What Joe Arpaio’s Birther Charge Tells Us About America

America is so ideologically divided both extremes cling to outrageous accusations as truth.

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Seeing clues that elude most of the world, Arizona's Joe Arpaio—Sheriff of Maricopa County and full-time gadfly—held a press conference this week to announce that President Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate looks like a digital forgery.

There is, you see, evidence: The Number "9" appears next to the word "African." Many will somehow take this as confirmation of a conspiracy to insinuate Obama into the White House that started in the heady, radical days of the early 1960s. Clearly, we are not just dealing with a Manchurian candidate. We are dealing with a Manchurian baby!

What is unclear is whether this conspiracy was hatched by the KGB, the Muslim Brotherhood, or perhaps the long arm of Kenya's Mau Mau Rebellion, then on the verge of victory over the British Empire and perhaps looking to sow the seeds of defeat into the very heart of Western imperialism.

The "birther" movement might dwell in the grassy-knoll precinct of American conspiracy theory, yet polls show one in four Americans believe President Obama is foreign born. That this myth refuses to go away tells us a lot about the intense emotions emerging from the ideological polarization of America.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

You can see the same phenomenon in the remarks of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, head of the Democratic National Committee, for saying that Republicans "want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws." She later apologized, though one wonders if Everett Dirksen is a name she would recognize.

In a similar vein, the Obama campaign itself had a birther moment of its own, reading a great deal into an old document. It found that SEC boilterplate filings, listing the former Bain Capital CEO as still being associated with the company, worthy of criminal investigation.

What drives this oft-decried polarization? And what would happen if the wildest dreams of birthers and SECers came true?

Do these people ever imagine what a successful lawsuit challenging the right of Obama to be president would look like? Imagine the case wending its long and tortuous route to the Supreme Court, where the justices, after hours of staring into the Number 9, move in a 5-4 vote to remove Barack Obama on Constitutional grounds. Or imagine Mitt Romney, just as he is preparing to assume the mantle of the Republican nominee for president, being dragged off to a courtroom by special prosecutors appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

The true believers imagine that the sharp bang of a gavel would disqualify their ideological opponents for all time. The American people would, once and for all, see the light. They would finally line up with the forces of the good and the true.

The likely result, of course, would be the eruption of violent emotions, with each side furthered entrenched in their conviction that the other side is irredeemably evil.

And nothing would change.

Watergate did not kill the Republican Party. And as Republicans learned after the prosecution of President Clinton, such investigations can be a lose-lose.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Why do these fantasies keep coming? The country is torn. The reason America is so ideologically riven is because one-third of the American people passionately believe that the public sector is more effective, or at least more virtuous and just, than the private sector, while another third with equal passion believes that a Leviathan state preys on those who work hard and show initiative. The first belief does not come from a secret ideological laboratory in Moscow or Mombasa. It comes from Manhattan, Cambridge, Berkeley, and Chicago (three of which were formative in Obama's political education). And the other comes not from some backwater where Jim Crow revivalists spread racist messages through "code words." It comes from entrepreneurial Houston, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Cincinnati.

Washington seems so partisan, so ideological, because the middle-third of the American people will soon have to make a firm choice between these two visions.

There is, for example, no non-ideological fix for Medicare, with a long-term, unfunded liability of $37 trillion.

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If you are a liberal, you believe that the only way to reduce Medicare's costs is to deepen centralized management over healthcare. If you are a conservative, you believe that Obamacare must be repealed before it blows up the economy, and Medicare must be subjected to private, market competition.

There is no ideological middle ground here. The urgency of the economic crisis will force the American people to choose one way or the other. That's why the partisans are so partisan, because they sense one side will soon win and one will lose, forever. But the contest cannot be settled by reading crimes into old documents.

It can only be settled by debate on the facts and the math.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Why Is Mitt Romney Embracing the Birther Donald Trump?
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