Dispatches from the Creation Wars

I think I’ve changed my view on Obama releasing the birth certificate now. My initial reaction was, why bother? It won’t change anything. Most of the birthers will go on being birthers anyway as they are impervious to evidence and you cannot reason someone out of a position that is not based on reason in the first place. But perhaps that is exactly the point.

By releasing the birth certificate now, he does a couple of things. First, he peels off some portion of the birthers, the not terribly committed ones who saw it just as a good way to attack someone they dislike politically. That’s why I’m predicting that the poll results will show around a 25% drop in the number of people who doubt that Obama was born in the United States.

But more importantly, those who are left will have to double down on the crazy in order to maintain their positions. This is basic human nature, it’s one of the key ways that the brain handles cognitive dissonance. Faced with powerful evidence that shows one’s views to be false, most people will not reevaluate their position and admit they were wrong; they will, instead, reassert the same position even more strongly than they did before — and they will tie themselves into all kinds of knots in order to justify doing so.

We’re going to see another example of this in a few weeks, I guarantee. Harold Camping is predicting the rapture on May 21. When May 22 comes and he is proven wrong, a small number of his followers will be disillusioned and will stop following him. The rest — the vast majority — will remain as convinced as ever and continue to follow him, reality be damned. And they will come up with all kinds of crazy explanations. Just like they did when Camping was wrong the first time he predicted the rapture.

When you’ve invested yourself emotionally in something, as the people have in all of these cases, it is extraordinarily difficult to ever admit you were wrong. Most people will do everything they possibly can to avoid having to do that and their delusions will deepen and become even more obvious to them even as the rest of the world shakes their heads and wonders how anyone could possibly believe what has been clearly disproven.

And I suspect Obama’s advisers know all of this. I think they released the birth certificate for that very reason, because it will peel off a few of the marginal birthers but make the rest of them have to become even crazier, further distancing themselves from the rest of the population — especially independent voters, who will now be even more appalled by the hard right and less likely to support a Republican in 2012.

And it also continues the bind for the Republicans. It almost forces anyone running against him to have to stop courting the birther vote. They can no longer take the “I take him at his word but I still don’t know why he doesn’t just release it and get it over with” position. That’s no longer an option. It means they have to more clearly pick a side, no more do they have the luxury of kinda sorta agreeing that the birthers may have some legitimate concerns even if they don’t think it’s a big deal. They now have to pick a position and stick with it — and either one they pick is a serious problem for them.

In the primaries, where the most extreme elements are likely to hold sway, the more they distance themselves from the birthers the less likely they are to win; but try to appease the birthers then and you lose with the centrist voters you need to win the general election. An excellent Catch-22.

A lot of Obama enthusiasts always seem to think that Obama is using some reverse psychology, double bluff, long-term strategy that is way above the thinking of regular people, even when he’s transparently screwing up. But in this case, I think their actions may well end up being very shrewd politically.