The higher birtherism

Fantastical claims about Obama ironically have something profound to teach us, writes Paul Rosenberg.

Republicans who accept Obama as the legitimate president now form a tiny minority within their party [GALLO/GETTY]

San Pedro, CA – Last spring, Donald Trump spent weeks promoting himself as a potential GOP candidate, overwhelmingly based on recycling counterfactual claims that President Obama hadn’t been born in the United States, and thus was illegitimate as president. Tellingly, Trump’s claims rocketed him to the top of the polls by mid-April. A few weeks later, on April 27, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate – finally putting the issue to rest… or so most pundits thought. Naturally, they were wrong, as they almost always are.

A pair of YouGov polls bracketing the release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate showed a significant increase of those accepting Obama’s American birth, coming almost entirely from those who were previously unsure. But the percentage of hardcore birthers – those who outright denied his American birth – barely declined at all.  More tellingly, another YouGov poll last month – nine months later – found the percentage of hardcore birthers had actually increased since before the long-form’s release. Among Republicans, the results were particularly dramatic, with the percentage of hard-core birthers up by almost half (from 25 per cent to 37 per cent) since pre-release levels. Disturbing as this result most certainly is, it is but the tip of the iceberg.

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Before the long-form release, 55 per cent of all Americans believed Obama was born in the US, compared to 15 per cent who said he wasn’t and 30 per cent who weren’t sure. Afterward, those numbers changed to 67 per cent, 13 per cent, and 20 per cent respectively. The January 2012 poll found numbers closer to the pre-release levels: 59 per cent, 17 per cent and 24 per cent respectively.

Among Republicans, the spike in hardcore birtherism was particularly sharp. Last spring, hardcore birthers numbered only 10 per cent more than the overall population: 25 per cent to 15 per cent before the release and 23 per cent to 13 per cent afterward; but by January, the percentage had jumped to 20 per cent greater: 37 per cent to 17 per cent.

Put another way, before the long-form release, GOP birthers were outnumbered by those accepting Obama’s status as an American by a 5-point margin: 30 per cent to 25 per cent. But in January, the margin was 10 points the other way: 27 per cent to 37 per cent. The number of hardcore birthers had increased by almost half from their pre-long-form release levels: 37 per cent compared to 25 per cent.

Republicans who accept Obama as the legitimate President of the United States now form a tiny minority within their own party. The vast majority of Republicans either doubt or deny that he is the legitimate president, despite a total lack of any evidence to support their position. This may seem amazingly disconnected from reality, but it’s far from being an isolated incident. To the contrary, it’s disturbingly typical and can be mapped across a number of different dimensions. 

‘Higher birtherism’

First, there are what might be called examples of “higher birtherism” – more abstract or more sweeping claims about President Obama with the same metaphysical content, casting him as fundamentally “other”, alien and hostile to the US.

Rick Santorum has been wallowing in this sort of thing lately, comparing Obama to Hitler (as he had done before, as well as comparing Senate Democrats to Hitler), warning of Obama engaging in a “war on religion”, leading us to a re-run of the French Revolution and the guillotine (a total inversion of actual history, since the French people had no rights before overthrowing their church-supported absolute monarchy) and even implicitly accusing Obama of trying to usurp God, saying “He wants to remake you in his image“. Santorum has repeatedly retreated when challenged, but then he just turns around and pops off with another off-the-wall attack.

More importantly, social science research shows that these kinds of claims cannot be un-made after the fact. Once out there, they never go away. As these examples vividly show, being “higher” in the sense of being more abstract has nothing to do with being morally elevated. All these are examples of gutter politics that would make Richard Nixon giggle like a teenage girl. And all would be quickly dismissed as absurd, were we not living in a world where ordinary birtherism is completely embraced by a plurality of self-identified Republicans.

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Second, there are similar examples of how other prominent liberals and Democrats have been similarly demonised without any factual basis. The Swift Boat lies about John Kerry’s military service that helped defeat him in 2004 come readily to mind. But we shouldn’t forget the lies about Al Gore being a “serial exaggerator” during the 2000 election, or the more elaborate framework of lies used to advance the impeachment witch-hunt of Bill Clinton that dominated most of his two terms in office

More recently, Rick Santorum has added to this list, seeking to demonise John F Kennedy. He recently took aim at Kennedy’s historic 1960 “Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association”, falsely claiming that Kennedy tried to banish religion from the public square, a claim that Salon‘s Joan Walsh easily refuted.

It’s a claim that Santorum’s made before, most notably last March. “We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process,” Santorum said at the time.

But Kennedy’s own actions directly refute Santorum. Kennedy never shunned religious leaders. To the contrary, on June 17, 1963, just two days before he introduced the Civil Rights Act (passed after his death), Kennedy met with a delegation of 250 religious leaders to discuss the issue. The meeting was held in the East Room of White House and Kennedy arranged for a follow-up process as well. What he did not do was take religious instructions, as opposed to exchanging ideas and opinions. If Santorum is going to tell wild lies about President Obama, at least Obama’s in good company.

Third, there are examples of relatively simple factual lies about the world that form the foundations for policy lies that would make no sense without them. A classic example was the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at the time of the Iraq War, and the related claim that we had absolute proof of this. The next two kinds of lies branch off of this kind.

Fourth, there are pure policy lies, such as the claims that ObamaCare contained “death panels” or included provisions for euthanasia. Unlike the third kind, these require no reference to anything outside of policy documents.

Fifth, there are more complicated factual lies, such as the right-wing denial of man-made global warming. The factual foundations for global warming are a great deal more complicated than for verifying or rejecting the claim that Iraq had WMDs. Scientists have spent several decades studying the issue, a mere handful at first, but many thousands over the last decade or two.

Yet, here, too, there is a related lie that is much more easily evaluated and detected – the lie that denies the well-documented existence of a scientific consensus. Various lies in the realm of economics belong here as well, although some more properly belong in the third category, because they are genuinely not all that complicated.

As this rough outline suggests, political lies are anything but a peripheral phenomenon and are worthy of serious and systematic study. Fortunately, we are finally starting to see the beginnings of such study.

Many US politicians falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein had WMDs at the time of the Iraq War [GALLO/GETTY]

Other contemporary political lies

The birther poll results referred to above were not surprising to Adam Berinsky, an MIT professor of political science, who commissioned the January poll. “These results might be troubling, but they are not surprising,” he wrote. “They are consistent with my previous work on the lasting power of rumours in the face of new information. As I, and others, have shown, rumours and innuendo are powerful forces in American politics – and they are hard to undo.” 

Berinsky uses the term “rumour” in the social science sense of an unproven fact claim whose credibility comes simply from being repeated, rather than from any independent evidence. “Rumours” in this sense could actually prove to be true, or at least make claims that have an ambiguous or tenuous relationship with actually true claims. As such, the term might apply to all the categories listed above – although probably most easily to the first four.

Thus, the two papers Berinsky cites provide an introduction to the study of false claims and how they persist. Significantly, they mark a stark break with the naïve supposition that the only sorts of truth problems there are in politics concern lack of information, as opposed to misinformation and/or disinformation. Surprisingly, there has been very little social science attention paid to misinformation until quite recently.

The second paper Berinsky points to, “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions” by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, describes a series of four experiments in which they “document several instances of a ‘backfire effect’ in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question”. They found the backfire effect with conservatives in 2005, clinging to the false claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) at the time of the Iraq War.

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By 2006, the backfire effect had faded for conservatives generally – but not for those who still rated Iraq as the most important problem facing the country. They also found backfire effects when attempting to correct the false claim that tax cuts pay for themselves by increasing government revenue – what I would categorise as an economic factual lie in the third category listed above.

Nyhan and Reifler also tried to find a backfire effect for liberals by testing the liberal claim that Bush had imposed a ban on stem cell research – but they failed to do so. They did find liberals resistant to changing their minds, however. But this is a rather poor comparison, since Bush actually did impose such a ban, just not a total one: he did not ban privately funded research or publicly funded research on a limited number of already-developed stem cell lines. 

Berinsky’s own paper was primarily concerned with trying to find more effective means of countering misperceptions, and it did find some evidence that using Republican figures to refute Republican myths could be somewhat effective. But Berinsky also included an illuminating comparative look at  seven different “rumours” – four conservative, two liberal and one apolitical (the Roswell alien legend). The four conservative examples were: Obama being a foreigner; Kerry lying to get his medals in Vietnam; the federal government giving illegal immigrants special benefits, such as houses, cars or tax breaks; and illegal immigrants being the primary carriers of diseases like AIDS, leprosy and swine flu into the US. 

The two liberal examples were: “9/11 truther” claim that elements in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or deliberately allowed them to happen; and the claim that Republicans stole the 2004 election through voter fraud in Ohio. Berinsky examined a number of different factors and their impacts on acceptance of such beliefs. 

One such factor was overall level of political knowledge. Generally speaking, those who are more politically knowledgeable tend to be less prone to acceptance of such rumours. However, the opposite is true for Republican acceptance of conservative rumours considered as a whole. As Berinsky put it, “Republicans who are more engaged with politics are more likely to accept negative rumours about Democrats”.

This finding turns out to be part of a much broader pattern, as described by author Chris Mooney in a just-published excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Scienceand Reality. Mooney starts off his discussion with a 2008 Pew report, “A Deeper Partisan Divide Over Global Warming“.

One unexpected finding: Among Democrats and independents, college graduates were much more likely to correctly believe that global warming is happening because of human activity – by 23 and 9 percentage points, respectively. Among Republicans, college grads are less likely, by 12 points. (On a purely coincidental note, just 27 per cent of Republicans overall believed in the scientific consensus on global warming – the same percentage that now believe Obama is the legitimate president.) 

He goes on to note that there’s now a “rapidly growing social scientific literature on the resistance to global warming”, proving links to two such studies, one from the Carsey Institute and the other from Stanford University. Both show significant evidence that increased knowledge leads to increased polarisation. And Mooney goes on to note that this pattern is even more pronounced with the Tea Party, citing a third study from 2011 on that.

Mooney also takes note of similar educational effects on Republican beliefs about Obama being a Muslim and of related effects of self-reported information level regarding “death panels” in ObamaCare. Reasons for these effects are likely to be complicated, including both individual factors as well as social ones, such as paying more attention to biased information sources. Mooney himself goes on to explain:

For one thing, well-informed or well-educated conservatives probably consume more conservative news and opinion, such as by watching Fox News. Thus, they are more likely to know what they’re supposed to think about the issues – what people like them think – and to be familiar with the arguments or reasons for holding these views. If challenged, they can then recall and reiterate these arguments. They’ve made them a part of their identities, a part of their brains, and in doing so, they’ve drawn a strong emotional connection between certain ‘facts’ or claims, and their deeply held political values. And they’re ready to ‘argue’.

A big-picture reflection

Implicit in the passage above is that such beliefs are more quasi-religious than they are empirical. They recall the distinction between mythos and logos described in Karen Armstrong’s book, The Battle For God, which I discussed last August in “Let America be America again“. Mythos was traditionally primary, according to Armstrong, dealing with “what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence” it was “not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning…. [It] provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives”, while logos was “the rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world”. 

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There had always been a potential dark side to mythos: it was just as much about evil as good, as much about the Devil as about God. Whatever bound any group of people together could also crush the individual, set one group against others, limit the accountability of leaders to the group, or cripple group adaptability when confronted with the unexpected or the unkown. The more rigidly defined, the more insistently defined as “holy”, the more dangerous mythos might become, turning itself into a cause of despair, rather than an antidote. 

There were also potential dangers from confusing the functions and purposes of mythos and logos, as well. But over the past five centuries, as logos has rapidly grown from a varied and dispersed collection of specialised knowledge and skills into a powerful, coherent, inter-connected body of knowledge, a distinctively modern form of confusion has arisen that was previously inconceivable.

In that earlier piece, I wrote, “Fundamentalism is, in essence, an attempt to express the lost primacy of mythos by asserting it in terms of logos.” Hence, “creation science”, trivialises religion in the name of bad science – a formula for generating repeated systematic failure on the part of mythos.

A breakdown in Western mythos occurred in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation, at least partly enabled by rising rates of literacy and the spread of the printing press, and substantially responsible for almost two centuries of religious and quasi-religious warfare. Modern secular liberalism emerged as a solution to this nearly genocidal breakdown in Western Civilisation.

Instead of justifying the state from above in religious terms – ala the previously unquestioned “diving right of kings” – Locke’s social contract theory justified government from below in purely secular terms, as a means for securing rights that were otherwise always in jeopardy in a “state of nature”. At the same time, Locke also perfected decades of arguments for religious tolerance, which began as a matter of pragmatic necessity, but eventually became a matter of principle, in light of the argument that no one could be saved by a coerced conversion, even if it be to the one true faith. 

Contrary to decades of conservative historical revisionism, it was precisely this liberal secularism that set the US apart from the theocracies before it, and the separation of church from state that created a “free market in religion” that helped religion flourish over the last two centuries, even as state religions elsewhere have declined.

Although it took considerable time to get beyond the stuttering start phase, the past 30-60 years has seen a profound conservative backlash, built overwhelmingly in reaction to the rise of previously subordinated groups – organised labour starting in the 1930s and 40s, racial minorities in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and women in the 60s and beyond, followed closely by gays and lesbians as well as the disabled.

Every step of the way, conservatives have poured enormous amounts of energy into rewriting history and rewiring their mythos, the better to position it as “common sense” for all of us. And yet, there was barely more than half a decade of conservative rule (controlling both the Congress and the White House), for the first time since the Great Depression, before it all came crashing down.

That brief period of rule was so disastrous that it ended with almost complete disavowal that George W Bush had anything at all to do with conservatism. And yet, ever since, conservatives have been utterly unable to come up with anything coherent to be for. The current chaos of the GOP primary campaign is not simply a matter of failed individual candidates, but of a failed philosophy as well.

Failure of conservatism

And yet, it is not just conservatism that has failed. The currently dominant Democratic response of neo-liberalism has failed as well – and not just on the policy level. In his article, Mooney makes reference to cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who’s earlier work, beginning in 1996 with Moral Politics, contrasted the cognitive foundations of liberalism and conservatism has more recently undergone significant refinement. 

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In his 2008 book, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain, Lakoff incorporates a more sweeping critique of abstract, disembodied reason which he developed along with co-author Mark Johnson in the 1999 book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. In a section of The Political Mind titled “The Neoliberal Mode of Thought”, Lakoff writes:

Progressive thought today begins with empathy and responsibility, with government having the twin moral missions of protection and empowerment.  What I will call ‘neoliberal thought’ has the same moral basis, but overlays another mode of thought upon it. Neoliberal thought embraces the Old Enlightenment view of reason: it is conscious, logical, literal, universal, unemotional, disembodied, with the function of serving interests, one’s own or those of others.

I would not want to risk oversimplifying Lakoff’s argument, but there is a clear parallel with the functional, practical notion of logos, as well as with the way that political commentators and other elites seem incapable of coming to terms with the non-rational aspects of politics reflected in the persistence of birtherism and other well-refuted political lies. 

We are without a doubt facing multiple crises simultaneously – financial, political, ecological – but also, cognitive as well. And although their failings are less immediately obvious, neo-liberal modes of thought are no more up to the task than are conservative ones – as Lakoff’s subtitle to The Political Mind suggests.

It’s not just conservatives seeking some lost pre-modern ideal who are in need of fundamentally rethinking what they are up to. It’s also would-be liberals and Obama-style centrist bipartisan consensus-seekers as well. If the utter foolishness of birtherism, and its “higher” variations can somehow get us to realise that something serious is amiss, which desperately needs our full attention, then folly will have served a useful end.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg