Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Like facts, non-facts do not speak for themselves

So, Obama has decided to call the birthers bluff and is issuing the long-form version of his birth certificate because, as the White House communications directors blogged: "it may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country." Even the president himself has spoken directly on the issue and chastised those caught up in the birther issue (i.e. the media) by saying, "we don't have time for this silliness."

Early (left-leaning) opinions on the rationale behind the president's move are mixed. Some see this as a sign of the president showing further weakness by legitimizing the stance of birthers such as Trump. By even discussing the issue, he has strengthened the loonies. Indeed, the Donald is crowing right now that he "played a big role" in resolving the issue. For the detractors of Obama's move, the consequences of Obama's decision can be summed thus: "Weak Obama allows Trump to look sane (for asking) and strong (for forcing a decision)."

The alternative opinion is that Obama has cannily placed a wedge into the middle of the right. Instead of ignoring a growing issue (45% of Republicans think he is a foreigner for God's sake), Obama has finally given them what they asked for. By settling the issue, the remaining birthers will be forced back to the fringe of Serious Debate. As a bonus, they may still hold onto their looniness and force Republican candidates to take a position on the issue, and thus alienate independents. For Obama's supporters, the move can be summed up as: "Crafty Obama has suddenly made birtherism look crazy again and the Republican candidates are boxed in by the fact that they have to accept that Obama has given them what they wanted, while still telling the base that the base isn't crazy."

So which interpretation is correct? Has Obama bought into the crazies' narrative and thus made himself look weak and reactive again, or has he settled the issue and, as a result, outmaneuvered the Republicans and forced them to fight among themselves over an issue which will suddenly look bonkers again? Which is the right interpretation?

The answer is we don't know, and that we can't know until after this issue has been discussed. At some point, there will be a consensus agreement that this was a strong or a weak move, and the source of the agreement will come from how successfully Obama makes the case that the pro-Obama interpretation is the "fact" of the matter. And, as I hope to demonstrate, the answer is so uncertain precisely because of the fact that Obama did somewhat legitimize the issue by reacting to it, but also de-legitimized it by rejecting it. In order to win, he needs to keep hammering on the second point. Because his enemies will certainly keep hammering on the first.

The birther issue and the President's response are a really good example of the rhetorical element of politics: how narratives are created and the meaning of political actions established. For decades political science ignored rhetoric and focused on material incentives, power, and ideas (in an abstract sense). In the last few years there has been a growing literature on how these things come together and how the words and symbols political actors deploy can been analyzed as a strategic resource in their own right. Just because someone is strong, does not mean people will accept their power; just because an idea is good or true, does not mean people will update their beliefs. Very often, actors must use words and symbolic acts to broaden their own possibilities for action and by limiting those of their opponent. Simply by getting an opponent to agree that there is a problem in the way that you define it ("climate change is an economic issue, not a security one"; or, "there is too much government spending") you can limit what your opponent can offer as a reasonable and/or authentic response. In short, as Krebs and Jackson note, frames often imply implications.

This is why Obama's strategy is tricky. He has attempted to reject the overall right-wing frame of the issue, but is not offering an alternative frame through which to understand the actions. It is important he do so. Rejecting a frame which is a very challenging act and one that his opponents will not take sitting down. They will either go full-bore and say this certificate doesn't count, Obama took too long etc. (as many already have), or they will re-frame again and say that Obama has accepted their frame by releasing his certificate. Failure by Obama's opponents to choose one of these options will mean that they will end up looking crazy and/or mean-spirited. This is a strong incentive not to just accept Obama's act. In other words, Obama's release of this certificate cannot just end the debate - it can only trigger a new one.

Obama's act does not speak for itself; it needs active cheerleaders who will say, "this is what this means, and why." It will take a concrete strategy of saying that the old frame ("Obama may be an alien") is no longer the frame through which this debate should be understood. However, in order to do this a new frame which can capably collect all of these events (accusations, denials, media reports, the final release of the certificate) into one simple narrative needs to be deployed. Such a frame cannot be anything but antagonistic to his opponents ("these people are either mad or genuinely wicked and this whole process should be understood this way"). By aggressively denouncing his detractors Obama might look strong and truly create a wedge issue ("Obama called me crazy! Do you [generic Republican contender] agree? Yes or no?!"). On the other hand, if he just releases this and then forgets about it (or more typically, hopes the issue will just go away), his opponents will get to frame his actions again, and show that Obama is easily bullied.

In short, the "success" of Obama's move cannot be assessed because the definition of success will be contested itself over the next few weeks and months. Based on the political naivety of the Democrats ("people are rational and just need the facts") and their unwillingness to pick a fight, I suspect that the detractor camp is right: this is a bad move on Obama's part. But only because the Right in this country has understood a truly sophisticated 'fact'.

That facts, or non-facts, do not speak for themselves.

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