Skip to Content

The Birthers

I was in a diner in Scranton, Pennsylvania last night, when an older man in the booth two down from ours was speaking somewhat loudly to a woman who I guessed was his daughter. "I've decided to challenge his citizenship," he said, with "his" referring to President Obama's. "But I know it comes with risks. When I do, his people will come after me. I'm afraid they'll take away my disability. But it's something I have to do, for the sake of the country."

It is not unusual today to hear people questioning whether Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen of the United States. If he isn't, he would be ineligible to be President under the United States Constitution. It is a staple theme promoted by right-wing talk-show hosts like Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, among others. Real-estate mogul Donald Trump, now a Republican presidential hopeful, recently called on Obama to produce his birth certificate. The Arizona state legislature passed a bill that would require all presidential candidates to prove their citizenship. A recent CBS/New York Times poll found that 25 percent of Americans believe Obama was not born in the United States.

The claim by so-called "birthers" has no basis in fact; it is simply conspiratorial thinking. Obama has released his birth certificate, from the State of Hawaii, multiple times. The Hawaii department of health confirmed it, and his birth announcement was in the local Honolulu newspaper.

Of course, it is a problem if people are engaging in such conspiracies, and if a sizeable minority falls for them. These views express a deep alienation from the political process: people who believe the government would cover up something as basic as citizenship is one that could never be trusted. The claim implies that the problem with Obama is not his political views, but that he is foreign, un-American. In my experience, these views are most often found among older Americans, like the fellow I overheard in the restaurant. For them, you sense that Obama's election was a disorienting generational change: that is why a common cry is "I want my country back".

But for all of the obvious shortcomings of the birthers, it is also not helpful for political discourse when liberals use birther claims as evidence that conservative opposition to Obama is uniquely conspiratorial, mad and beyond the pale. For a start, conspiracy theories are hardly monopolized by the right: from 9/11 "truthers" to theories blaming those vampire-squid Goldmanites for crashing the economy, liberals are arguably even more conspiratorial than conservatives today.

Indeed, a case can be made that Democrats kick-started the "Obama is not American" story. The campaigner who arguably has done most to promote the Obama birth issue is Philip J. Berg, who is not only a 9/11 truther, but also a self-described Democrat. During the Democratic Party nomination contest, Hillary Clinton's campaign is said to have spread the rumors that Obama was foreign-born.

The fact that so many Republicans, in particular, can go "off the range" and pursue such conspiracy theories actually speaks to the break-up of the Republican establishment's hold on the rank and file members. It is not in the party's interests to allow these ideas to flourish among some sections of the party, and yet the establishment is only just waking up to the fact that indulging in such smears hurts the party. An exception is Republican Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who vetoed the bill calling for all candidates to prove citizenship.

On the other hand, Democrats have every interest in playing up how widespread birther views are among Republicans. This way, the Democrats do not have to engage in arguments about the economy, deficits, the Middle East, immigration and so on; all they need to say is "our opponents are crazy".

The prominence of the birthers is an indictment of American politics - and an indictment not just of conservatives, but of liberals as well.

No Responses to “The Birthers” Leave a reply ›

Leave a Reply


I'd like to hear from you. Feel free to email me with comments, suggestions, whatever. I can be reached at