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The politics of birtherism


A new CBS/NY Times poll finds that 47% of Republican voters say Barack Obama was born outside the United States. (Only a third say he was born in this country, while another 22% say they don’t know one way or another).

This can be interpreted in a number of ways. Jon Chait points out that part of the explanation could be low-information voters who don’t really care much about the issue but have some vague idea that questions have been raised regarding it. That’s true — I know several people who tend to vote Republican who fall into this category: they say they don’t care much whether or not Obama was actually born in the US, but they don’t understand why he doesn’t [sic] release his birth certificate and “end the controversy.” But the problem with this explanation is that barely a fifth of Republican voters express doubts about the issue, while nearly half claim to know Obama is lying about being constitutionally eligible to be president, which hardly seems like a trivial complaint.

My take on the matter is that the astonishing number of Republicans who claim to have gone Full Birther is evidence of the extent to which the GOP base has been even more fully taken over by the classic mindset seen among many members of marginalized minority groups — a mindset that is particularly prone to accepting exotic conspiracy theories, and demanding that others in the group accept those theories too, if they wish to fully share in the group identity.

It’s important not to under-estimate the role of Fox News in all this. Fox’s commercial success is based on its intense appeal to a quite narrow demographic: Old white men dominate Fox’s audience to a startling extent (the network’s median viewer is 65, nearly 99% are non-black, and the audience skews heavily male). That appeal is based in large part on Rupert Murdoch’s and Roger Ailes’s canny calculation that many members of this demographic now perceive themselves to belong to a besieged minority group, and many of these people are beset by the classic paranoia that is common among such groups. The genius of Fox is that it has transformed the cohort that has run the country forever – older white Christian men (see, e.g., it’s more than comprehensive coverage of the “War on Christmas”) – into an oppressed minority group, that buys into fantasies of conspiratorial oppression. Indeed, the modern Republican party is based in part on its ability to transform, on a national scale, whiteness into a distinct and defining social identity, which allows people who share it to bond self-consciously over that identity. Fox’s shameless flogging of the barely concealed crypto-racism at the heart of birther fantasies is of a piece with its overall commercial/ideological strategy, which could be summed up as selling identity politics for white people.

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