I haven’t said anything about the so-called “Birther” lunacy, because, well, it’s lunacy that really doesn’t deserve a moment’s consideration, but Steve Benen made a remark about it that I want to discuss briefly. Benen wrote:
Outside the South, this madness is gaining very little traction, and remains a fringe conspiracy theory. Within the South, it’s practically mainstream.
Now Benen already noticed that there is a significant partisan gap in the responses. The South has become the Republicans’ main region, and it has a disproportionate share of partisan Republicans living in it. My guess is that the reason why the South as a region has so many more people in agreement with Birther nonsense or those who are “unsure” about Obama’s citizenship is that it still has a much larger population of Republicans, and partisan hatred of the President is much greater there. This makes it more fertile ground for believing nonsensical claims about the President, because it is a region with a higher concentration of people willing to believe almost anything negative about a leading member of the other party. Hard-core partisans are quite often willing to believe the worst about their political opponents, no matter how baseless, and will happily ignore identical or worse claims about their own leaders no matter how well-supported.
If the President were McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone and whose status is therefore very slightly more ambiguous than Obama’s, this movement would not exist. The same people leading the charge today would probably be shouting down anyone who had the temerity to “raise questions” about McCain’s citizenship. I won’t rule out that race may have some role, but nationality and nationalism are far more important. Never underestimate how closely some of these partisans identify their own particular ideology and party with being truly American. The only way to make sense of the explosion of this lunacy is to see it as a continuation of the belief that Obama, by virtue of what he believes, cannot be a “real” American, so the obsession with his place of birth is really an extension of the presidential campaign in which he and his supporters were considered not to be from “real” America. We are endlessly treated to more respectable versions of this argument in articles that claim that Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, that he embraces national decline, etc., which pretend to be policy arguments, but which are ultimatey arguments against Obama’s American identity. The argument normally portrays Obama as being somehow anti-American, and therefore self-loathing. The Birthers have modified this argument and chosen instead to claim that Obama is simply non-American. Neither is true, but the former somehow hangs on as a credible, serious argument when it is just as baseless and wrong as the latter.
None of this excuses the gross, willful ignorance that is required to persist in the belief that Obama is not a natural-born citizen, but it may help explain why otherwise presumably rational people fall for such nonsense.
Update: Dan McCarthy has a longer post in much the same vein at Tory Anarchist.