A commenter asked that question.
I asked the question too from the very beginning of this blog, since it is called "Obama Conspiracy Theories." When I first asked I asked it more literally, focusing more on the definition of the word "conspiracy" than the general concept of conspiracy thinking. As the birther stories evolved, they invoked conspiracies to explain their lack of success, and so my original naming concerns were taken care of.
Later I came to understand birtherism as the kind of thinking that characterizes conspiracy theorists. Experts on conspiracy theory seem to agree. An important early article on birtherism is "Why the stories about Obama’s birth certificate will never die" where Alex Koppelman wrote at Salon.com:
Barack Obama was, without question, born in the U.S., and he is eligible to be president, but experts on conspiracy theories say that won’t ever matter to those who believe otherwise.
Last year, I took some time to delve into the literature about conspiracy theories. What I found was that certain cognitive errors described in the literature seemed to fit the birthers. If conspiracy thinking does result from peculiar "brain wiring" then one would expect that those who believe in one conspiracy believe in others. Anecdotes support that. Jerome Corsi and Phil Berg, for example, are both 9/11 Truthers. Orly Taitz sees a conspiracy under every rock. I see a lot of birthers who also believe in vast international conspiracies, black helicopters, chemtrails, and all sorts of such things.
Arthur Goldwag doesn’t mention "birthers" in his 2009 book Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies but he later wrote that he didn’t include them because he thought birtherism would rapidly fade away after the election. Goldwag associates birtherism with the paranoid style that Richard Hofstadter coined to describe conspiracy theorists (they act paranoid, but aren’t clinically so).
Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths once tweeted: “Obama ‘birthers’ even loonier than 9/11 ‘truthers’." Shermer wrote in The Scientific American:
WAS PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA BORN IN HAWAII? I find the question so absurd, not to mention possibly racist in its motivation, that when I am confronted with “birthers” who believe otherwise, I find it difficult to even focus on their arguments about the difference between a birth certificate and a certificate of live birth. The reason is because once I formed an opinion on the subject, it became a belief, subject to a host of cognitive biases to ensure its verisimilitude. Am I being irrational? Possibly. In fact, this is how most belief systems work for most of us most of the time.
We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and society at large. After forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments and rational explanations. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow.
There are other approaches to explaining birtherism besides the classic conspiracy theory cognitive errors described by Michael Shermer. One alternate explanation is referenced in the Scientific American article "What’s Behind Birthers’ Obama Belief" in which they say:
Research done by Harvard’s Mahzarin Banaji and San Diego State’s Thierry Devos into what’s called "implicit social cognition" reveals that white Americans inherently regard white Europeans as somehow more "American" than Asian- or African-Americans, which may help explain why so many people find it easy to believe that President Obama is not really a citizen.
This explains why white Americans believe Tony Blair is "more American" than Barack Obama.
I have seen lots of attempts to explain birtherism in the mainstream literature. The New York Times did a major article surveying experts on that question last year in their article “The Psychology of the ‘Birther’ Myth.” It is explained as racist, xenophobic, religious, right-wing nut job, conspiracy theorist and calculated political smear. I might summarize this in the following chart:
I think that the sources of bias are numerous but the mechanisms of belief, the thinking errors and the reinforcement of those errors—the hardware of birtherism is the same as with all conspiracy theories.
However, no matter what the explanation, what you never see is anyone saying that birthers have a valid concern—except other birthers.