I’ve spent a fair amount of time fishing for gold in the birther bucket of mud. This the 1,443rd article I’ve written on this website, not to mention comments here and things I’ve written elsewhere. That’s a lot of time examining and discussing birther claims about Barack Obama. I’ve thought about, analyzed, researched, tested and ended up rejecting the birther rumors. The factual claims birthers make don’t pan out and we can rule out completely the defining birther assertion:Barack Obama is constitutionally ineligible to be President. But, as Mark Fenster says, just because conspiracy theorists are wrong doesn’t mean that they’re not on to something.
Taking that as a challenge, I’ve been asking myself whether the birthers really are on to something. But what could it be? That’s a hard question because the birthers themselves have put so much time and energy into creating and broadcasting their core absurdity that there has been very little opportunity to consider anything else. I think it’s fair to say that the birther mythology itself is a significant barrier to any valid critique of Barack Obama from the members of that movement.
More fundamental than eligibility denial, the birthers view Barack Obama as someone “foreign” and that is where I think the birthers are on to something. One need look no further than the demographics of the birther movement to see that Barack Obama is different from the prototypical birther: less educated, white, conservative, working class and southern. Barack Obama, despite his humble beginnings and his African heritage, is fairly characterized as part of the elite (well-educated, internationally traveled, articulate, athletic, successful and powerful). In a populist analysis, Obama embodies the “elite other,” the enemy of “the people.” In a racist analysis, Obama embodies the n*****.
I go back to Obama’s essentially pragmatic approach, as articulated in his book, The Audacity of Hope. Obama is saying in that book that an ideological approach to problem solving doesn’t work, and he is no ally of ideologues. George W. Bush’s (or Ronald Reagan for older Americans) “cowboy” approach to foreign policy resonated with Americans who understood patriotism as “we’re Americans and we’ll do whatever we damn well please.” Obama is a pragmatist and a consensus builder with a more international view; he’s not like the birther’s demographic. Populist rhetoric is also anti-science, scientists being identified also as belonging to the elite. Obama, on the other hand, is not threatened by smart people; he respects science; he’s different.
Another thing that the birthers are on to is the fact that there is no formal government-sponsored eligibility screening for presidential candidates, and beyond that they have discovered that the rule of standing prevents a wide range of generalized grievances against the government from being resolved through the federal courts, including adjudication of the particular question of Obama’s eligibility.
So yes, the birthers really are on to something. Barack Obama is indeed very foreign, at least to people like them, and the government is unresponsive to them. The birther problem is that they cannot articulate their real objection to Barack Obama and so must rely on tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories, which in the end don’t advance their cause at all, and indeed distract from it.
This article is the latest in the Understanding the Birthers series.