The Soviet Union is dissolved, its Communist Party in disarray.
Socialist governments are falling around the globe, shouldered aside by capitalism and democracy.
But in Simi Valley, staunch anti-communist members of the John Birch Society gather on a patio at twilight, pledge allegiance to a neatly furled American flag and fire off letters to their congressmen.
Despite recent events, the Birchers are still sworn to battle communism--which they see as a global conspiracy that threatens to crush America's freedom from within.
"Our contention has been for years that the greatest threat to America wasn't Moscow, it was Washington, D. C.," said John (Jack) McManus, president of the society nationwide. "The growth of government power leading to total government power is what Americans should be concerned about."
The John Birch Society holds that global communism's bid to enslave America is being carried out by organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. The former is a think tank on world politics, and the latter a group of academic, business, labor and media figures from North America, Western Europe and Japan.
But Birchers also preach that the United Nations wants socialism to rule the world and that global warming caused by pollution is a hoax foisted on gullible Americans to gain control over their land and businesses.
"Our feeling is that over a long period of time, they (communists) have taken control of the federal government of the United States," said Mark Walsh, who oversees members in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. "They are deliberately making the government bigger, on the road to a totalitarian federal dictatorship."
Academics dismiss the John Birch Society as a small but vocal pack of right-wing conspiracy zealots who refuse to accept reality.
"They're in dreamland," scoffed Prof. Sheldon Kamieniecki, vice chairman of the USC political science department.
"Even China's going to a private economy," he said. "More and more countries are getting rid of communism--Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union. The empirical evidence is just not there."
"If they're really thinking socialism is a major danger, they're missing a lot," said Prof. Jonathan Steepee, who teaches political science at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. "They're worrying about a danger that seems to be in decline."
But Walsh said the society is drawing fewer laughs and more followers, especially as the first Democratic presidency in 12 years tries to overhaul the government, including new taxes and regulations.
"Bill Clinton's the best recruiter for the John Birch Society we've had since Jimmy Carter," quipped Walsh, who oversees 1,000 of the conservative political activists, including 150 dues-paying members ($48 a year) scattered across Ventura County from Simi to Ojai. "So we wish him healthy days."
McManus said the John Birch Society clings to a longstanding tradition of not divulging its nationwide membership numbers. Yet while it is not nearly as high as the 120,000 and 160,000 numbers that have been reported, more people are joining the crusade, and the greatest concentration of society members is in California, he said.
Many Birchers are disenchanted blue-collar workers, angry that the government tells them how to live and takes their money in return.
"They're fed up with big government and its interference in their lives, its regulations," said Robert Paisley, president of the society's Simi Valley chapter. "The big sore thing is taxes."
The John Birch Society started out focusing not on taxes, but on communism itself.
It was founded in 1958 by retired Massachusetts candy executive Robert Welch, who convened 10 more wealthy businessmen and lectured to them for 17 hours over two days on what he considered to be an omnipresent communist threat.
Welch named the John Birch Society after someone whom he saw as the first casualty of the Cold War, an Army Air Force intelligence officer killed by the communist Chinese 10 days after V-J Day.
The society still holds that a worldwide communist and socialist conspiracy threatens the United States, through a cabal of rich and powerful people known as the Insiders, Walsh said.
But at street level today, he admits, Birchers are refocusing their fight--against the U. S. government.
Most rail against what they say is clear proof that the Communist Manifesto is wrapping constricting tentacles around America's freedom--in the forms of soaring U. S. taxes and government regulation.
"All 10 planks of the Communist Manifesto have come into existence in one form or another in our government," said Kevin Hayes, an unemployed oil field worker who belongs to the Simi Valley chapter. "A huge bureaucracy has got control over our wealth and sustains itself by confiscating our property" through taxes.
"I think our country's being subverted from within," said Randy Carlson, a professional photographer who lives in Ventura.
"I don't think the decisions that are being made in Congress and by the President are in the best interests of our country, from taxes through foreign aid," said Carlson, who joined the Ojai chapter this year after strongly supporting Ross Perot's presidential campaign. "The general consensus of the average American is our wishes aren't being followed by Congress. It doesn't matter how you vote. We're being lied to."
"Basically, we're advocates of constitutional government, like the founding fathers were," Walsh said. "It's just that gradually we're being taken into more and more government control and higher and higher taxes. We feel this is not happening by accident or by the natural growth theory of bureaucracy, but we feel it's happening on purpose."
Ventura County's Birchers push their agenda personally, compiling petitions, telling neighbors and co-workers about the fight, deluging their Congress members with letters that urge them not to pass laws that infringe on American rights.
Angry enough to act, Simi Valley machinist Gary Morrison joined the society this year.
He maintains that increasingly restrictive and costly Environmental Protection Agency laws shoved his high-precision Van Nuys machine shop out of existence three years ago and that taxes have forced him to take a second job to support his wife and eight children.
He was attracted by articles he read in The New American, the society's biweekly magazine.
And after satisfying himself that none of the persistent rumors about racism in the society were true, Morrison said, he joined and was pleased to find friends among nonpartisan conservatives who thought the way he did about where the country is going.
Now he works for Rocketdyne, where he leaves a copy of The New American magazine out on his toolbox and engages colleagues in political debate.
"The general consensus that I perceive from my co-workers and people I interact with in the neighborhood (is) the government is spending their money and putting a burden on their backs," Morrison said recently, pen in hand at a letter-writing meeting with fellow Birchers in Simi Valley.
"I think there's been a concerted effort to foster a dependence on government versus a dependence on one's ability to live peaceably with (one's) neighbors," he said. "I see the Birch Society as one that fosters an effort to meet the needs of your neighbors through private enterprise and self-sufficiency."
Claire Kaldawi, pregnant with her second child, said she writes her congressman 10 to 15 times a month on behalf of the John Birch Society. She does not bother with liberal U. S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who she said "are not going to do anything we want."
Lately, she has been urging support for the military ban on gays and defeat of nationalized health care, which she sees as the American version of a socialist scheme that has failed in other nations worldwide.
When she can, Kaldawi said, she leaves copies of The New American lying around doctors' and dentists' offices.
"It's gotten really bad . . . all the liberalism that's going on," she said. "I think the biggest thing this group can do is educate people on what's going on and get them to voice their support of what they believe in. I just want to encourage everybody to get involved. You have to use your freedoms or lose them."
Dan McBride, a plumbing contractor from Simi Valley, has been a Bircher for 30 years.
"I joined as a teen-ager, back in '63, when I was in the service," said McBride, a former Green Beret. "They didn't have chapters in Vietnam--that was when we were physically fighting communism."
McBride said he admires the society's populist approach to politics, such as letter-writing campaigns and petition drives. Birchers also go to nearby post offices on April 15 to hand leaflets to people who are mailing their tax returns at the last minute, he said.
"The best method of education is one-on-one," he said. "Our agenda consists of areas where the society feels the conspiracy is the most vulnerable, and it has mass appeal. For instance, taxes: We're constantly trying to get people aware of the excessive taxation rate. And it's easy to get people to listen to you, especially nowadays when we're running such a huge deficit."
The society often wields its sword in the form of TRIM! bulletins (Tax Reform IMmediately). The two-color "report cards" outline each congressman's vote on a shopping list of recently passed legislation, boiling down each issue to whether the representative "voted for LOWER TAXES and LESS government" or "voted for HIGH TAXES and BIG government."
"If anybody ever asks you if the John Birch Society has lobbyists, you can assure them that we try to turn all our members into lobbyists by encouraging them to write letters to their senators and representatives," Walsh said. "We know for a fact it has more of an effect on congressmen than political lobbyists."
The Clinton presidency and increasing taxes are bringing greater membership to groups such as the John Birch Society, said Prof. Stanley Moore of Pepperdine University.
"He has a very high agenda in a shaky economy," said Moore, also chairman of the Southern California Political Science Assn. "And it seems to me that's the perfect breeding ground for fanatical groups of every stripe. They know very little about reality, but they're absolutely convinced they know the truth. The less they know, almost, the more certain they are."
USC's Kamieniecki said: "I think most people recognize that if you have no control, no regulations, planes will fall out of the sky, hazardous and toxic waste will seep into underground aquifers.
"When we live in a democracy, those kinds of groups fill a very useful function: They show the public how bad it could be if you were to elect someone of the extreme right or the extreme left . . . to make decisions based purely on ideological concerns."
Yet McManus said the John Birch Society will continue to grow during the Clinton Administration because its message boils down to a simple set of values.
"We believe in the fundamentals, as the founding fathers did," McManus said. "Government should be limited, people should be free, the government rules best which rules least--that kind of stuff."
He added: "The motto of the John Birch Society is 'Less government, more responsibility and, with God's help, a better world.' "