13 March 2012

Do Democrats perpetuate Birtherism?

David A. Graham of The Atlantic takes liberals to task for appearing to gloat over a recent poll according to which a majority of Mississippi Republicans and a near-majority of their Alabama counterparts continue to believe that the President of the United States is a Muslim. While Democratic bloggers and other propagandists hope to exploit the results and portray the Republican party as a whole of irrational suspicion or veiled racism, Graham suggests that Public Policy Polling, which he identifies as a "Democratic" organization, largely has itself to blame for the results they got in the two states. In short, his case against PPP and the people who decry its findings is: if you don't want people to believe something crazy, don't offer it as a possibility for them. Citing a political scientist's finding that "the fewer people exposed to a false claim, the less likely it is to spread," Graham implicitly questions whether Democrats really want Republicans to drop their controversial beliefs. The correct stance for a Democrat or anyone interested in the truth, he implies, would be to refrain from raising the question themselves -- to refuse to treat it as an open question.

If PPP is as partisan an entity as Graham claims, however, its motive was most likely not to suppress crazy theories about the President's origins or motives -- since when is that ever a pollster's motive? -- but to expose them. The pollsters in this case certainly didn't think the President's religion was an open question, but they probably did call Southerners in the expectation that many would confess themselves birthers or paranoid about the President in some way. Graham suggests that some respondents played into the pollsters hands by practicing what another political scientist calls "symbolic belief." That is, they're willing to lie about the President, not sincerely believing that he's a Muslim or a foreigner, simply to underscore their disapproval of him. Graham considers this equivalent to Democrats calling George W. Bush (or any Republican) a fascist. But that's a tricky comparison. It may be that few of Bush's critics actually thought of him as a disciple of Mussolini or Hitler, but the term "fascist" is so vague for most liberals and covers so much ground that most of them probably felt that the term described something real that they discerned in Bush, Cheney et al.  I don't think "Muslim" is as yet as comprehensive a pejorative for Republicans -- but I would take somewhat seriously one comment on Graham's article that claimed that the "M" word was becoming a convenient euphemism for the "N" word. A pollster might actually reveal something useful were he to ask people how likely it was for any black man in America to be a Muslim. I suspect the suspicion would be disproportionate to the facts. Some cynical Republicans have admitted to stirring the birther pot just to piss off Democrats, but I doubt many in the rank and file are that cynical.

Is it the Democratic party's responsibility to suppress birtherism, and is it therefore hypocritical of them to perpetuate it in the way Graham charges? Democrats have probably done all they can on the case by affirming the President's citizenship and condemning questions about his religion. Few would tolerate a law against birtherism; that'd smack too much of dictatorial laws against "slandering the state" or its leaders. The solution lies where the problem does, which is not just specifically with birthers but with Americans of all ideologies who feel entitled to entertain any paranoid conspiratorial notion that comes to mind about the future of the country. It's simply too easy for many of us to imagine that the other side is going to and may want to destroy the country for any number of reasons. Bipolarchy may have something to do with the widespread feeling that the only alternative is also the worst one, but the lunacy let loose by the four-way race for the GOP presidential nomination suggests deeper issues in play, particularly a collective failure of trust in the face of differences of opinion. The more that every man seems a stranger, the more suspicious each feels about all. There may be no political solution to that problem that isn't also and primarily a cultural solution -- we may be looking for answers in the wrong places, but where do we look instead?

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