JONATHAN COHN FEBRUARY 15, 2011
Today’s big news...no, that’s not quite right. Today’s hot gossip? Oh, I don’t know: birthers are back in the news, because of a new poll showing that they’re everywhere, or at least that they appear to be an actual majority of Republicans.
This has been going on for years now, and I certainly don’t read far into every birther story, but unless I’ve missed something I still think that this is actually an underreported and underexplored thing. Basically, I know how Republicans respond to the question ”Do you think Barack Obama was born in the United States?” But I have no idea what those who answer “no” or “don’t know” are thinking. It seems to me there are a number of possibilities, with some really alarming and others much less so. And I would love to see either pollsters or reporters help us understand exactly what’s going on, how many people fit in the following categories:
1. Some birthers may go whole hog. Perhaps they believe that there was a massive, 50 year long conspiracy to develop a front for a true socialist/communist/whatever takeover of the government. The birth story matters because it reveals that he’s just a guy who reads a teleprompter, while other nefarious characters are really governing -- or some other wild story.
2. Not quite whole hog. Some may be vaguely aware that there’s some sort of supposed conspiracy, but not really know much about it. They may believe that he was born abroad, that he’s therefore not qualified for the presidency, and that the conspiracy is about allowing him to run when otherwise the Dems would have put up someone else. This (probably?) puts Obama, and not other hidden conspirators, at the center of the operation. Note that this is a much milder accusation, at least possibly; it implies that Obama is overly ambitious (uppity?), but that’s about it.
3. It’s possible, and in my opinion likely, that some are even more vaguely aware of the birther thing at all, and mistakenly believe that the guy with the funny name was born abroad -- but don’t know that it’s a controversial accusation with serious consequences were it true. In other words, they think it’s just a curious fact about him, just like people thought that Bill Clinton was born rich or that Gerald Ford was clumsy. For them, there’s no conspiracy (because they’re not even aware anyone denies it) and no constitutional importance. Do most people know that one must be a native-born American to be president? I have no idea! Based on traditional polling that shows people don’t know the Bill of Rights, or other fundamental Constitutional facts, I pretty much doubt it. I have no idea of how many people fit into this category, but I’d be shocked if it was below 5%, and I wouldn’t be surprised if half or more supposed birthers are in this essentially oblivious but innocent category.
4. Gotta include the most innocent of all: it’s Hawaii. This one would be very small, but again it may include at least some people: they know he was born in Hawaii but believe that means he was not born in the United States. Again, in combination with #3, there’s no conspiracy, no Constitutional issue, just some scattered misinformation.
5. It’s a gag -- at the elite level presumably no one really believes this stuff, and somehow that’s filtered down to the rank-and-file level. They’ve learned how to answer the question, but they don’t “really” believe any of it.
Those are the main possibilities that I can think of, but I may be missing some, and certainly the first two have various different permutations and implications.
Basically, every interpretation I’ve seen of crazed polling numbers implies that all birthers must fall into the top two categories, except for elites who fit comfortably into the fifth category. That could be true. On the other hand, maybe not. Again, unless I’ve missed something, we really have no idea. I have seen some interviews with Tea Party activists who believe the crazier, most conspiratorial versions of this, but that’s hardly a random sample (they seem to be the result of reporters who show up at Tea Party rallies and then seek out the nuttier-looking types). Hey, reporters! If we’re going to talk about this all the time, let’s get a much better sense of what’s in the heads of those who give birther answers to polling questions.