New York Times, October 9, 2012
When Republicans began questioning President Obama’s birth certificate four years ago, it seemed at first like a petulant reaction to a lost election, a flush of nativist and racist anger that would diminish over time. But the preposterous charges never went away. As this election cycle shows, many in the Republican Party continue to see the president as the center of a broad and malevolent liberal conspiracy to upend the truth.
To live and seethe in that world of conspiracy theories means rejecting any form of objective reality. When unemployment numbers make the administration look good, they are obviously “cooked.” When poll numbers put Mr. Obama ahead, they are skewed. Birth certificates are forgeries. Safety-net programs are giveaways to supporters. Health insurance reform is socialism. And campaign donation disclosure is antibusiness.
It’s an upside-down version of life, and it is not innocuous. When desperation leads political critics of the president to discredit important nonpolitical institutions — including the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office — the damage can be long-lasting. If voters come to mistrust the most basic functions of government, the resulting cynicism can destroy the basic compact of citizenship.
Last week, the Labor Department reported that the unemployment rate had fallen to 7.8 percent, depriving Mitt Romney of his standard talking point that the rate had never been below 8 percent during Mr. Obama’s term. No one expected Republicans to celebrate a positive trend for the country, but almost immediately the anchors on Fox News and the editors of right-wing Web sites saw something more sinister: a conspiracy, led by the Obama campaign, to manipulate the numbers to make the president look good a month before the election.
The charge was absurd. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which along with the Census Bureau conducts the underlying household survey, is run by career civil servants and is impervious to political pressure and manipulation, as all but the hypnotized in Washington understand. But, this time, the conspiracy theorists went beyond the usual suspects. Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric, said Mr. Obama’s Chicago staff obviously changed the numbers, though he had no evidence of chicanery beyond the outrageous charge that the numbers came from an “ideologue division of the federal government.”
To Mr. Welch and his fellow cynics, the facts were inconvenient, so they had to be wrong. And not just wrong, but deliberately so. That’s the same mentality that led ideologues last month to accuse independent pollsters of deliberately skewing polls to show Mr. Obama ahead, though no such charges are emerging now that Mr. Romney is improving in the polls. And this trend is reinforced when people who know better, like Newt Gingrich and Senator John McCain, trash the civil servants at the State Department and the Congressional Budget Office. (Mr. Romney, to his credit, did not question the latest jobless figures.)
Democrats aren’t happy about the latest polls, but they aren’t suggesting Mr. Romney is manipulating them, just as they didn’t undermine the Bureau of Labor Statistics when the jobless numbers were high. Many are far more worried about a conspiracy that is verifiable and serious: the concerted effort by Republicans over the last four years to deprive minorities, poor people and other likely Democratic supporters of their voting rights.
That, of course, doesn’t seem to bother those who see “Chicago’s” evil hand everywhere. When there is real-world evidence of political collusion, the conspiracy theorists are nowhere to be found.