The Agenda

On the Obama-is-a-Muslim Meme

As you might know, a large and growing number of Americans say that they believe that President Obama — an enthusiastic pork-eater — is a Muslim. “Say that they believe” is an important part of that last sentence.

This is the kind of story that partisans love. But interestingly, it seems that left-of-center partisans are far more drawn to this idea — my political opponents are irrational or easily misled — than right-of-center partisans. I’d go so far as to argue that this idea is a not unimportant part of the left-liberal gestalt. But as Ilya Somin noted in February, ignorant and irrational views are pervasive among Democrats as well as Republicans:

One can easily find parallel examples for Democrats. Thus, Kos makes much of the finding that 23% of Republicans in the survey say they want their state to secede. But a 2008 Zogby/Middlebury College poll found that support for secession was vastly more common among liberals than conservatives. In that poll 32% of liberals claimed that their state has a right to secede (compared to only 17% of conservatives), and a whopping 33% of African-American respondents (an overwhelmingly Democratic group), said that they would support a secession movement in their state. I suspect that supporters of the opposition party are always disproportionately likely to express support for secession when they are angry at an incumbent administration of the opposite party (as Republicans are today, and Democrats were in 2008). I don’t think that support for secession is necessarily ignorant or stupid. To the extent that it is problematic, it’s not a problem limited to Republicans.

Kos also points out the 36% of Republicans in his study who seem to endorse birtherism and the 22% who say they aren’t sure. Birtherism is indeed ridiculous. Yet a 2007 poll found that 35% of self-identified Democrats believe that Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, and 26% say they don’t know if he did. 

Other examples of ignorance and irrationality by Democratic voters are not hard to come by. For example, some 32% of Democrats believe that “the Jews” deserve a substantial amount of blame for the financial crisis (compared to 18% of Republicans). In November 2008, some 59% of Obama voters did not know that the Democrats then had control of Congress

The fact that right-of-center intellectuals don’t fixate on the fact that an extraordinary 32 percent of self-identified Democrats  ”believe that ’the Jews’ deserve a substantial amount of blame for the financial crisis” is interesting. I tend to think it’s a good thing, as a debate focused on the anti-Semitism of a non-trivial number of people who call themselves Democrats would be less edifying than a debate focused on substantive policy questions. To be sure, many on the right are concerned about anti-Semitism on the left and have written about the issue extensively. It hasn’t, however, risen to the level of an endless drumbeat magnified by Fox News. 

In May, Todd Zywicki cited an article by Zeljka Buturovic and Dan Klein on beliefs about the economy, which are arguably pretty central and important to our political debates:

* 67% of self-described Progressives believe that restrictions on housing development (i.e., regulations that reduce the supply of housing) do not make housing less affordable.

* 51% believe that mandatory licensing of professionals (i.e., reducing the supply of professionals) doesn’t increase the cost of professional services.

* Perhaps most amazing, 79% of self-described Progressive believe that rent control (i.e., price controls) does not lead to housing shortages.

Note that the questions here are not whether the benefits of these policies might outweigh the costs, but the basic economic effects of these policies.

Those identifying as “libertarian” and “very conservative” were the most knowledgeable about basic economics.  Those identifying as “Progressive” and “Liberal” were the worst.

Does this mean that progressives and liberals have been systematically misled by a media conspiracy? I don’t think so. Do a number of prominent progressives and liberals express these beliefs in public forums, alternative media channels, and the like? I’m guessing the answer is yes, but I doubt it has much of an impact, as those voices are drowned out by the larger and more prominent left-of-center media voices that accept mainstream economic views. 

But then consider Brendan Nyhan’s take on the Obama-is-a-Muslim meme:

But while pundits have been quick to blame Obama and the public, very few commentators have noted the role played by the media and political elites in misleading the public about Obama’s religious beliefs. Slate’s Dave Weigel came the closest, writing that “At some point it became acceptable to question Obama’s American-ness, which naturally begged the question of whether he was a secret Muslim… and the WorldNetDailys, tabloids, and Drudge Reports of the world were ready to keep begging that question.”

Am I questioning President Obama’s “American-ness” by observing that he had an impressively cosmopolitan background, which included a stint living abroad as a small child? As I understand it, this was once seen as one of Barack Obama’s virtues. Given that “American-ness” is inescapably subjective, I’m hard-pressed to see why it’s wrong to have a public conversation about how a politician’s cultural identity shapes his beliefs about the world. Much was written about George W. Bush’s mix of Southern and Western and New England sensibilities, with many arguing that he was heir to a noxious political tradition rooted in the extractive industries and the reactionary Bourbon aristocracy. We might not find this kind of conversation edifying — I don’t — but it’s going to happen, and I think that’s fair enough. 

Nyhan then goes on to list a long series of statements made by right-of-center writers and activists that, to my eyes, don’t seem to have much of a unifying theme. Frank Gaffney says lots of things that I don’t agree with, e.g.,

 Frank Gaffney, the right-wing apparatchik last seen suggesting that President Obama’s apparent bow to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was “code” telling “our Muslim enemies that you are willing to submit to them,” has written an entire column for the Washington Times arguing that “there is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself” (via MM). He bases this false conclusion upon a bizarre and elaborate exegesis of Obama’s Cairo speech that would embarrass even the most paranoid conspiracy theorist.

but I wonder if Nyhan is overestimating Gaffney’s influence. Moreover, Nyhan uses terms like “apparatchik” to make his point, as though Gaffney’s statements aren’t enough to make his case. 

One of the reasons Nyhan’s litany of statements is so long is that he includes statements like the following:

December 2006: Columnist Debbie Schlussel notes that Obama’s father was a Muslim and asks ”Where will his loyalties be?”

Again, one of the sources of enthusiasm for President Obama in and outside of the United States was the notion that he would take a broader, more inclusive view of U.S. national interests, and that his cultural identity predisposed him towards a more positive attitude towards the developing world and, presumably, the Islamic world. This is one reason why President Obama’s approval ratings have declined in the Muslim world — there was a widely held belief that he would intervene more aggressively on behalf of the Palestinians, and he has not.  

May 2009: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich alleges on “Fox News Sunday” that there is a “weird pattern” in which Obama administration officials were “prepared to take huge risks with Americans in order to defend terrorists” and suggests that the Obama administration was proposing “welfare” for terrorists. He then claims on “Meet the Press” that the Obama administration’s “highest priority” is to “find some way to defend terrorists.”

Serious question: does this not represent criticism of detainee policies that the Obama administration has essentially abandoned? Leaving aside the merits of Gingrich’s arguments — I tend to think the issue is more complicated than Gingrich allows — are we not allowed to harshly criticize our political opponents?

August 2009: On the Lou Dobbs radio show, substitute host Tom Marr says ”I have to believe that there is still an inner Muslim within this man that has some sense of sympathy towards the number one enemy of freedom and democracy in the world today, and that is Islamic terrorism.”

I’d definitely consider this out-of-bounds. Yet Nyhan is now selecting a quote from a guest host of Lou Dobbs radio show to make his point. This can’t be encouraging for his thesis, particularly if we assume that he was trying to select the strongest rather than the weakest examples to make his case.

John Sides has written an intelligent examination of Nyhan’s thesis:

If Nyhan’s hypothesis is true, we would expect to see sharper changes over time among people who are, first, predisposed to believe bad things about Obama.  This implicates Republicans, and, indeed, Pew found that Republicans registered the sharpest increase in the belief that Obama is Muslim.  Second, among Republicans, we should see especially sharp changes among those who pay attention politics and the news, because these people who would be more likely to watch, read, or hear any commentators and leaders suggesting that Obama is Muslim. 

And so Sides looks at the results by level of formal education:

The growth in this perception among Democrats is small and is consistent across education levels: a 2-4 increase within each level.  By contrast, the growth in this perception among Republicans is more notable among those with some college education (a 19-point increase) or a college degree (15 points) than among those with a high school degree or less (9 points).  In other words, better educated Republicans have changed more than the less educated Republicans. This flies in the face of the “dumb Americans” idea and provides some support for Nyhan’s hypothesis. The people most likely to hear the “Obama is a Muslim” meme are the ones whose beliefs changed most dramatically in the past 17 months.

To his great credit, Sides ends his post with the following:

Obviously, we cannot draw definitive conclusions from this analysis.  It does not prove that some media personalities and political leaders are responsible for the increasing perception that Obama is a Muslim. But it points in that direction.

There is another hypothesis that strikes me as at least equally plausible. Last August, Julian Sanchez wrote an excellent post on “Symbolic Belief,” in which he took a look at the phenomenon he called “Birther Madness”:

As my colleague at Democracy in America notes, comparable numbers of Democrats during the Bush Administration told pollsters that they thought Bush had foreknowledge of 9/11—or at any rate were uncertain about whether he did. Now, probably some of those people interpreted this in a very broad sense and were thinking about the report that summer warning, in very general terms, that Al Qaeda was “determined to strike in U.S.,” but assume a hefty chunk literally meant that they thought a sitting U.S. president deliberately allowed (if not engineered) the murder of thousands of American civilians for his own nefarious purposes. Yet I can’t help but notice that, however much people may have expressed intense disdain for Bush, you did not really see a lot of behavior consistent with millions upon millions of people being seriously convinced that their president was a treasonous mass murderer.  I mean, what would you do if you were really-and-truly convinced that something like that were true? Take up arms? Throw yourself into a quest for conclusive evidence? Move to Canada?  Something, probably—or if you wouldn’t, at any rate, some non-trivial proportion of the people who shared the belief would—or so I’d imagine. It’s obviously too stringent to make it a condition of ascribing belief that people act on all the logical and practical implications of holding it, but when the disconnect is too profound, I think we’re justified in characterizing some of these as pseudobeliefs, one subset of which is what I want to call “symbolic beliefs.”

To be sure, there is a big difference here between embracing Trutherism and believing that President Obama is a Muslim. But the next part of Julian’s argument seems to capture at least some of what is happening:

Pseudobeliefs may serve any number of functions; I’m using the phrase “symbolic belief” for the ones that either work as a public expression of some associated attitude, or play some role in defining the holder’s self-conception.

That is, embracing the symbolic belief is a form of posturing: 

Symbolic beliefs, as I’m conceiving of them, are “sincere”—in that the person holding them probably isn’t consciously or reflexively aware that they’re false,  but also shallow, insofar as a subconscious lack of commitment to the truth of the belief renders it behaviorally inert. For those who aren’t hardcore birthers, I’d hazard that the real meaning of professing either uncertainty or positive disbelief in the claim that he was born in the U.S. is something like: “I consider Obama phony, dishonest, and un-American.” It’s not, I hasten to say, that they really believe, deep-down, that Obama was born in Hawaii. It’s more that—as with H.G. Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit”—the literal truth or falsity of the proposition is a matter of indifference; it’s not really the point.

This sounds right to me. But if this framework is right, the Obama-is-a-Muslim meme can’t be attributed to Fox News. 

The main thing I find depressing about the Obama-is-a-Muslim meme is that it reflects and potentially reinforces anti-Muslim sentiment. I like to think that conservatives would embrace an actual Muslim candidate who embraced limited government, low taxes, and a strong national defense. But just as large numbers of voters are allergic to Mormon candidates, we have good reason to believe that anti-Muslim prejudice — which is not the same thing, by the way, as objecting to Cordoba House or believing that Muslim Americans and Muslim immigrants should embrace U.S. culture — will persist for years to come.

Because Sides has written such an insightful post on this issue, I’d be interested in hearing his thoughts on the persistence of anti-Semitism. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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