Party activities in order to attract new members and gain a larger audience for their ideas.  The recent moves by FreedomWorks to promote the JBS are one indication that the relationship between the two organizations has become symbiotic. ..."

FreedomWorks has a John Birch Society problem. When FreedomWorks head Dick Armey appeared on the March 10, 2010 edition of the Charlie Rose Show, he was asked about which parts of the Tea Party tent made him most uncomfortable. After rightly criticizing groups like the "LaRouchies," and called them “an embarrassment.” Armey was then asked directly about the John Birch Society (JBS).

Armey’s response: “The John Birch Society has been very little evident in my association with the tea party.  I have not seen anybody, have not encountered anybody who says I’m here and I’m from the John Birch Society. So I mean, I know it’s alleged that they’re there.  I’ve not encountered them. But I do think that John Birch Society historically has had a good deal of people that have regretted them.”

Dick Armey may have some regretting of his own.

New research by the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights highlights how colossally wrong Armey was about the relationship between the Tea Party movement and the John Birch Society. The data in this report shows just how entangled FreedomWorks is with the Birchers.

FreedomWorks and the John Birch Society

As described in IREHR's October 2010 special report, Tea Party Nationalism: A Critical Examination of the Size, Scope, and Focus of the Tea Party Movement and Its National Factions, FreedomWorks successfully turned Tea Party energy into additional political influence inside the Beltway. Nevertheless, the organization had lagged behind other national Tea Party factions when trying to harness the social networking power of the movement. At the end of 2010, FreedomWorks still had the second smallest online Tea Party membership, with only 19,274 members.

To remedy this failure and  expand their membership, bolster their online street credibility, and compete with the more successful Tea Party factions, FreedomWorks hired the web development firm TerraEclipse.  A new site, FreedomConnector, resulted, which used geo-targeting to help Tea Party activists identify nearby activists, groups and events. It also allows members to connect their FreedomConnector account to popular social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. Quietly the site went live in January 2011.

Then in February, FreedomWorks staged an elaborate public relations campaign to promote the site.  They had a splashy roll-out event for the new site at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference.  They sent emails to local Tea Party groups promoting site membership.  And far-right commentator Glenn Beck featured it on his Fox News program.

In one respect, the results have been remarkable. FreedomWorks online membership has shot up from 19,529 on February 9, the day before the CPAC launch, to 94,308 members as of June 1.  Such a marked growth rate in membership levels has not been seen since the earliest days of the movement. In fact, the rate for all the other factions has tended to slow down recently, although all groups are continuing to growing.

To attain this rapid expansion, however, FreedomWorks took down what little firewall it had constructed between itself and the farthest edges of the far-right. Indeed, they’ve left a gaping hole allowing the easy access for groups like the Birch Society to the FreedomWorks membership.

As noted in Tea Party Nationalism, of all the national Tea Party factions, FreedomWorks had been the organization least entangled with overt bigotry. For instance, FreedomWorks was the only faction who did not have a “birther” as a national staff member. It was the only group that had not jumped on to the nativist bandwagon and supported Arizona’s controversial SB 1070. It had steered clear of most of the outlandish conspiracy theories and far-right machinations that have consumed other Tea Party groups. Now, that has changed.

For a short-term bump in membership, the long-term costs to the credibility of the organization may be extraordinarily steep.

Dick Armey need look no further than the front-page of his FreedomConnector site to see John Birch Society (JBS) activism in Tea Party ranks. Numerous JBS events have shown up in “Latest Activities” section on homepage of FreedomConnector.  Most notably, the FreedomWorks staff has been busy promoting the Birchers on their social networking site.

Since the launch of the site, FreedomWorks staff and the FreedomConnector web team have posted at least fifty-nine different announcements that advertised John Birch Society events across the country. (See list in Appendix). Even a cursory look at this list of meetings, forums and protests demonstrates quite clearly that this is not an isolated incident or simple mistake that can be easily dismissed. FreedomWorks staff and the web team have posted an average of ten Birch events a month since the launch of this site. They have advertised Birch events in California, Florida, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

In addition to the fifty-nine added by FreedomWorks team members, another twenty-two Bircher happenings have been posted by FreedomConnector members like Dawn Epson, the Tucson facilitator for the John Birch Society.  Epson even has been allowed to create a Tucson Bircher “group”--a hub for area Birchers to gather on the FreedomConnector site.  In total, 80 different JBS events were advertised on the FreedomWorks FreedomConnector site between the site launch and June 1, 2011.

Tonya Woodruff, a Michigan activist, provided a perfect example of the problem of the missing firewall when she posted a question on FreedomConnector to a participant in the Ludington Area Tea Party: “I was at the John Birch Society Meeting last night and the Birchers wanted to know if the Tea Party was still interested in a presentation? I will send you an e-mail today about this topic.”  Opposition to the JBS presence inside the FreedomWorks social network has been virtually non-existent.  Instead, these posts have received a warm reception.

Despite Dick Armey’s denials, there has been Bircher participation in FreedomWorks Tea Party events from the beginning of the movement. In fact, a large organized contingent of Birchers attended the big FreedomWorks 9-12 Rally in Washington DC. The Birchers have been quite open on their own website about their participation. One post detailed their activities:

“I think everyone knows by now the the[sic] 912 Tea Party Rally in DC was a huge success and is going to go down as a signature event in the history of the freedom movement. It was an honor to be able to be a part of it. I especially want to thank all the Birch members and friends who came up from Virginia and North Carolina and helped us distribute over 4000 pieces of Birch educational material (DVD's, New American Reprints and NAU flyers). They were real boots on the ground soldiers for us.”

The John Birch Society Has a Long History

Founded in 1958 with its headquarters in Massachusetts, the Belmont candy manufacturer Robert Welch was both its first president and treasurer.  Although Fred. C. Koch, father of the contemporary ultra-conservatives Charles and David Koch, was on its national council, he was not a member of the founding board of directors--contrary to some of the rumors circulating on the Internet.

Initially, the Birch Society drew its strength from two directions, according to the 1970 book, The Politics of Unreason: Right wing Extremism in America, 1790 to 1970, by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab:  Opposition to changes unleashed by the black freedom movement, and unhappiness with the sitting Republican President Dwight Eisenhower--particularly his inability and unwillingness to turn back the clock on civil rights and on the growth of the welfare state.  President Eisenhower had sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 to insure the public peace and the safety of the black students desegregating the high school.  Further, Eisenhower had said in his 1954 State of the Union message: "In a modern industrial society, banishment of destitution and cushioning the shock of personal disaster on the individual are proper concerns of all levels of government, including the federal government."  It was enough for the Birchers to label Eisenhower a communist or a dupe.

The Birch Society continued to grow in the 1960s, two of its strongest states being California and Texas.  Its official ideology was a well-tuned anti-communist conspiracy theory.  It opposed all civil rights legislation and attracted a number of racists and anti-Semites to its membership and national council.   University of Illinois classics professor Revilo P. Oliver was one of the most vociferous white supremacists on its first national council, regularly using Birch publications to rail against the "Rothschilds," "Khazars" and "Zionists"--all code words for Jews. Oliver finally lost his perch in the Birch Society in 1966, after making a speech about how "...if all the Jews were vaporized at dawn tomorrow, we should have nothing to worry about."  Other hardcore bigots stayed on, however, and helped define the Birch Society as beyond the reach of respectable politics.

The Birch Society went into abeyance in the early 1970s, as did most of the far right organizations.    Nevertheless, it was active in the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s.  And it continued to have a presence, due primarily to its Congressman, Larry McDonald from Georgia, who had joined the society in the 1960s and became its president in 1983. (McDonald died in August 1983 in the plane crash of KAL 007.)

The Birch Society moved its headquarters from Massachusetts to Wisconsin in 1989, and picked up new members again in the mid-1990s, growing alongside the militias and the newly re-invigorated Council of Conservative Citizens, a white nationalist organization.

It currently publishes The New American monthly magazine, has a field staff of 20 people, and is omnipresent in the Tea Party movement.  Congressman Ron Paul regularly speaks at its events.  And just this year, the Birchers broke into the ranks of those allowed at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.New American editor William Jasper returned the favor by panning the event, describing it as a "factious, inharmonious affair exposing the deep philosophical divisions and conflicting political goals within the loosely defined "conservative movement."  Wonder if the Birchers will get invited back next year?

Attempts by some Tea Party leaders to keep JBS-style culture war issues out of the Tea Party agenda are viewed with derision by Birchers and as an opportunity to fill the void. In an April 1, 2010 cover story in the New American, entitled “Tea Party: A Brewing Movement,” Joe Wolverton II opined

"Some key players in the Tea Party Movement could not be less disturbed by the specter of a social conservative diaspora. When asked if she worried that the Tea Party Movement may be essentially stillborn because of the loss of social conservatives, Jenny Beth Martin, a leader of the Tea Party Patriots, commented in the New York Times article cited above, “When people ask about them [social issues], we say, ‘Go get involved in other organizations that already deal with social issues very well.’ We have to be diligent and stay on message.” That message, apparently, is, when it comes to enlisting in the Tea Party Movement, social conservatives need not apply.

Notwithstanding the (more or less) official disdain manifested by self-professed Tea Party luminaries for traditional conservatives and their rock-ribbed devotion to the right side of social issues, there is evidence that the rank and file is staunchly socially conservative and resolved to firmly and fixedly lash economic and social conservatism together with a Gordian knot of strict adherence to the letter of the Constitution."

Luminaries aside or not, the John Birch Society appears to be growing and winning new layers of acceptance precisely because the Tea Parties have stirred up the waters in which the Birchers swim.

Dick Armey’s Choice

IREHR has previously reported on how the Birchers have piggybacked on Tea Party activities in order to attract new members and gain a larger audience for their ideas.  The recent moves by FreedomWorks to promote the JBS are one indication that the relationship between the two organizations has become symbiotic. Both groups rely upon the other for short-term growth. Given the disturbing history of the John Birch Society, however, FreedomWorks entangles itself with such an organization at it own risk. Indeed, the John Birch Society poses a threat to both the longevity and credibility of the FreedomWorks group and to the Tea Party movement as a whole. No longer is it possible to simply brush off such activity with a quick denial. The evidence is simply too substantial to overlook. Dismissals and denials have given the Birchers a green-light.

Can the John Birch Society possibly be the new "normal" in American political life?

IREHR says no.  What does Dick Armey say now?

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