Politics and Paranoia

    History has demonstrated that politics can be a dangerous game. It’s often fueled by the work of spin masters, exaggerators, convenient rumor mills and unhealthy dosages of paranoia.

    Listen: [audio: satullo20090913.mp3]

    On the November day when Barack Obama was elected president, an incident took place at a Philadelphia polling place. It caused barely a blip in the city. But it lives on as a cause celebre among right-wing bloggers. Their paranoid fantasies have cost you, the taxpayers, some dough – and the meter’s still running. To explain:  On Election Day 2008, two men showed up outside a Spring Garden Street voting site wearing black boots and berets and wielding police batons. Jerry Jackson and King Shabazz called themselves the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They later explained that they were there to protect voters from intimidation by Nazis.

    Clearly, their passports were stamped with visas from Crazytown. It’s a no-no to carry weapons near a polling place, so police told them to scram. By 3 p.m. that day, right-wing Web sites were aflame with wildly exaggerated accounts of this dustup on Spring Garden Street. Since, it has become, in right-wing circles, a certified, game-changing case of VOTER INTIMIDATION, proof that the black guy tried to steal the presidency.

    But the bloggers never seemed to have asked two basic questions any decent journalist would have checked out in the first 30 seconds.

    First, did Shabazz and Jackson actually intimidate any voters? I guess if you’re a white person who never sees black people – in other words, not a Philadelphian – the idea of two black dudes in leather might seem reallll scary. But fact is, turnout in this racially diverse precinct was robust.

    Second, if any voters were intimidated, which candidate did they favor? In ’04 voters at this site went for John Kerry by a huge margin. I checked; it took about 3 minutes. So, if any voters were intimidated, they were most likely to be OBAMA voters.

    On its way out the door, the Bush administration filed a civil complaint against  the baton-wielders. Later, Justice Department professionals dropped the case as a waste of time.

    Now, a Republican congressman – fulminating about political interference – has demanded an ethics probe of this decision. The stuff that Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzalez pulled at Justice never moved this lawmaker, Lamar Smith, to worry about political agendas. But little Jerry Jackson, beret and all, has him in a lather.

    We used to call delusional conspiracy theorists the lunatic fringe. Now we call them the gentleman from Texas.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.