Thursday, April 21, 2011


It's been easy until now for respectable political insiders in the GOP to dismiss birtherism as a fringe phenomenon. Surely any poll that found birtherism to be widespread in the Repulican electorate must be a methodologically flawed survey by an upstart firm. Surely Donald Trump must be surging in the polls because he's a famous name.

Well, here's the new New York Times/CBS News poll -- polls don't come much more established or traditional than that -- and it confirms that this birther stuff isn't a joke:

A plurality of Republican voters, 47 percent, said they believed Mr. Obama, who was born in Hawaii, was born in another country; 22 percent said they did not know where he was born, and 32 percent said they believed he was born in the United States.

Of course, birtherism isn't an aberration -- in recent years, all kinds of superstitious nonsense has been sold to the right-wing base, and establishment Republicans have either actively participated in the dissemination or failed to lift a finger as the misinformation and disinformation was spread. Climate-change denialism. Death panels. The imminent threat of sharia law in the United States. The horrors of the "Ground Zero mosque." The unconstitutionality of "czars." The notion that Barack Obama is a Soviet-style socialist. Need I go on?

The GOP establishment has just assumed that it could ride the ignorance tiger -- surely no one was likely to be harmed if a few overzealous conservatives believed some things that weren't so. A cynical cost-benefit analysis led establishment Republicans to conclude that the risks were small and the upticks in voter enthusiasm were great. So they said, Let the nonsense flow -- on Fox, on talk radio, on the Web, even on the floors of the House and Senate.

But if anything that increases enthusiasm among GOP voters is to be tolerated, what does that include? What if the next thing is, say, an utterly specious theory about an imminent existential threat to the country that allegedly arises, say, in a Muslim neighborhood in Michigan or a Hispanic neighborhood in Arizona? Or what if the Perpetrators Who Must Be Stopped Before It's Too Late are, say, union activists or African-Americans or even college students? In other words, what if the next appeal to ignorance seems to demand vigilante violence? And what if that notion becomes generalized to other comparable groups and individuals? Are the establishment mandarins going to stand by and say nothing about that, in the hope that nothing will result except a lot of angry talk and a fired-up right-wing base on Election Day? And what if that hope isn't borne out?

The birther phenomenon is the most disturbing wave of right-wing ignorance in this century -- so far. But I'm afraid we're going to see worse, unless the GOP establishment grows a spine and decides to risk electoral losses by saying -- out loud and repeatedly -- that some rabble-rousing ideas are beyond the pale. I don't think the establishment will ever say that -- until after it's too late.

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