Sustaining a progressive movement based on shared politics requires not only unification on positive values, but an understanding of the opposition and their tactics. Analysis of the various elements of opposition can do much to improve our own eyesight and path forward. “Birthers” may be the newest manifestation of right-leaning conspiracy theorists. It is unlikely that most of the “birthers” who believe that President Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen belong to the John Birch Society (JBS). But I believe they are at least sympathizers with the nativist, racist tendencies of the John Birch Society, which has been stirring animosity and paranoia, often with coded language and convoluted theories, for over 50 years.What unites the “birthers” and the Birchers on a single trajectory is well worth understanding. Progressives should not ignore the people who share this particular worldview: it’s easy to dismiss them as nutters and whackos enlarging the far right. Yes, they are the “angry white people” who foment trouble at townhalls and seek to torpedo all efforts to achieve full human rights in the United States, including health care reform.
But the real threat, especially in today’s rapid-fire headline rotation, is that their opinions from the netherworld of reasonable debate re-circulate and dominate mainstream news, filling the airwaves with the sensationalistic biases of these flat-earthers. Through time and repetition, the views of the far right have a distressing tendency to become mainstream. Absurd myths of reverse discrimination that surfaced during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor threatened to derail the rise of the first Latina to the nation’s highest court.
John Birchers Hide Behind Flag
The John Birch Society has its roots in the 1950s when it opposed the U.S.’s affirming the human rights principles of the United Nations. It was used as a grassroots corollary to McCarthyism, insisting that imagined Communists were standing behind every light pole, ready to end the world as we know it. It still sees itself as fighting Communism, as well as the New World Order (whatever that is!), big government, the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, wealth redistribution and more. You are not likely to hear the John Birch Society using epithets or spewing base language; its values are more carefully hidden behind flag-waving and obscure and irrelevant legal principles. Its words are cloaked in concern for the “direction of the nation.”
John Birchers opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying it violates the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and overstepped the rights of individual states to enact laws regarding civil rights. On its website, the John Birch Society complains that “President Obama – the man who got fawning media treatment for no reason, was elected with a thin resume and exalted without even being a king – has now been given the Noble Peace Prize.” The John Birch Society also opposes health care reform, gun control, public schools and a host of other progressive causes.
The Right-wing “watch” group, Public Research Associates, notes: “(T)he Birch society pioneered the encoding of implicit cultural forms of ethnocentric White racism and Christian nationalist antisemitism rather than relying on the White supremacist biological determinism and open loathing of Jews that had typified the old right prior to WWII. Throughout its existence, however, the Society has promoted open homophobia and sexism.”
Because it is more “libertarian” than openly racist, anti-Semitic and sexist, the John Birch Society is often not characterized as a hate group like the Ku Klux Klan or the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), at least as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center. One way the John Birch Society escapes that designation is because it receives support from prominent politicians and elected officials. Birchers work hard to mask the anti-human rights beliefs that underlie their opinions.
This may be where their similarity to the “birthers” begins.
“Birthers” Find Support for Absurdisms
The birthers so resent the election of an African American president that they are willing to support and reiterate debunked claims that President Obama is nota U.S. citizen. They have even introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act (HR 1503), a bill that would challenge the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits slavery and affirms citizenship rights to everyone born in the U.S. Their arguments are laughably farfetched – as if some prophetic conspiracy occurred in the 1960s to forge a birth certificate for President Obama in Hawaii in case this bi-racial child ever ran for president.â€¨â€¨The fact that these extremely marginal people and their claims are endorsed by Republican elected officials like U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) or U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN), or racist demagogues masquerading as news analysts like Glenn Beck or Patrick Buchanan, gives them a veneer of credibility and respectability, just like the John Birch Society enjoys.
And it’s not just President Obama’s birth the Birthers question. They also oppose same-sex marriage, immigrants’ rights, “socialism,” abortion rights, and – of course – health care reform. Their website features American eagles and emulates the print of the U.S. Constitution, claiming as their goal: “We seek strict adherence to the Constitution of the United States of America, regardless to the momentary passions of the body politic,” and using the motto, “Dedicated to the rebirth of our Constitutional Republic.” â€¨â€¨Claiming that the name “birthers” was first applied to mock them, they write: “We accept their name, the Birthers, for wanting to give rebirth to that which we as Americans hold dear. To return the favor of giving us a name in which we can find a common identity, we in turn give them a name that must be our polarizing opposites, ‘the O-Borters,’ for they are seeking to abort the fabric that has held America together, the Constitution of the United States of America.” The irony that they are seeking to undo the 14th Amendment to that same Constitution (and for which the Civil War was fought) seems to escape them.
The obvious goal of the Birthers is to thwart President Obama and create a Republican resurgence for the 2010 mid-term elections, the same tactics employed in 1994 when the ultraconservative Newt Gingrich, as Speaker of the House, led his minions to oppose everything that the Clinton Administration proposed. The idea now is the same – to force Congress to oppose everything the President supports.â€¨â€¨As noted anti-fascist researcher Leonard Zeskind writes, “The psychological, social and political space between conspiracy minded whizbangs outside the beltway, and the anti-immigrant congressmen supporting the Birther Bill then shrinks to invisibility. They are distinct without a difference that matters. The nuttiness of the conspiracy mongers becomes less salient than their search for a brighter, whiter tomorrow.”
While white supremacist notions date to the founding of the nation, this bleak outlook does not have to be our future. The challenge is not to casually dismiss the Birthers and the Birchers as irrelevant. Progressives need to call out their racism, sexism and homophobia. But, more importantly, we need to build a united human rights movement that won’t allow wedge politics to divide us. â€¨â€¨And regarding President Obama, we need to avoid becoming a circular firing squad aiming at other progressives and liberals, rather than keeping our eyes on our true opponents – those who want to reverse our progress towards freedom and human rights.
Loretta J. Ross is National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a Consulting Editor on this edition of On The Issues Magazine.