How The John Birch Society Changed Oklahoma
The Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee (OCPAC) has become one of the most powerful outside groups in state Republican politics. Founder and President Charlie Meadows claims that his organization is a major reason why Oklahoma has swung from deep blue to deep red in the last twenty years, and we have no reason to doubt him. What we find interesting, though, is that he made this claim to the John Birch Society last October at a dinner and “education session” in North Carolina.
His advice was to build relationships with state and local leaders. Much of the reason why Oklahoma went from a blue state to a solid red state in 20 years is due to the education and accountability efforts of OCPAC.
A proud Bircher since 1988, Meadows was a conference speaker at the JBS 50th Anniversary celebration (PDF) in 2008. Everything we have learned so far about Meadows and OCPAC leads us to conclude that this important force in Oklahoma politics is actually a front for the John Birch Society’s political organizing in that state.
Mainstream America may have dismissed the JBS as irrelevant decades ago, but the Birchers have never stopped organizing thousands of small trust networks across the nation. JBS was consciously modeled after Leninism in its early years. Founder Robert Welch organized the Society as though he was a Maoist insurgent, forming cells of no more than a dozen at a time and splitting any larger group into two or more smaller ones. As Dave Barry wrote for the New York Times in 2009,
A chapter usually requires at least 10 members, although Mr. Thompson said, “We’ll let them start at eight.” He said the mandate is to establish relationships with a community’s opinion makers: “It could be a member of the city council, it could be the head of the chamber of commerce, key people in the Kiwanis.”
But a request to talk to people who had recently joined the cause was met with resistance by James Fitzgerald, the national director of field activities, who began the conversation by criticizing a New York Times article about the society from 1966.
Decades of patient organizing has created a path to power that would be the envy of any special interest group, and there could be no clearer example than the Society’s influence on Oklahoma’s Republican Party. This is a good example example of an “outside group” controlling the party agenda in a one-party state, and we are pretty sure that Oklahoma is not the only state where this has happened.
How OCPAC Influences Oklahoma’s GOP
The primary focus of OCPAC is to make the state GOP more and more conservative. One common tactic outside groups use to make Republicans less moderate is to score their votes, sometimes even minor and procedural ones, and publish detailed ratings that encourage conformity to an extreme agenda. JBS founder Robert Welch pioneered this form of outside pressure, and OCPAC dominates this activity in Oklahoma’s conservative movement. As the Sooner Tea Party newsletter complained in a long but kind of fascinating story of conservative infighting,
…(W)e pointed out the problems with the 2011 Conservative Index while pointing out that Charlie Meadows of OCPAC was responsible for handling the voting on the index, Charlie’s refusal to listen to conservative legislators on the bills included in the index, and Charlie’s lack of due diligence in missing five major bills that were the most obvious bills to be used to separate conservative legislators from liberal/progressive legislators.
The Conservative Index is published in the Oklahoma Constitution, a quarterly newspaper edited by a former candidate for the state legislature named Steve Byas. The aptly-named Byas is a movie reviewer for the JBS’s New American website, where neoconfederate sympathies are common, so his review of Lincoln has a predictable anti-emancipation bias. Mr. Byas also discusses the John Birch Society on a cable access show in Moore, Oklahoma, where he teaches history(!) and operates a bookstore. Byas and Meadows both joined the Society after it had purged the overt anti-Semitism and racism from its paranoid and extremely weird mythology.
How seriously do Republicans take the Conservative Index that Mr. Meadows organizes and Mr. Byas publishes? Consider the fact that Republicans plead for special consideration and will explain themselves to the nearest Bircher website if their ratings are too low.
State Rep. Mike Ritze, arguably the most conservative legislator in Oklahoma, scored only 49 points (he has a career average of 83 points). Due to family issues, Ritze missed three votes on the list and that cost him 21 points. He missed less than a dozen votes the entire session but three happened to make the list. He actually was co-author of two of those bills.
Ritze was rated “liberal” on three votes.
Ritze said he was a co-author of a bill to lower the state income tax but he voted against the final version because it added money to renovate the Capitol. Ritze said he voted no because you can’t combine the two issues and it was unconstitutional.
Mr. Meadows is something of a kingmaker within the Oklahoma Republican Party, where his endorsements make or break contenders for leadership. He has removed moderates from the GOP by focusing on primary races in “safe” districts. As Meadows explains in a message to the OCPAC email list,
Our by-laws determine which Republican primary races in which we get involved and the ones we don’t. We try to only get involved in what are considered “safe Republican seats” knowing that the winner of the Republican primary will most likely win in a general election. Therefore, the primary winner is the most important part of the race and we want to help find and support the most conservative candidates in those primaries. Remember, the need in Oklahoma is not to have larger Republican majorities in the legislature, but, better quality and more conservative lawmakers.
As an “outside” leader, Meadows has pulled the state party to the right during a time that Oklahoma was shifting to Republican legislative super-majorities, one of the most dramatic changes in voting patterns of any state over the last decade. His efforts have enjoyed a visible effect on legislative priorities. In recent years, Oklahoma’s GOP lawmakers have pursued many items that smack of Bircherism: bills to nullify Obamacare, anti-sharia legislation, laws to ban participation in the UN’s Agenda 21 sustainability effort, amendments to remove the state from the Common Core curriculum, xenophobic anti-immigration measures, and so on. All this legislation is not just a series of accidents. Much of it comes to Oklahoma through the American Legislative Exchange Council’s State Policy Network, which is a long-term project of the Koch Brothers, whose father Fred helped found and fund the John Birch Society.
This is an inherently undemocratic form of government.
How Charlie Meadows Influences OCPAC
The OCPAC Google group is currently public. This newsletter tells us a lot about how Meadows runs his organization, as he is responsible for the content. Meadows consistently connects the Society with OCPAC, regularly updating list recipients on both organizations. For example, the two groups frequently co-host events, and speakers who visit one group always visit the other as well.
Meadows regularly informs OCPAC members of upcoming JBS training, speaking engagements, and so forth:
Other messages extol the virtues of the Society and encourage readers to immerse themselves in Welch’s revisionist history:
Sometimes, Meadows can seem downright paranoid. This one cites “security reasons” for keeping a speaker’s name secret:
Posts invite members to attend speaking engagements that feature state and local Republican officeholders talking about the issues which concern Birchers most.
Meadows often travels to JBS headquarters in Wisconsin, a state where Koch-funded, Scott Walker-style Republican politics have created even more controversy than Oklahoma. Which brings us to our closing question for the day.
How Common Is This?
Sadly, OCPAC is probably not unique in its success as a state-level organization. JBS has seen a resurgence in recent years, and longtime organizers like Charlie Meadows are a big reason. The OCPAC email trail shows a surge in recruiting during 2010, when tea parties were ascendant and Glenn Beck was leading the cable ratings in his time slot by recycling conspiracy theories borrowed from the Bircher gospel. That year, New York Times reporter David Barstow told the story of Pam Stout, a tea party activist who discovered JBS for the first time and went on to become became a national development officer for the organization.
Worried about hyperinflation, social unrest or even martial law, she and her Tea Party members joined a coalition, Friends for Liberty, that includes representatives from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, the John Birch Society, and Oath Keepers, a new player in a resurgent militia movement.
When Friends for Liberty held its first public event, Mrs. Stout listened as Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff, brought 1,400 people to their feet with a speech about confronting a despotic federal government. Mrs. Stout said she felt as if she had been handed a road map to rebellion. Members of her family, she said, think she has disappeared down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. But Mrs. Stout said she has never felt so engaged.
In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok told an Ohio news site that JBS started gaining numbers during the Clinton administration, when members began recruiting at militias and gun shows. Claire Conner, a child of Bircher parents who wrote a memoir about her experiences in the movement, told the SPLC’s Don Terry that the Society is indistinguishable from tea party conservatism.
“I always say to my liberal friends you better stop laughing at these people and pay attention,” she says. “The ideas that you hear today coming from the right were generated in the ’60s by the John Birch Society. It’s new language, but the same ideas. In terms of the intellectual framework of the GOP, it’s the Birch Society every single day.”
We expect that further investigations will turn up other examples of powerful Bircher-connected “outside groups” like OCPAC in states where the GOP has a majority and has become more extreme in its legislative priorities. ALEC and the State Policy Network have a successful track record in many American states, while gridlock in Washington can often mask the radicalism that takes hold in state legislatures where Republican lawmakers dominate, and the JBS has quietly become acceptable in hinterland Republican politics without much notice from the mainstream media. We will continue to investigate this story, and no doubt we will find another Charlie Meadows soon enough.
Video: Charlie Meadows gives a testimonial for the John Birch Society in 2011.
Video: JBS President John McMannus speaks to OCPAC in November 2012.