Why Birtherism Is Here to Stay

The facts don't matter to conspiracy theorists.

On Oct. 22, 1844, thousands of followers of American evangelist William Miller woke up expecting Jesus Christ to make his triumphant return that day, as they had been told. That night, they went to bed, surprised and disappointed. But Miller's movement endured.

It was too much to expect that birthers, presented with President Barack Obama's birth certificate, would say: "What surprising and wonderful news! We'll have to reassess our entire opinion of him." When it comes to matters of blind faith, cherished beliefs have a way of overriding facts.

There has never been a shred of persuasive evidence that Obama was born anywhere but Hawaii. But thanks to rampant paranoia and widespread credulity, the myth of his foreign origins gained currency among many people who should know better.

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that 25 percent of Americans, including 45 percent of Republicans, do not believe Obama was born in America. A poll taken after the release of his birth certificate showed 18 percent of those who have seen it still aren't convinced.

Something about this president impels many people to accept anything that is said about him, as long as it's unfavorable. Twelve percent of Americans think he's a Muslim. Plenty of others believe things contradicted by his first two years in office—that he's a radical leftist, an anti-gun fanatic, a disciple of world government, and Darth Vader's delinquent nephew.

They even believe he's an inarticulate dunce who got into Ivy League schools only because of affirmative action and can't utter an intelligible sentence without a teleprompter. Never mind that he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and taught at another premier university, the University of Chicago.

Birthers don't dislike Obama because they think he was born abroad. They think he was born abroad because they dislike him. People of this bent don't proceed from facts to a conclusion. They prefer to reach a conclusion and then scrounge for any facts—or "facts"—that support it.

For them, being told Obama is a natural-born American is like being told he's a loving father and a loyal friend. They won't buy it because it doesn't confirm what they want to be true.

The phenomenon, of course, is not limited to conservatives or Republicans. It's endemic to partisans and ideologues of every stripe. In a 1988 survey, Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to believe that inflation and unemployment rose under President Ronald Reagan—though they had actually fallen.

A 2007 poll found that Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to say President George W. Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks. A lot of them would believe he has the ExxonMobil logo tattooed on his chest.

The natural human tendency is to accept anything that supports one's existing view and reject anything that doesn't. It beats constantly assessing information to determine whether it's true or false, which is hard, endless, unpaid work.

Yale political scientists John Bullock, Alan Gerber, and Gregory Huber say partisans don't just say false things about the opposition; they actually, sincerely believe them. These scholars asked respondents various factual questions about Obama, Reagan, and Bill Clinton—and offered monetary rewards for correct answers. Yet even when money was at stake, partisans still had a clear tendency to give answers (and make errors) that matched their preconceptions.

This is surprising only if you think of political views as a matter of logical reasoning. For many people, they really aren't. They're a way of indulging emotional impulses without suffering painful consequences.

If you insist on believing your fairy godmother will take care of the rent, you'll pay a high price by being evicted. But if you believe equally implausible things about politics, you will pay no price at all.

On the contrary, if thinking Obama is a foreigner brings you closer to people you like, you come out ahead. Birthers would rather be wrong than be divided from their allies. So the fiction that Obama was born in Kenya will endure, and many Americans will hold fast to a ridiculous article of faith that has been conclusively refuted.

It's a thunderous testament to how far people will go in deluding themselves. What's next? Half the country thinking there's at least a chance the moon is made of green cheese?

Don't be silly. No sentient American adult would say that. Unless Obama said it wasn't.

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