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Sunday, July 26, 2009
Birthers: Political Insanity on the American Right
Posted by Austin Cline
Is there some sort of inherent psychological illness among conservatives in America that is causing so many of them to so readily accept the insane notion the Barack Obama isn't an American citizens? Conspiracy theories can surely be found in every culture and nation, among people of every religious and political persuasion, but conspiracy theories seem to be disturbingly popular in America generally and among America's religious and political conservatives in particular.
Fortunately these conspiracy theories tend to remain more on the margins, but in recent years conservatives' conspiracy theories have been making ever more inroads into their political and religious mainstream. Today, the "birther" nonsense is the most recent step in this development; more than with any other conspiracy theory in recent years, it looks like the belief that Barack Obama is not a citizen is taking over Republican and conservative politics. It's not only popular with fringe conservative groups and pundits, but is being loudly defended by prominent groups, outlets, and spokespeople.
There are several factors which I think are playing into the Birther position, all of which combine to make this one conspiracy theory more popular and powerful than the many others which have had varying degrees of influence over the years.
The existence and impact of widespread racism in America simply can't be denied — except by people who are in denial, obviously — and while people might be in denial about any number of things, being in denial about something like racism means that you are part of the problem. Even if you engage in no actual racist behavior yourself (perhaps because of a lack of contact with racial minorities, a problem itself), denying its existence elsewhere and denying how it affects minorities serves to exacerbate those negative effects.
I don't want to claim that only conservatives are racists or that all conservative are racists, but there are clearly more racial problems among Republicans than among Democrats. The modern Republican Party was built on overt racist appeals, and denial about racism is far more prevalent in Republican circles. Thus even when Republicans are simply claiming that racism isn't a "real" problem, they are in fact contributing to racism in American society.
It is highly implausible that this racism isn't playing a role in the popularity and acceptance of Birther claims. Barack Obama, as a black man, is probably the ultimate "other" and "outsider" in American society, culture, and politics. Obama is a member of a racial minority which conservative, white Americans have tended to see as inferiors in some sense, and certainly not as national leaders.
Hyping the notion that he is not an American citizen and thus not eligible to be president is a way to attack the power of a black person without directly attacking their race — it's a way to mount what is essentially a racist attack without appearing to be racist. Do you suppose that the vitriol over this would be quite so strong if there were a chance Obama had been born in a European country like Germany or England rather than Kenya?
Closely related to racism is xenophobia: fear, hatred, or aversion to "outsiders" and people who are different. Racism can be treated as a type of xenophobia, at least insofar as the targets of racism are regarded as cultural, political, and social outsiders who threaten one's in-group and thus one's identity. Xenophobia also encompasses much more, though, and I think there have been clear signs that xenophobia among conservatives and Republicans is more prevalent than among liberals and Democrats.
To cite just one big example, look at how much conservative hand-wringing and vitriol have been produced as a consequence of immigration and especially illegal immigration. Opposition to immigration is obviously driven in part by racism, but also by xenophobia: the immigrants are feared because their language, culture, religion, and practices are so foreign that they are perceived as a threat to American traditions. You never see the same levels of concern over illegal immigration from Europe that you do over even legal immigration from Latin America.
There was clearly a lot of xenophobia directed towards Barack Obama during the election and some of it continues today: he's Muslim, he's Kenyan, he grew up in Indonesia, etc. The Birther nonsense isn't just encouraged by this xenophobia, but also itself encourages xenophobia in a feedback loop: the idea that he was actually born abroad is a reason to fear him, and fear of people born abroad make the question of his citizenship all the more important to Birthers.
Illegitimacy of Liberalism
Politics is of course important here. For years the conservative movement and the Republican Party have been building up the impression that liberalism itself is completely illegitimate: it's unAmerican, it's communist, it's socialist, it's foreign, it's anti-Christian, etc. In the minds of far too many conservatives, liberalism isn't a political ideology that is merely mistaken or wrong on some basic issues, but rather a completely illegitimate one that simply has no place in America — it is, in no uncertain terms, an evil ideology that will destroy America if allowed to gain power.
What's more, conservatives have been told for several years now that the dominance of conservatism and the Republican Party was assured for many more years to come — perhaps even decades. The fact that they were told this by pundits who had consistently gotten everything else of significance wrong, like Iraq, didn't matter. Conservatives came to believe that not only was their political ideology the only legitimate one for America, but also that there would be no serious competition from liberalism and Democrats for a long time. The illegitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency is thus perhaps an expression of the belief that liberalism it itself an illegitimate ideology.
Belief in Conspiracies
We can't ignore the importance and attraction of conspiracy theories in general, especially with American conservatism. All of the above feed into conspiracy theories to make them even more powerful. As a rule, people like to think that there is a semblance of order and especially control operating behind our political and economic systems. It's arguable that this is especially true with conservatives, given the degree to which conservatism emphasizes social order and control.
Too often, though, it's difficult to see where that order comes from, and in the absence of some trustworthy authority who is controlling the direction of society, some people start believing that control is actually in the hands of shadowy groups bent on some evil goal. It is very difficult, for example, to understand why economies act the way they do or why international politics takes one path instead of another. Indeed, those issues may be too complex to ever fully understand.
It's easy to see this at work with the above issues: more and more people who aren't white are achieving social and political power, thus taking the society in new and unpredictable directions. The resurgence of liberalism and liberal policies in national politics is overturning a status quo which conservatives had been told would last for decades. What could possibly explain all of these terrible events if not a conspiracy among evil people?
Such an answer can be particularly appealing to conservative Christians because Christianity is predicated largely upon the belief in a cosmic struggle between the forces of Good (God, Jesus) and the forces of evil (Satan, demons). Conspiracies of world domination by sinister forces mesh quite nicely with the theology that Satan is trying to undermine goodness and Christianity. Thus, the conspiratorial powers - Jews, Masons, Muslims, humanists, gays, even Catholics - also end up as servants of Satan, allowing for even greater scapegoating and demonizing.
at 7:30 AM