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Briefly Reviewed: April 2024

Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right

By Matthew Dallek

Publisher: Basic Books

Pages: 471

Price: $32

Review Author: Alex Pinelli

When historical nonfiction connects its subject to a contemporary event or topic, there are two possibilities. It could seamlessly fuse the past with the present and usher in a more complete understanding of our current circumstances through a political, social, or cultural lens. These occasions are rare but do occur; see, for example, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s writing about the expansion of executive power from George Washington to Richard Nixon in The Imperial Presidency (1973); Richard Bensel’s Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877 (1991) on the enlargement of centralized federal power during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period; or C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), which reconceptualized the institution of segregation for contemporary readers who were only a year removed from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

However, more often the opposite occurs. Though there are myriad works from which to choose, two examples suffice. The first is the most infamous in recent memory, and I hesitate even to mention it as a work of “history.” That is Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (2019). Enough ink has been spilled on its fallacies and factual inaccuracies that I will not waste the reader’s time. The second is one with which the reader might be less acquainted, yet it dovetails aptly with the larger topic at hand. Dan T. Carter’s The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (1995) is part biography and part history of conservatism. As a biography, the book is riveting. It brings George Wallace to life in his fullness, eliciting a sense of intrigue, disgust, and even sympathy for one of America’s most virulent racist political leaders. Yet, when it veers from biography to political history and contends that Wallace and his brand of race-baiting politicking became the foundation for conservatism in the late 20th century, the book drowns in its own pretensions.

Fast-forward 30 years, and Matthew Dallek, professor of political history at George Washington University, makes a similar blunder. Except this time it is not racists who form the foundation of conservatism (although, as to be expected, they do make an appearance); rather, it is the paranoid conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society (JBS). The dismaying aspect is that, for all its faults, Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right is at times enthralling. If you can get through the introduction, in which outlandish claims are made, skim over the one-off statements that attempt to make this piece of historical research into something more than it is, and stop reading after chapter 8, then you might actually enjoy this book. Love it, hate it, or have no opinion either way, the JBS makes for a fascinating study and deserves a deeper historical understanding.

The unmistakable strength of the book is in chapters 1-7. This portion — over half the book — chronicles the first eight years of the JBS (1958-1965) and is by far the most gratifying. Dallek focuses on its early meetings, recruitment strategies, major figures, rules and bylaws for governing each chapter, and the pivotal role of women. There is also an interesting chapter on groups, specifically the Anti-Defamation League, that were dedicated to undermining and spying on the JBS and using dishonest tactics to try to prevent its spread. There are also some wonderful excerpts describing commonplace members, and examples of how certain chapters impacted local school boards and politics.

But even in these delightful chapters, problems arise. There is a lack of contextualization of the era, along with too many blanket generalizations about members. Dallek posits over and again that the everyday Bircher joined because he felt he needed to do something about the communist threat facing the country during the Cold War. Yet, aside from a few remarks early on, there is hardly any explanation why so many Americans felt compelled to take a more active stance against communism. From Dallek’s perspective, the only reasons were that people were either paranoid, fearful of losing their country, racist, or elitist and hoping to hold onto their socioeconomic status. Oftentimes Dallek seems to impute founder Robert Welch’s ideological excesses to the majority of members. Still, a reader could overlook these problems if not for the second half of the book.

That’s when the wheels fall off. From chapter 9 to the end of the book in chapter 12, the focus shifts from Birchers to their “successors”: segregationists, isolationists, conspiracy theorists, and, finally, present-day MAGA Republicans. And in fewer pages than those covering eight years in chapters 1-7, here Dallek spans close to 50 years in four chapters. In a veritable whirlwind, he attempts to track how different groups with no official ties to the JBS were, in actuality, pushing forward the movement over time. He attempts to argue that even though the Birchers ultimately failed to enact any of their political agenda through the years, they still “won” because their spirit lives on and has been normalized within the ranks of the larger conservative movement. The folly, in Dallek’s view, is that conservatives did not work hard enough to purge Birchers from their ranks and cast them into the abyss. It is not guilt by association but guilt by non-eradication.

It is beyond disheartening when a solid piece of historical research and analysis veers off course into the realm of contemporaneous politics. However, this has become par for the course for many historians, with Matthew Dallek only the latest example. The utilization of the world of the past to explain the present has become a pyrrhic endeavor and, in this case, has taken what could have been a tantalizing read and turned it into a disappointment.

 

©2024 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

 

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