Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Birth Certificate Party

Michael Steele doesn’t have an easy job. His task as the head of the Republican National Committee (RNC) is to build the United States’ largest minor party back up to major-party status. To do that, he has to restore the trust of the party’s core Southern supporters while adding an equal number of moderate and independent voters. That’s a tall order, and it couldn’t have helped his mood to have to spend much of last week distancing himself from some crazy conspiracy theories.

According to the most popular version of the “birther” conspiracy theory, Barack Obama faked his qualifications for the presidency by faking the place of his birth. Now, I’m a fan of conspiracy theories myself, but they have to be somewhat logical. It is not even a Hollywood story line when the person who supposedly masterminded a conspiracy was a newborn infant. To give you an idea of how crazy the “birthers” are, the most prominent leader of the movement announced last week that her ideas had been endorsed by the Republican Party. This wasn’t a message that was delivered to her by space aliens. Worse, it was a conclusion she came to after she noticed that Steele, the head of the RNC, was her friend on Facebook. That’s an indication of how removed from reality the birthers are. And Steele had to come out and say that he obviously could not agree with every opinion of every Republican and that the birthers were a problem, a distraction from the country’s real issues.

But don’t take my word for it. McClatchy published an article debunking the whole movement under the headline, “Here’s the truth: ‘Birther’ claims are just plain nuts.”

All that was bad enough. Then on Friday we learned that the birther movement is not the small fringe movement that we thought it was. It is small, to be sure, except within the Republican party, where 58 percent of Republicans have doubts about Obama’s citizenship. It could have been a bad poll, but it was later confirmed, in one state at least, by a different polling company. That compares to about 14 percent of non-Republicans. In other words, about half of Republicans are delusional or gullible enough to believe that the U.S. president faked his own birth.

It’s this kind of outside-the-box thinking that gives minor parties a bad name. “Mainstream” thinking is possible only because people have a degree of intellectual faith in their country. It’s an attitude that says, “If 80 percent of Americans believe this, then I should at least listen to what they have to say, because there must be something to it.” Yes, there are a couple of logical flaws in that thinking, but it serves the purpose of allowing the country to develop a consensus view so that policy decisions can be made. So when you have people saying something along the lines of, “Well, I don’t have to pay any attention to what the vast majority of Americans think, because they’re . . . from Mars!” then you have people who are positioning themselves outside the mainstream, on the fringes of national thought. As Jerrold Post, a political author quoted by McClatchy, put it:

They are not searching for the truth. They are searching for anything that confirms their fixed idea, their malevolent idea . . . It doesn’t soothe people to tell them it’s not legitimate. That makes them angry.

People who are not willing to engage with mainstream thinking — not that they have to agree with it, but they have to tolerate it and take it somewhat seriously — are politically ineffective. So if this is about half of the people in the Republican party, it will be impossible for the party to pull together and get anything done.

The birther movement is a colorful story with no apparent consequence, but we see the same effect in substantive policy issues. Ask anyone who bought a car last week, and they’ll tell you that the Cash-for-Clunkers program was a success. But Republican pundits on Friday were trying to explain that Cash-for-Clunkers was, instead, a colossal failure. This view puts them at odds with the reality of the situation and with everyone who bought a new car under the program, along with all of their friends — millions of people, roughly one fifth of them Republicans. And the audience for Republican pundits is mostly Republican. And so, instead of arguing against the Democrats, Republican pundits took leave of reality in order to argue against Republicans. As long as this kind of thing is occupying the Republicans’ attention, they will never be able to pull together to persuade mainstream thinkers that Republicans have important ideas to offer.

The Republican party has shrunk to minor-party size. At the same time, half of its members are adopting minor-party thinking. Steele is not in on this, of course. It is his job to persuade the world to see the Republican party as a major party. That is a tough challenge in itself, but there is one more challenge that may stop him. There is a movement within the party to have him replaced. Many Republicans find Steele’s point of view a little too mainstream. If the birthers succeed in replacing Steele with someone who is more sympathetic to their half of the party, then they may as well be changing the name of the Republican party to the Birth Certificate party — the party will never be the same again.