Friday, April 22, 2011

Has the Birther Movement Peaked?

Despite a New York Times poll that finds a quarter of adults, and nearly half of all Republicans, believe President Barack Obama was born somewhere other than the U.S., I think we're seeing signs that the candles on the birther movement cake may be burning out.  Yes, state legislators keep trying to keep the candles lit through various laws, but even Tea Party favorite U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann admitted, upon being shown Obama's certificate of live birth, that the issue appears to be "settled." 

Donald Trump may not have gotten the inter-party memo, but I sense those at the top of the GOP, who are not above feeding the crazies (Dems too, in their own special way), are starting to edge away from the Cliffs of Despair.

In other words, I argue that the movement has peaked.

You'd hope so, with 45 percent of GOPers believing Obama was born somewhere other than where all official and semi-official evidence points -- Hawaii.  Trump may have hijacked the issue for a while, but most folks assume this will play out when he ducks out of actually running for office.

A year ago, 20 percent of adults thought Obama was born elsewhere.  Earlier this month it was at 24 percent.  Now it's 25 percent.  Not coincidentally, confidence in the U.S. has reached a two-year low.  When things are bad, we latch on to easy answers.  For many, it's easy to suspect the worst of someone, even a president, we may not particularly like at the moment.  Policy reasons are hard, so we use something simpler and easier -- a heuristic, as social scientists would say -- and good ones are that Obama is secretly Muslim.  Or born elsewhere.  Or the Anti-Christ.  Or whatever.

As the theory of motivated reasoning suggests, we often believe what we want to believe.  Or as the article I linked to in the previous sentence says: "our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about."

And it's easier.  Faster.  And in many ways, satisfying because we have a bad guy to blame.

But let's face it.  The only reason the movement has been trending up is Trump and a handful of others playing this tune, over and over, to the joy and chagrin of journalists.  It's a fun story.  But it's the wrong story.

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