The political alchemy of Birtherism

I've seen how conspiracy theories can threaten a democracy.

In 2005, when I was working as a speechwriter in the South African parliament, a far-left faction of the ruling African National Congress spun a yarn that accused the leader of the opposition, the intelligence minister, and the Mossad of colluding to frame Jacob Zuma, the faction's chosen presidential candidate.

Intelligence agents loyal to Zuma bugged the opposition's parliamentary offices and produced a bogus document that they claimed was a transcript of Internet chats between Zuma's supposed opponents.

It was all nonsense, but the conspiracy theory galvanized Zuma's supporters, who soon pushed him to the top of the ruling party and the country, trampling the rule of law in the process.

Here in the United States, the conspiracy theory that alleges that President Barack Obama faked his American birth is likewise troubling. Rather than propelling Republicans to power, however, the "Birther" theory is being used by Democrats and their media allies to isolate and undermine the opposition.

Though some of the wonderful "facts" people have been led to believe about Obama are demonstrably untrue (he is still often referred to, for example, as a former "law professor"), the fact of his American birth is not one of them.

The test is not simply whether there are doubts, but whether those doubts are reasonable. That is a test the Birther theory failed long ago. Perhaps its proponents ought to have had their day in court, but that probably would not have helped their cause, nor convinced the most determined among them to abandon it.

The media has cast Birtherism as a conservative phenomenon -- and it is fast spreading among conservative activists -- but it was originally a Democrat obsession. The most prominent Birther, Philip J. Berg, is a Democrat who backed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary. Other rumors, such as the infamous and non-existent Michelle Obama "‘whitey' tape," were also weapons in the Democrats' internal struggle.

In the same vein, left-wing pundits claim the Birther thesis reveals latent racism in the Republican Party. But it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who made race an issue in the 2008 campaign. From the Obama campaign's charges that Hillary Clinton was the Senator from Punjab, to the Clinton campaign's leaking of a photo of Obama in Somali garb, right up through Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" comment and the whole Jeremiah Wright affair, it was the left that remained obsessed with race and identity politics.

The Birther theory is likewise an artifact of left-wing squabbles. Conservatives who are tempted by the Birther theory should ask themselves why the mainstream media is now so interested in the story when they were so reluctant to give any attention to the allegations during the 2008 campaign (when, if true, they might have made a difference).

It's not because there is any fresh evidence to support the Birther thesis, but because the Birther thesis has again become politically useful to the left.

Since Obama took office in January, his supporters have sought to entrench his power by creating controversy around one conservative after another. The first target was Rush Limbaugh, whom Obama himself singled out. Then they revived the smear campaign against Sarah Palin. The Birther controversy is the latest incarnation of this strategy, which aims to taint all Republicans by association with a discredited libel.

And too many conservatives have been eager to take the bait.

There are two reasons why so many find the Birther theory compelling. One is the opaqueness of Obama himself. There is much about our president we still do not know.

For example, throughout 2008 the media showed little interest in Obama's connections to the underworld of Chicago politics, regarding Hillary Clinton's references to fraudster "slumlord" Tony Rezko as mere fear-mongering. When the Blagojevich scandal exploded in December 2008, many journalists were quick to accept Obama's assurances of innocent naïveté.

Other details about the president's past remain hidden or suppressed. Obama has never, for example, provided a convincing explanation of why he disposed of his papers from the Illinois State Senate, or how he managed to lose the thesis he wrote at Columbia. He sometimes fibs about essential details of his personal life -- such as where he met his wife -- and offers inauthentic projections of empathy with ordinary folk, such as references to arugula or memories of "Cominskey Field."

The Obama team also has a habit of releasing information in cryptic drips and drabs, and Friday-afternoon document drops. During the campaign, he suddenly revealed that he had taken a trip to Pakistan in 1981 -- a voyage he had not alluded to in either of his two memoirs -- and his staff only belatedly acknowledged his authorship of an unsigned Harvard Law Review article on abortion.

The candidate who promised transparency has been anything but transparent, feeding the suspicion that drives the Birther theory.

The other reason the Birther theory has caught on -- particularly among conservatives -- is the weakness of the Republican opposition.

Despite the GOP's success in slowing down ObamaCare, Democrats still have a huge majority in the House, a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate, and a White House that is aggressively expanding its executive power. One Republican leader after another has stepped down or been tarnished by scandal.

Many Americans -- including some who had convinced themselves that Obama was a moderate -- are eager for a way to stop the runaway left-wing agenda of Obama and Nancy Pelosi's Congress. In the absence of strong Republican leadership, some find the Birther theory a compelling, if desperate, solution.

Yet it is ultimately a self-destructive one -- not just because it is almost certainly false, but because it contradicts the essential spirit of the conservative movement.

The philosopher Robert Nozick distinguished between two approaches to political thought: the "invisible hand" and the "hidden hand." Those who embrace the "invisible hand" believe that people, given the freedom to make their own choices, tend to achieve social goals without being forced to do so.

Sometimes the invisible hand fails, and strong central leadership is needed. But as a general rule, free markets and civil liberties have worked well in promoting human progress. They have certainly proved better than the alternative, in the form of state control, which has produced only poverty, war, and misery.

"Hidden hand" thinkers, by contrast, believe that everything is controlled by unseen forces -- not spiritual but human in nature. Socialism thrives on such ideas, including the notion that big business is constantly manipulating all of us to feed its insatiable greed -- an idea that Obama and much of his left-wing base subscribes to quite openly. In fact, socialism depends on conspiracy theories to justify its war against personal liberty, to blame for its inevitable failures, and to cover up its own very real machinations.

The real "conspiracy" in American politics is the way in which special interest groups loyal to Obama now have unfettered access to power and public money. The unions that ran themselves to the brink of insolvency by giving millions of dollars to Obama and the Democrats, for instance, are being handed taxpayer bailouts and huge shares in companies newly acquired by our rapidly-expanding government, the better to begin the cycle anew.

The answer is to expose this corruption, to fight for policies consistent with American values of freedom, and to win elections again -- not to waste time and resources on political alchemy.

The Birther theory is, in effect if not in intent, a gift to the Obama administration, bequeathed by the indignant rump of the Clinton effort and now deployed against the Republican opposition. It is also deeply corrosive of the spirit of liberty that conservatives bring to American politics.

That is why conservatives and Republicans should reject it -- and dismiss with contempt the media's effort to hang it around our collective necks. There is enough in this administration to oppose on the merits -- or lack thereof.

Joel B. Pollak is a recent Harvard Law graduate and the author of Don't Tell Me Words Don't Matter: How Rhetoric Won the 2008 Presidential Election.