The John Birch Society never really went away after its heyday of notoriety in the 1960s. My local library carried the Bircher monthly American Opinion for many years, well into the 1980s, and I'd occasionally read an item about a meeting taking place somewhere locally. For the past few years the Society has been seeking kindred spirits at Tea Parties and similar rallies. I scored a free DVD from a Bircher at a Troy, NY event back in the autumn of 2009. Now, the archetypal conspiracymongers seem to believe that Tea Party disillusionment with the Republican party can benefit them. Their president addressed approximately 400 people in nearby Colonie last night as part of what looks like an ambitious rebranding effort. Long a living caricature of conservatism for many observers, the Birchers now repudiate the label. In John P. McManus's reported words, "Conservative vs. liberal is meaningless....You're either for the Constitution or not. At the John Birch Society we don't call ourselves conservatives. We call ourselves constitutionalists."
While the Birchers retain their familiar fear of "one-world government" and their conspiratorial view of history -- McManus called the late conservative pundit William F. Buckley, a longtime nemesis of the Birchers, a "Trotskyite" -- their current focus seems to be on the ideological battle between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. Like the paleos at The American Conservative, the Birchers are now avowed non-interventionists with a record of opposition to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In their view, the neocons are "socialists" because they accept the New Deal as well as enemies of peace for perpetrating "unacceptable intrusions into the affairs of other nations." George Bush is a "socialist" in their eyes and one can only imagine what they think of Bush's son.
Though they continue to abuse the word "socialism," the Birchers' apparent repudiation of the "conservative" label and the "liberal vs. conservative" paradigm is definitely an interesting development. While some observers may assume that the Birch Society would simply carry on the same battle on different terms, or under different names, the labels that prevail today haven't really meant anything for a while -- at least nothing literal. Any attempt to alter the terms of the debate can only open opportunities for others to see the issues, not as the two major parties define them, but possibly as they actually are. The Birchers aren't going to help us much toward that goal, but their new direction may prove an act of creative destruction that could benefit everyone in the long run.
Lest anyone think that I'm letting the Birchers off easy, here are some remarks from a local Daily Kos diarist accusing JBS members of bloodthirsty thoughts.