Friday, August 7, 2009

On Birthers

The blog-reading public* is clamoring** for my thoughts on the Birther movement. I vacillate (or is it oscillate? I don't recall mentally turning around and achieving a point of zero velocity, so maybe I just keep going in a circle) between kinda enjoying the spectacle -- look at all the crazy white people! (they're all white) -- and being frightened of it. I mean, these people vote, hold jobs, and drive cars.*** And when it comes time to have a serious discussion in this country, about health care, for example, the opinions of these crazies appear in polls that help to dictate politicians actions. So nutters are hardly benign, and it is not like we're talking a vocal but tiny minority -- "No" and "Not Sure" accounted for 58% of Repulicans when asked if Obama was a legit citizen (and 17% of Independents, and 7% of Democrats -- am I wrong to think that the 7% of Democrats who aren't sure if Obama is a citizen all live south of the Mason-Dixon line, and vividly remember Strom Thrumond's 1948 campaign?)

This brings me to a point made quite succintly by Andrew Sullivan:
If that is what you really believe - that people in cities or suburbs, that minorities, that gays, that blacks and Hispanics are not part of "real America" - then of course, you are angry. You believe a fake America has taken over. You cannot understand this. So you start believing that we have a fascist/communist dictatorship, that there was some fraud allowing a non-citizen to become president, that the government is about to "take over" all healthcare provision ... and on and on. And no one is left in the GOP to challenge this, to calm it down, to present practical alternatives to the obvious crushing problems the country and the private sector have in paying for increasingly costly healthcare.

I depart from Judge Smails, however, in the source of all this paranoia -- I think it is almost 100% racial. In his own words:
For sure, there's a component of racism/xenophobia/Muslim/FunnyName to all of this. But it seems evident to me that this is much better explained by partisanship. If it were strictly --- or evenly largely --- racism, then we'd see a large number of poor white self-identified democrats (among whom racist attitudes poll as strong or stronger than most Republicans; plus they significantly outnumber poor white republicans) believing Obama wasn't born in the U.S. But we don't see that at all --- it's by and large a republican thing.

So I'm inclined to believe that this is your classic partisan conspiracy belief --- not unlike the 30% of Democrats who believe Bush knew about 9/11 ahead of time or the 40% of democrats who think the vote in Ohio in 2004 was rigged. Even in the face of zero evidence for their cause, partisans are quick to latch on to conspiracies. It helps people feel good about themselves. And, of course, conspiracy theorists are nothing if not believers that the lack of evidence for their case is even more evidence of a conspiracy.

I think the crux of our disagreement is that I'm not sure I believe that, among poor white Democrats, "racist attitudes poll as strong or stronger than most Republicans." Well, perhaps better put, I suspect that racist poor whites are now a tiny tiny fraction of the Democrats' coalition (the 7%), almost all of them having moved to the Republican party over the last 20 years or so. So while the feelings correlate along party lines, that doesn't mean partisanship is driving these feelings.

The last time the Democrats lost an election ('04) some responded by saying the vote was unfair, undercounted, whatever, and given what happened in Florida in '00, that's not an entirely crazy thing to jump to, especially in the days immediately following the election. But the Republican response has been to deny that they guy was even born here, despite a birth certificate and a birth announcement in the Hawaiian papers, with these thoughts still going strong 8 months after the election?! Sorry, there's not an equivalence here. I think there is something much deeper driving these protests, and I think the non-whiteness of Obama is the source of it.

* Actually, one person
** And "asking" is probably more accurate than "clamoring"
*** Probably while texting