While many are pondering what exactly Sarah Palin’s approving radio comments on the birther issue and her subsequent “clarification” mean to her possible 2012 run, there is a more fundamental question: what does this bode for our democracy? The answer is this is yet another indicator that extreme is the new mainstream.
In a radio interview on the conservative Rusty Humphries show yesterday, the former 2008 Vice Presidential Republican candidate answered a question about her possibly using the President’s birth certificate as an issue if she ran again for office: “I think the public rightfully is still making it [the President’s birth certificate] an issue. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t know if I would have to bother to make it an issue, because I think that members of the electorate still want answers.” She continued: “I think it’s a fair question, just like I think past association and past voting records — all of that is fair game” She later deftly stated on Facebook that she never directly asked the President to produce his birth certificate or suggest that he was not born in the country. True, she only inferred it, when she could have done what both her running mate, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Ann Coulter all did—reject the lie.
Her careful elevation of a foundational conspiracy theory used by extremists to demonize the President as being everything from an illegitimate imposter to high office to a secret radical Jihadist Trojan horse warrants unequivocal condemnation and study from across the political spectrum—just as the horrendous anti-Bush 9/11 truthers do.
If you think that these detrimental wacky theories don’t have traction in this troubled decade of ours look at some recent polling numbers, or alternatively read the comments section that will invariably appear below this post. In a September analysis Public Policy Polling stated, “Is extremism becoming mainstream in 21st century American politics? Our latest national poll would seem to say yes- 35% [of] voters in the country either think that Barack Obama was not born in the United States or that George W. Bush intentionally allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur so that we could go to war in the Middle East.”
Both sides of the political spectrum offer a disturbing picture. One quarter of Democrats think President Bush let 9/11 happen so he could go to war, while a plurality, 42% of Republicans believe the current president was not born in the United States. If that’s not bad enough 10% of voters say that President Obama is the “anti-Christ” with another 11% not sure. Its no wonder that various preachers have outrageously made headlines by publicly praying for the President’s death. President Bush fairs slightly better with only 8% conclusively saying he is in fact the anti-Christ, and another 11% unsure. And here I thought the anti-Christ had to be Gay and (partially) Jewish. If these Biblical “scholars” had thrown in “California resident” I would have advised Adam Lambert to turn down singing at any future Palin fundraisers.
One of the key things our Center analyzes is how the use of tactical falsehoods can create a bridge from the extreme into the mainstream. There are important ramifications at stake here. There is nothing illegitimate about spotlighting a candidate’s views, qualifications, associations, experience, judgment or integrity. However, when clear broad falsehoods become a key currency to delegitimize and demonize institutions and leaders democracy suffers.
First, on a micro level, it relieves the accuser of engaging in an actual debate on real substantive issues as well as clearly articulating their own concrete solutions. As analyst Chip Berlet notes, “ Conspiracism is neither a healthy expression of skepticism nor a valid form of criticism; rather it is a belief system that refuses to obey the rules of logic.” It also does something more damaging, but somewhat subtle on a macro level. These broad conspiracy theories loop together to provide a justification for people to reject not merely candidates or single positions, but the elemental processes and institutions of our pluralistic democracy. At their extreme a sliver of those who angrily opt out of these processes and institutions pose a risk of violence to our country because they view these leaders and pillars not as guarantors of freedom, but rather as direct threats to liberty. Oftentimes, bigots will weave their own racial, religious, or sexual orientation prejudices into a folklore that relies upon conspiracy theories.
There are several things worth noting. First, conspiracy theories exploit real and sincere fears and disagreements that many mainstream people have about actual leaders, policies, events, trends and abuses of authority. Second, while these theories are often intertwined with a small element of truth, factual gaps are filled with a much larger dose of emotion and wild conjecture. Third, they are usually part of a much more broad tactical assault on leaders and institutions. These theorists offer a convenient tool to attract mainstream converts by appealing to their fears, feelings of disenfranchisement, prejudices and the lure of a simple answer to complex circumstances. Governor Palin’s statements are particularly disturbing because they constitute a tacit celebrity endorsement of conspiracies by a former officeholder who is viewed as a legitimate political player.
John McCain demonstrated a different approach as his campaign mostly rejected the overt use of the birth certificate and related “issues.” During a rally in Minnesota he took the microphone back from a supporter who said she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because he was an “Arab.” McCain responded, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].” Notwithstanding, the insulting and regrettable inference that Arabs can’t be citizens and family men, McCain should at least be recognized for his awkward attempt to reject some conspiracy theories. Whatever you want to say about her parsing of words, Palin knows her base—82% of those who say that President Obama is the anti-Christ have a favorable opinion of the former Governor.
Brian Levin, J.D.
The Huffington Post