The Birthers' Unrealized Damage to the GOP

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Despite the attention paid to "Birthers," their lasting legacy on the Republican Party has probably been overlooked: the mass alienation of voters from the GOP.

Two main thoughts have circulated about the finding that most Republicans deny or are unsure about President Obama's birthright citizenship. First, these people show how insane and insular the GOP is. Second, the more this is talked about, the fewer Democrats have to defend their agenda and the crazier Republicans look. (Caution to all: this edifice is built on a single survey.)

What matters is the message that a lot of Republicans believe the Birther nonsense and that it gets out to the rest of the public. That message's ultimate impact could be to socially alienate Republicans from potential newcomers to the party.

Today the Republican Party is smaller than it has been since its last successful election in 2004, according to Gallup. There are simply fewer people in the party, which means fewer voters, fewer volunteers, and fewer donations than Democrats have.

Policies and events influence these numbers, but so can social attitudes. While you might be a tax-cutting social conservative, would your ethnic community look down on you if you voted Republican despite your policy agreements? Would talking about your liberal beliefs alienate your friends at home away from college? These answers matter when people decide to identify as Democrats or Republicans, much less admit their affiliations. Have you not asked yourself similar questions before speaking out on a subject?

This is precisely why the Birther imbroglio could be so harmful to the GOP. If Birthers are portrayed as backward, hateful, and racist, and Democrats and liberals can make "Birther" synonymous with "Republican" then who will want to call themselves Republicans? The risk isn't just being seen as taking the minority side of an opinion, it's to be seen as a lunatic or racist.

While people could still secretly vote Republican if the Birther-Republican tautology becomes widely accepted, that wouldn't make for a healthy GOP. All parties need foot soldiers, not just voters, to flourish. Just look at each party's mobilization efforts over health care right now.

The Birthers threaten to salt the fields around the GOP's reduced territory and make it hard for the party to harvest new voters in the future. This could be especially true of younger voters, who were the least accepting of the premise that Obama wasn't born in America. They are also quick to not tolerate anything that smells racist and mostly voted for Obama last year. 

The ultimate dilemma with Republicans and Birthers has haunted parties and armies alike: virtually no group kills its detrimental allies while fighting an enemy ("the enemy of my enemy is my friend"). It can be tempting to draw an analogy between Birthers and the right-wing John Birchers of the 1950's that accused President Eisenhower of being a communist and were then exiled by conservatives. However, conservatives weren't trying to bring down the Republican Party; they were trying to take it over from liberals without ceding it to red-baiters.

Maybe another civil war lies ahead for today's Republican Party, or maybe Birther fever will cool, or perhaps Democrats will suffer a cataclysm that drives people into the arms of the GOP regardless. It's an unenviable position for Republicans to be in when they're trying to avoid the first scenario, don't want to be seen enabling the second, and are limited in bringing about the third.

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Justin Miller was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 to 2011. He is now the homepage editor at New York magazine. More

Justin Miller was a associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously he was an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics, a political reporter in Ohio, and a freelance journalist.
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