Southern Politics

That Georgia House Bill 401 is not really about preventing Barack Obama’s name from appearing on the 2012 presidential ballot in Georgia is patent. Less obvious is what it is intended to accomplish. Rather than an exercise in irrational partisanship, a collective temper tantrum on the part of conservatives convinced they are entitled to have one of their own in the White House, as is supposed in much of the commentary on the ‘Birther Bill,’ there is method to the madness of Georgia Republicans.

Granted, among the 89 Republicans in the Georgia House of Representatives who chose to affix and leave affixed their names on HB 401 as co-sponsors may be individuals willing to insist upon choosing the Democratic nominee who will lose the state in the general election However most realize that the attempt to do so will inevitably fail in the courts.  Instead, more rational ends motivated their decisions.

So what are Georgia Republicans up to if they don’t really want to enact the Birther Bill? Part of the answer is that Birtherism is a good way to mobilize white racist voters.  Public expressions of race hate by politicians are a thing of the past across Dixie. Overt racism has been replaced by carefully coded racism. Birtherism gives Republicans a way to talk about Obama’s race without talking about race, a way to appeal for racist votes without dropping a single racial epithet.  The temptation for Republican politicians to play their race card must be close to irresistible. If goody goody Rev. Mike Huckabee is willing to ‘mistakenly’ describe Obama as having grown up in Kenya where he was influenced by the anti-colonialist Mau Mau Rebellion during a talk radio interview, just imagine what some Republican Members of the Georgia House are willing to say to an all white audience of local notables when they think there are no journalists in the room.  Lurking beneath the denial that Obama was born in the U.S. is another, even more poisonous denial: that Black Americans are not part of the national community.

Another part of the answer that Birtherism offers a way to make several of the leading Republican presidential candidates seem less improbable. Painting the President as ‘foreign’ makes Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and Newt Gingrich’s rather un-Baptist personal life seem less unusual. It might make voters roll their eyes a little less at the prospect of a ‘President Mike Huckabee’ or a ‘President Sarah Palin.’ As it did before the 2008 election, the GOP suffers from a shortage of presidential candidates with the requisite combination of name recognition, money, and ability to rhetorically paper over the party’s growing factional divisions. Country Club and Christian Right Republicans often found it hard to make common cause in the past and neither knows quite what to do with the weirdness invited in with the Tea Party.

The final part of the answer is that Birtherism shares an important feature with many of the other nonsense Tea Party enthusiasms, including enforcing immigration law at the state level, Sharia Law in Oklahoma, Texas Secession, and terror babies. They are all ways to divert the attention of working Americans from growing economic inequality and tax policies that increasingly shift the burden of taxation from the classes to the masses. If politics is going to be reduced to a zero sum competition, then conservatives are determined to make it about race and ethnicity rather than about class. The problem for many Republican politicians is that talking social exclusion and economic liberty at the same time requires even more strenuous ideological contortionism. Squaring Christianity with militarism and capitalism is already difficult enough.  Witness the serial excursus in the March 3rd rant by Texas Republican Louie Gohmert on the floor of the U.S. House. For those still hobbled by common decency, adding racism and xenophobia to the task might be too much to stomach. That makes it a problem for the party as a whole.

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John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.