Born Again

Why the “birther” myth refuses to die.

President Barack Obama

The “birther” myth is the political equivalent of a horror-movie villain: Not only does it refuse to die, but every time someone tries to kill it, it only comes back stronger.

The latest incarnation: a bill approved 31-22 by the Arizona House of Representatives on Monday that would require 2012 presidential candidates to offer proof of citizenship in order to qualify for the ballot. The proposal has little chance of becoming law. For that to happen, the state Senate would have to pass it and the governor would have to sign it. But it’s still the closest birtherism has come to being codified.

Democrats have dutifully condemned the bill. One Phoenix legislator said it’s turning Arizona into “the laughing stock of the nation.” White House spokesman Bill Burton dismissed the measure and others like it on CNN as “fringe right-wing radio conspiracy theories.” Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly wrote, “The fact that fringe lunacy is being taken seriously at this level suggests a strain of contemporary Republican thought that’s gone stark raving mad.” Even some Republicans are rushing to distance themselves from the bill, particularly senatorial candidate J. D. Hayworth, whom John McCain has tried to tie to the fringiest elements of the Tea Party movement.

But shouldn’t the real reaction be, This again? Why, more than a year into Obama’s presidency, are we still talking about whether he is constitutionally allowed to serve?

The birther movement lingers because it means different things to different people. For liberals, questioning Obama’s citizenship is tantamount to racism. Anyone who does it hates black people and is simply trying to disguise his prejudice—conscious or not—by implying that Obama is a foreigner.

For conservatives, though, demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate has become less of a real-world concern—after all, Obama released his Hawaii birth certificate during the 2008 campaign—than a symbolic way for Republican politicians to show that they, too, are worried about America. They don’t have to actually believe Obama was born in Kenya to associate with the birthers.

The trick has been defining birtherism down. Look at how politicians on the right talk about it—or, more accurately, around it. It’s rare that an elected official will call for Obama to produce his birth certificate, a la Orly Taitz. More often, he will simply raise questions—innocent questions!—about Obama’s origins. “What I don’t know is why the president can’t produce a birth certificate,” said Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri when ambushed by a video blogger last July. “I don’t know anybody else that can’t produce one. And I think that’s a legitimate question.” (When the interviewer pointed out that Obama had indeed produced a birth certificate, Blunt dismissed him.) Other times, they won’t endorse the birther argument so much as decline to reject it. As Sarah Palin told a radio host in December: “I think the public rightfully is still making it 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.” (Italics added.) It’s not about Palin, see. It’s about the people. They want answers.

Even Republicans who want to require candidates to produce birth certificates don’t sound especially up in arms about Obama. Tommy Stringer, a member of the South Carolina General Assembly who introduced a bill similar to the Arizona measure, told the Washington Independent that the birth certificate the Obama campaign provided “satisfies” him, barring evidence that Obama was born elsewhere. So why did he introduce the bill? It’s about transparency, he said. It’s this kind of do-si-do that allows politicians on the right to associate themselves with the birthers but not necessarily be of them.

It’s also good politics. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that only 58 percent of Americans believe Obama was born in the United States. Entertaining this notion without endorsing it thus works as a conservative dog whistle. It shows that politicians understand the concerns of the far right, even if they don’t plan on joining it.

The irony of all the birth-certificate proposals—similar bills have been introduced in six states—is that they contain the seeds of the birther movement’s destruction. The moment Obama calls their bluff and hands his birth certificate to the Arizona secretary of state, it’s over.

In theory. That’s the beauty of the birther myth, or any conspiracy theory: No amount of evidence can ever completely dispel the questions. When Obama produced his Hawaii birth certificate and the state of Hawaii verified it, it was a fake. When reporters uncovered announcements of Obama’s birth in 1961 copies of the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, they had been planted. If the Arizona secretary of state verified Obama’s birth certificate, that would be due to the government mind-control chip implanted in his molar.

To put all this another way: Birtherism is here to stay. And not because more people are going crazy, but because crazy has been redefined. Birtherism isn’t the only example. Consider how conservatives accuse Obama of peddling “socialism.” Sure, some of them genuinely think that Obama is going to usher in a new Soviet state in which the government owns all means of production. But most right-wingers use it as shorthand for government overreach. So now that’s what “socialism” means.

There is a fairly major difference between birtherism and the socialism charge: Birtherism has been disproved by facts. But they’re similar in the way they get tossed around without much connection to their original meaning. Republican politicians like to carry copies of the Constitution in their breast pockets. In 2012, maybe they’ll tote around their birth certificates, too.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.