The road to irrelevance: The John Birch Society in middle age - Part 1

By Erik Jay
web posted May 22, 2000

Full disclosure: I was a dues-paying member of the John Birch Society for one year, 1987-88. In May of 1989, I became managing editor, art director, and one of two back-page editorialists for the Society's affiliated publication, "The New American"; by December of that year I had quit and returned to California. To this day, I count among my friends any number of members, former members, and excommunicated members of the JBS. My personal experiences with the JBS will be recounted in a future column, a rather more lighthearted undertaking than this series.

Ask ten different people about The John Birch Society and you will probably get ten different responses, at least two or three of which will be some variant of "I never heard of it." Among people familiar with the organization, you would have to increase the sampling five- or ten-fold to get a single positive comment.

This is a profoundly unpopular group, to put it mildly; a widely detested one, to put it bluntly. But it is, quite frankly, even less understood than it is admired. It is not, as most liberals think and most newspapers dutifully parrot, allied with the Ku Klux Klan; in fact, the groups are mortal enemies, and it was a Bircher who infiltrated the Klan for the FBI and helped send six of its members to prison for the 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers. It is not, as some conservatives and libertarians believe, composed entirely of what "Liberty" magazine editor R.W. Bradford terms "dimwit paranoids" [1] who mutter about the Illuminati or the Zionists; there are any number of Birchers who are thoughtful, discerning, and responsible people -- although the Society does have its share of cranks, certainly.

Sadly, The John Birch Society -- named after a Baptist missionary killed by the Chinese communists shortly after the end of World War II -- is not what most of its members think it is, either. It isn't run by principled patriots committed to a set of immutable "Americanist" goals, and it most certainly is not worthy of the trust or respect its misled members deserve for the millions of dollars they've poured into it over the years. In fact, The John Birch Society -- always small but getting ever smaller, always wanting for funds but now verging on bankruptcy, always on the fringe but now poised on the brink of lasting obscurity -- is nothing more than a small, shadowy assemblage of hypocritical moralists who don't want Americans to be free so much as they want them to behave. Today, The John Birch Society's leaders -- these men who claim to represent thousands of dutiful dues-paying patriots while they actually pursue their own secret, self-serving agenda -- are fighting a pitched battle for simple survival even as they continue to posture as the "only real opposition" to the "enemies of freedom [who] mean to establish total domination of the planet."

That claim by the Society's then-Chief Executive Officer, G. Allen Bubolz, was part of a videotaped message delivered to JBS members in April of 1990.

The video, shown across the country at local Chapter meetings, was but one of a series of endless videotaped, telemarketed, and mass-mailed appeals to members for patience, for understanding, for resoluteness -- and, of course, for more and more money. A generally aging, decidedly fractious, and demonstrably dwindling membership is constantly harangued from JBS headquarters in Appleton, Wisconsin (ironically, the hometown of one of the Society's heroes, Senator Joseph McCarthy) for ever greater "sacrifices" in the war to "save America." In Birch parlance, "sacrifice" means, in order of importance, (a) sending money, (b) obeying directives, and (c) recruiting new members who will do the same.

The number of dues-paying members reached a high of approximately 100,000 during Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign of 1964, in which the group's minor, tangential, but well-advertised role presumably aided its recruiting efforts. Never an official part of the Goldwater organization, much less the national Republican Party machine, the Birchers nevertheless were active in supporting the Arizona Senator's bid for the White House, as it was for them a common cause "for God and country." Their major contribution to the campaign -- their only measurable, mainstream success before or since, in fact -- was the distribution through their American Opinion bookstores of thousands of low-cost paperback editions of Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative".

Today, although reticent by dint of either embarrassment and/or secretiveness on the subject of its size, the Society will occasionally cite "tens of thousands and growing" [2] as a membership figure; several employees terminated in the 1990's, whose positions made them privy to data concerning membership, the Society's "Continuing Support Club," the circulation figures for various publications, Chapter rosters, etc., estimate the number at anywhere from a low of 5,000 to a high of 20,000. But whatever the correct number is, it is inherently misleading vis-à-vis the Society's effectiveness.

For one thing, the structure of the Society severely limits individual initiative; it would be impossible to calculate the amount of energy and efficacy squandered because of the monolithic control exerted by JBS Headquarters through its paid national field staff ("Coordinators," "Major Coordinators," and "Fund Raisers"). For another, there is no distinction on the JBS roster among active members, who man picket lines and county-fair literature booths and show up at the Post Office every April 15th to distribute anti-IRS pamphlets; mere dues-payers who attend monthly Chapter meetings to watch a semi-professional video or two and endure incessant "special [fund-raising] drives" to keep the Society afloat; and non-dues-payers, who continue to be carried as members because of connections at the Home Office, lousy record-keeping, or simple deceit. [3]

Of course, in The John Birch Society, as in any activist organization, there is a hard core of truly active, sometimes even effective members -- but in the JBS it is pretty much limited to the paid field staff, their sycophants, and perhaps one or two go-getters per Chapter (the size of which can range dramatically, from just three or four members to several dozen). But the Society's numbers continue to dwindle, as do the proceeds from the endless fund-raisers. [4] And, following two years of much-ballyhooed "reorganization" whose major accomplishment has been the firing of dozens of field personnel, headquarters employees, and magazine staffers [5], the Society's self-serving leadership is unable to stop stories of its gross incompetence from spreading throughout its crumbling empire.

After over 30 years of mishaps, mismanagement, and petty intrigues -- including bitter, divisive, financially devastating power struggles that followed the long decline and eventual death in 1985 of founder Robert Welch -- The John Birch Society has lost its ability to recruit or retain members, despite its claims to the contrary. Worse than that, the JBS -- through obstinacy, ineptitude, contempt for non-believers, and an inability to explain its "historic mission" either succinctly or intelligibly -- has frittered away even the marginal influence it exerted in conservative politics at its mid-sixties peak. Worst of all, the group has wasted millions of dollars in dues, pledges, and publishing revenues on ludicrously expensive severance packages for former executives and favored employees, costly service contracts for antiquated typesetting equipment that didn't even work, and sundry other misadventures and poor investments.

"I'm surprised it's lasted this long," says a former member from Las Vegas who was booted out of the group for "not being a good little sheep." Now active in the Libertarian Party, this Birch alumnus, who is too embarrassed to be named, calls the Society's current leaders "professional liars and schemers."

Throughout its entire history, The John Birch Society has operated on an ever tightening budget that has generated ever more emotional pleas for members, funds, and attention. Although F. R. Duplantier, former editor of the Society's magazine, "The New American", marvels that the organization has always seemed "to muddle through somehow," the Society's muddling days may be numbered, as its loss of relevance to American political life is paralleled by the loss of any coherent identity, a fatal inability to stay staffed, capitalized, and directed, and a growing realization among members that something is rotten in Appleton.

Next time: Part 2 of "The Road to Irrelevance"


[1] "Liberty" magazine, June 1990
[2] An internal management memo dated January 21, 1991, states that an "elementary and fundamental" JBS tenet is that "We do not publish or tell anything about membership numbers (not even "tens of thousands)." In an interview with Mark Lisheron for an article in the January 20, 1991 edition of "The Milwaukee Journal", however, Birch CEO G. Allen Bubolz gave a figure of 60,000.
[3] I paid dues for one year (1987) when I was still checking out the JBS. I am carried as a member to this day, and still receive member publications, fund-raising pleas, and other mailings that most certainly are printed and distributed at an unnecessary cost to the Society -- or the unsuspecting members whose money keeps the Home Office operating at all, I should say.
[4] A particularly noisome 1990 drive that I was personally involved with, aiming to raise $1.5 million for various media projects, came up 2/3 short.
[5] In early 1989, in the first wave of firings, old-timers were let go for sheer incompetence; in 1990 and 1991, in successive waves, both old-timers and newcomers were fired for precisely the opposite reason, a trend that has continued to this day.

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