The automated phone message’s ultimate goal couldn’t be more cryptic. It speaks about America becoming a socialized state, about jobs leaving the United States, about the green-energy lobby’s “real” agenda, but it’s not until the very end of the message that you realize where the call is coming from.
Turns out it’s the John Birch Society, and it wants your soul. Okay, maybe that’s exaggerating slightly, but the nonpartisan, in-the-background, slightly secretive organization does want to indoctrinate you in its cause: making America jibe with the Constitution. They’ve been at it for 50 years.
Are they making converts? Hard to say. Membership numbers, and the number of chapters nationwide, are kept tightly under wraps, something Bryan Turner, a Birch employee who oversees field activities in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, confirms. “To protect our strengths and weaknesses, we don’t release that information,” he says.
We were able to glean that there is one Las Vegas chapter—it’s been here for nearly 20 years, and its current leader, Floyd Fitzgibbons, took over this year. It was his idea to send out the automated phone messages. To date, about 50,000 Nevadans have received calls (the goal is 300,000). And, apparently, the strategy has worked—chapter membership has tripled since the beginning of the year, according to Fitzgibbons, although he was reluctant to discuss the reasons for the phone blitz in the first place. “A lot of factors went into that decision. Let’s pass on to the next topic.”
He wouldn’t discuss exact membership numbers either, “but I’d say there’s currently about 300 people [in Las Vegas] who want to get on our distribution list and be associated in some form with the chapter.” Meetings are held monthly, although again Fitzgibbons was a bit cagey about specifics. “We’re changing it to make it more centrally located, and we don’t want to confuse people,” he says.
So what’s the deal with these guys? Why, despite a long-standing presence in Nevada, have few people heard about them? What’s their agenda? Are they rabble-rousers who are sending crazies to rant at town hall meetings on health-care reform, or are they one of those secret societies, à la the Freemasons, who have secret handshakes and politicians in their pocket?
Neither, it seems. Basically, they get by on membership dues ($87 a year, which includes a subscription to their magazine, The New American) and on a massive amount of volunteerism. Fitzgibbons, for example, and the 20 people he has helping out in Nevada doesn’t see a dime. They hold fundraisers sparingly, and even then it’s a small book sale or dinner. They have a website, and stress education for all members. They don’t support or oppose any legislator or president—only legislation. And while several of their positions would appear to make them a Republican-leaning organization (opposing health-care reform in its current form, questioning global warming), several others are decidedly to the left (getting American troops out of the Middle East).
Turner says most of the organization’s members are, indeed, Republican, but that many are Democrats, Libertarians and independents. He notes that the organization’s CEO in the 1980s was Democratic Congressman Larry McDonald. “There’s been this move to put people into two camps,” Fitzgibbons says. “To me, that just doesn’t cut it, because we’re about constitutional government. I suppose some people see us as radical, but once they get to know us, they feel we’re pretty sensible.”
Here’s the group’s process in a nutshell: You enroll, you’re put on a mailing list for group meetings, and you gather to discuss pending legislation, federal mandates to states that are expected to have significant impacts or just current events in general. (Fitzgibbons says the last meeting involved watching a DVD that JBS put out on terrorism’s sources and sponsors.) You’re then encouraged to meet with your legislators to discuss your concerns—and if you do decide to speak on JBS’ behalf at town hall meetings, civility and respect is always stressed.
Birchers nationwide oppose socialized medicine, support Internet freedom, oppose greater powers for the FDA and support an audit of the federal reserve. The organization’s latest campaign is the 10th and 17th amendment movements—“getting state legislators to recognize they don’t have to simply swallow every federal program that’s thrown at them. Federal programs are extremely expensive for states, and legislators just need to say they’re not going to bankrupt our state,” Fitzgibbons says, citing No Child Left Behind as an example. “That was one that states should have said they’re not going to get involved in.”
In a year where Obama-bashing has become the vogue (even for some Democrats), don’t expect to hear any direct attacks from JBS. “We’ve been telling people that America is in danger of becoming socialized since we started the organization,” Fitzgibbons says. “There’s no one person or event in our history that started all this.” However, Fitzgibbons does offer this: “By and large, the current government is not adhering to what the Constitution says.” There’s no secret as to what that means.