Americans were offered closure Wednesday to one of among the multifarious strands of our national dementias. It took the drab guise of the “long-form” birth certificate, signed and filed in Hawaii on August 8, 1961, indicating that the president is a legitimate occupant of the Oval Office. But will the White House’s release of the certificate finish off the “birther” movement? Certainly not. We’re dealing here with cognitive dissonance.
Harold Camping, president of Family Stations Ministry, has been preaching for some time now to a vast and devoted national audience that God’s plan is to inaugurate the Second Coming and end the world by flooding on May 21, 2011 (thus achieving a Judeo-Christian planetary closure before the prime current pagan rival, the end of the Mayan calendar, scheduled for December 21, 2012.)
It’s a safe bet that Camping and his disciples will be saying on May 22 that his math was merely a year or two off, and the end is still nigh. His congregation will have its faith fortified. Membership will probably increase, as it did after the failure of Camping’s last prediction of the Second Coming, which he scheduled for September 6, 1994.
Sociologists call the phenomenon of increased commitment to a batty theory, at the very hour of its destruction by external evidence, “cognitive dissonance.” The theory was developed by three sociologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, who infiltrated a group headed by Dorothy Martin of Chicago who had received messages from the Planet Clarion that the world was scheduled for destruction by flood in the predawn hours of December 21, 1954. A flying saucer would save the group, whose members had abandoned, often at considerable expense and upheaval, all terrestrial commitments, pending transfer to Clarion.
The sociologists theorized that, when neither spaceship nor flood materialized, the group’s best strategy to avoid public humiliation would be to dismiss the failure of the prophesied events as due to minor miscalculations and then to proselytize vigorously, advertising a re-dated flood and interplanetary rescue. Dissonance between nutty theory and reality would be diminished amid growing popularity of the nutty theory. Anyone following the growth of the Christian religion in its early decades, or the Lesser of Two Evils crowd advocating support of a Democratic candidate, will recognize the dynamics.
The three sociologists, who later faced some ethical censure for failing to disclose their motivations or true identities to Martin (whom they renamed Keech) and the group, wrote up the saga and the theory in When Prophecy Fails: a Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World, published in 1956.
Perhaps aiming to subvert the imminent publication of Jerry Corsi’s Where’s the Birth Certificate?: The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President, Obama released the oft-demanded long certificate at a press conference, where he declined questions but said the birther movement was becoming a distraction from serious political issues, fanned by “carnival barkers,” by which he evidently meant Donald Trump who’s been campaigning for the presidency on the issue.
The words were scarcely out of Obama’s mouth and the document hardly lofted onto the White House website before leading birthers were expressing skepticism about the certificate as allegedly photo-shopped, also insisting that, anyway, it was a “side issue” and distraction from the serious matter of Obama’s qualifications as a “natural born citizen” as opposed to an ineligible Third World foundling from Kenya or Indonesia, as around 25% of all Americans and 50% of all Republicans have come to believe.
Trump immediately claimed victory and vindication as the man who had forced the birthers’ cause into the headlights.
Cognitive dissonance has become standard equipment for political scientists and reporters across America. They advance on a daily basis the premise that the Republican Party is guided by cunning and sophisticated manipulators of public opinion. They simultaneously report that the stated aim of these manipulators is to destroy two of the most popular government programs, Medicare and Social Security. Medicare is essentially socialized medicine for the elderly and Social Security keeps millions from homelessness and starvation in their sunset years.
Yet for months now the national press has been lauding as a principled and effective Republican crusader for budgetary discipline US Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who wants to end Medicare, handing it over to management by the “private sector,” with similar brutal attacks on Social Security.
The bloc most likely to vote in any election are the older crowd, with Medicare Health Insurance cards in their wallets and receiving their Social Security checks on the second Wednesday of every month. So it’s a no-brainer to say that the Republicans today are politically insane, just as George Bush was in 2005, when he proclaimed that “reforming” Social Security was to be the prime cause of his second term.
Three months later, battered by furious protests by the elderly plus those younger folk with ambitions to slide into their 70s on a diet better than scraps from trash bins and under a roof more durable than cardboard, Bush dropped the issue of reform of Social Security forever.
The Republicans are politically insane because the only way to “reform” — i.e., cut back these programs — is to swear you’re doing the opposite, the tactic of Bill Clinton and, prospectively, of Obama. But the Republicans, lapping up the plaudits of the elite press — the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — doling out measured praise for Rep. Ryan’s responsible commitment to fiscal prudence, forgot the need for dissimulation, and now Ryan and his fellow Republicans have gone back to their districts, and are discovering to their amazement that the voters have scant confidence in Obama’s handling of the economy but even less in the Republicans’ proposals.
In a news story Wednesday headlined “House GOP Members Face Voter Anger Over Budget,” certain to be read with deep alarm by those few Republicans still endowed with powers of rational analysis, New York Times correspondents reported bluntly that “after ten days of trying to sell constituents on their plan to overhaul Medicare, House Republicans in multiple districts appear to be increasingly on the defensive, facing worried and angry questions from voters and a barrage of new attacks from Democrats and their allies.”
In Florida, filled with retirees, the NYT story continued, “a Congressional town meeting erupted into near chaos on Tuesday as attendees accused a Republican lawmaker of trying to dismantle Medicare while providing tax cuts to corporations and affluent Americans. At roughly the same time in Wisconsin, Representative Paul D Ryan, the architect of the Republican budget proposal, faced a packed town meeting, occasional boos and a skeptical audience as he tried to lay out his party’s rationale for overhauling the health insurance program for retirees.”
Earlier this week, the governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, announced he was folding his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He said he realized that he “didn’t really have the stomach for a prolonged and costly campaign.” Barbour is a good old boy Southerner, ample in girth and prone to dropping clangers on the race issue. He’s also a pretty smart Washington insider who, no doubt, realized that only five months after the great Republican triumph in the midterm polls last November, the party has plummeted swiftly in public esteem, regarded as plain nutty by millions.
Obama isn’t popular either. Sixty-seven per cent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. His job disapproval rating stands at 49%. The job “disapproval” rating for Congress, with a House newly led by Republicans, stands at 71%. Current Republican presidential candidates are, in order of popular esteem for their candidacies: Christian evangelical Mike Huckabee, who leads this field with a 17% showing; circus barker Donald Trump; Mormon and failed aspirant in 2008 Mitt Romney; faded star Sarah Palin; adulterer Newt Gingrich; foe of Social Security and Medicare Ron Paul; nutball Michele Bachmann; and a trio of 2%ers: Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels and Rick Santorum, of whom former Senator Bob Kerrey once memorably said, “Santorum? Is that the Latin for asshole?”
These are not impressive or even endearing candidates, except for Paul on account of his anti-war/anti-Fed stance.) It’s hard to imagine any of them offering a credible challenge to as adaptable and opportunistic a candidate as Obama, who has just assigned the man once regarded as a credible Republican presidential candidate, General David Petraeus, as head of the CIA, thus taking him off the political chessboard, at least so far as 2012 is concerned.
It seems the man on the Fox Biz Channel auditioning to take Beck’s place spent an hour on Wednesday going over the flaws in the birth certificate. Gingrich said Thursday the whole thing remains fishy. They can’t let go — at least until cognitive dissonance blows a tire in the early primaries.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com.