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Sarah's Palling Around with Conspiracists

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While many are pondering
what exactly Sarah Palin’s approving radio comments on the birther issue and her
subsequent “clarification” mean to her possible 2012 run, there is a more
fundamental question: what does this bode for our democracy? The answer is this
is yet another indicator that extreme is the new mainstream.

In a radio interview on the
conservative Rusty Humphries show yesterday, the former 2008 Vice Presidential
Republican candidate answered a question about her possibly using the President’s
birth certificate as an issue if she ran again for office:  “I think the public rightfully is still
making it [the President’s birth certificate] an issue. I don’t have a problem
with that. I don't
know if I would have to bother to make it an issue, because I think that
members of the electorate still want answers." She continued: “I think
it's a fair question, just like I think past association and past voting
records -- all of that is fair game” She later deftly stated on Facebook that
she never directly asked the President to produce his birth certificate or
suggest that he was not born in the country. True, she only inferred it, when
she could have done what both her running mate, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and
Ann Coulter all did—reject the lie.

Her
careful elevation of a foundational conspiracy theory used by extremists to
demonize the President as being everything from an illegitimate imposter to
high office to a secret radical Jihadist Trojan horse warrants unequivocal
condemnation and study from across the political spectrum—just as the
horrendous anti-Bush 9/11 truthers do.

If
you think that these detrimental wacky theories don’t have traction in this
troubled decade of ours look at some recent polling numbers, or alternatively
read the comments section that will invariably appear below this post. In a
September analysis Public Policy Polling stated, “Is extremism becoming
mainstream in 21st century American politics? Our latest national poll would
seem to say yes- 35% [of] voters in the country either think that Barack Obama
was not born in the United States or that George W. Bush intentionally allowed
the 9/11 attacks to occur so that we could go to war in the Middle East.”

Both
sides of the political spectrum offer a disturbing picture. One quarter of
Democrats think President Bush let 9/11 happen so he could go to war, while a
plurality, 42% of Republicans believe the current president was not born in the
United States. If that’s not bad enough 10% of voters say that President Obama
is the “anti-Christ” with another 11% not sure. Its no wonder that various
preachers have outrageously made headlines by publicly praying for the
President’s death. President Bush fairs slightly better with only 8%
conclusively saying he is in fact the anti-Christ, and another 11% unsure. And
here I thought the anti-Christ had to be Gay and (partially) Jewish. If these
Biblical “scholars” had thrown in “California resident” I would have advised
Adam Lambert to turn down singing at any future Palin fundraisers.

One of the key things our
Center analyzes is how the use of tactical falsehoods can create a bridge from
the extreme into the mainstream. There are important ramifications at stake
here. There is nothing illegitimate about spotlighting a candidate’s views,
qualifications, associations, experience, judgment or integrity. However, when
clear broad falsehoods become a key currency to delegitimize and demonize
institutions and leaders democracy suffers.

First, on a micro level, it
relieves the accuser of engaging in an actual debate on real substantive issues
as well as clearly articulating their own concrete solutions. As analyst Chip
Berlet
notes, “ Conspiracism is neither a healthy expression of skepticism nor
a valid form of criticism; rather it is a belief system that refuses to obey
the rules of logic.” It also does something more damaging, but somewhat subtle
on a macro level. These broad conspiracy theories loop together to provide a
justification for people to reject not merely candidates or single positions,
but the elemental processes and institutions of our pluralistic democracy. At
their extreme a sliver of those who angrily opt out of these processes and
institutions pose a risk of violence to our country because they view these leaders
and pillars not as guarantors of freedom, but rather as direct threats to
liberty. Oftentimes, bigots will weave their own racial, religious, or sexual
orientation prejudices into a folklore that relies upon conspiracy theories.

There are several things
worth noting. First, conspiracy theories exploit real and sincere fears and
disagreements that many mainstream people have about actual leaders, policies,
events, trends and abuses of authority. Second, while these theories are often
intertwined with a small element of truth, factual gaps are filled with a much larger
dose of emotion and wild conjecture. Third, they are usually part of a much
more broad tactical assault on leaders and institutions. These theorists offer
a convenient tool to attract mainstream converts by appealing to their fears,
feelings of disenfranchisement, prejudices and the lure of a simple answer to
complex circumstances. Governor Palin’s statements are particularly disturbing
because they constitute a tacit celebrity endorsement of conspiracies by a
former officeholder who is viewed as a legitimate political player.

 John McCain demonstrated a
different approach as his campaign mostly rejected the overt use of the birth
certificate and related “issues.” During a rally in Minnesota he took the
microphone back from a supporter who said she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because
he was an “Arab.” McCain responded, “No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and]
citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and
that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab].” Notwithstanding,
the insulting and regrettable inference that Arabs can’t be citizens and family
men, McCain should at least be recognized for his awkward attempt to reject
some conspiracy theories. Whatever you want to say about her parsing of words,
Palin knows her base—82% of those who say that President Obama is the
anti-Christ have a favorable opinion of the former Governor.  

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