The certain world of Michele Bachmann

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week revealed that Michele Bachmann had consolidated her position as the second place candidate behind Mitt Romney in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. According to the figures, the senator from Minnesota now commands 14 per cent of the national vote, near doubling her support amongst Republicans in the last month. Yet despite a solid showing in the recent CNN debate, her rise remains as baffling to many Americans as it does to those monitoring events from further afield.

In a week in which the scandal engulfing the UK saw the main political parties round on Rupert Murdoch hoping that condemnation leads to disassociation, it is heartening to know that we can nearly always rely on our politicians to do what’s in their own best interests. Ideological motivations and the occasional twinge of altruism aside, convictions in Westminster seem to bend according to the prevailing wind.

For Bachmann, however, public office seems less inspired by the trappings of power and status and more informed by the certainty of her faith. This is politics as an extension of religious belief, with her candidacy a national platform on which to evangelise the Christian message.

Faith and politics have long been bedfellows across the Atlantic, with every president since Abraham Lincoln paying lip service to The Almighty. It’s a sage move; as recently as 2007 a Gallup Poll suggested that more than 50 per cent of the franchise would not vote for a non-believing presidential candidate.

Many have used this to their advantage, most recently Sarah Palin who frequently used scripture to bolster a populist message that now manifests itself in the occasional Tweet or Facebook update. However, even the most ardent Palin devotee would find it difficult to argue that the book-hawking, reality TV star was in it for anything other than personal gain.

Bachmann, though, seems different, espousing a brand of politics built on an unerring and literal belief in biblical teaching that, until recently, would have discounted her from a serious tilt at the White House. It’s still early in the campaign, and her recent surge may well deflate. Then again, it may not.

The senator’s intellectual underpinnings are explored by Michelle Goldberg in her recent profile in The Daily Beast, summarised by “a biblical world view” that instructs her “entire perception of reality”. This is manifested most noticeably in her campaigns against abortion and gay marriage. Only last month, she argued that her challenge to legal abortion does not exclude cases of “rape, incest, or the life of the mother.” In regards to gay marriage, she has built a career rallying against her perceived homosexual threat, abridged to such choice statements as:

“Don’t misunderstand. I am not here bashing people who are homosexuals, who are lesbians, who are bisexual, who are transgender. We need to have profound compassion for people who are dealing with the very real issue of sexual dysfunction in their life and sexual identity disorders.”

Speaking on same sex marriage and the gay community:

“This is a very serious matter, because it is our children who are the prize for this community, they are specifically targeting our children.”

Aside from a few ramblings on chastity from Ann Widdecombe, religion has remained taboo in modern British political life, so much so that Tony Blair had to wait to leave office before he could declare himself a converted Catholic. In contrast, the influence of evangelicalism on the US political stage has been steadily growing since the Seventies, culminating in the election of George W. Bush, propelled to office twice on the support of the faithful.

The election of Barack Obama was a backwards step for their cause however, in the years since he took office the religious right has regained ground by forging an alliance with the equally active Tea Party movement. Fiscal conservatives merging with social conservatives under the banner of what some commentators are calling “Teavangicals”. As Ed Kilgore points out in a recent article for The New Republic:

“Christian Right elites, for their own peculiar reasons, have become enthusiastic participants in the drive to combat Big Government and its enablers in both parties. It’s no accident that one red-hot candidate for president, Michele Bachmann, and a much-discussed likely candidate, Rick Perry, each have one foot planted in the Christian Right and another in the Tea Party Movement.”

It should be noted that Mike Huckabee’s withdrawal from the race and Palin’s no-show has left Bachmann the most high profile evangelical candidate by default, while the anti-establishment fervour produced by the economic bailout will no doubt have bolstered the senator who flaunts her grass root connections every time she steps atop a stand, soap box or podium.

Still, that a candidate with beliefs so entrenched as to openly espouse sexual bigotry and the denial of abortion even in the case of rape has got so far should provide a stark reminder that however corrupt, deceitful and self-serving our own politicians appear to be, at least we don’t have to deal with the blind certainty of faith.

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Twitter, trust and a silly tune…

Twitter made for interesting reading on Tuesday night. The News of the World phone hacking scandal, which lurched from grubby to sinister in one afternoon, dominated the trending with Rebekah Brooks and News International both high on the UK list.

Top spot, however, was claimed (no doubt reluctantly) by Cher Lloyd. The urchin-like former X Factor contestant’s debut single Swagger Jagger had gone live on YouTube, amassing an instant 47,963 dislikes. Sorry – having sat through it 47,964. The tune isn’t actually that bad, but in the new media landscape once a trend gets going…

Twitter also chimed to the sound of Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post, whose news aggregation site has done much to shape the modern media terrain in which we all now amble. The grande dame of online content was in town to launch the UK version of the web-based newspaper, which was recently acquired by AOL for $315million. The front page of the launch edition splashed with a piece on Brooks and her increasingly nefarious employer. A metaphor for the online attack on print? Why not… but also a cracking news day on which to launch a paper.

The first edition was accompanied by a debate at Millbank on Wednesday evening, in which La Huffington was joined by Alistair Campbell, Jon Gaunt, Celia Walden, Shami Chakrabarti and, bizarrely, Kelly Osbourne, the latter offering shots of comic genius – “why should anyone pay for the news?” with mixers of the surreal – “are you journalists frightened by Twitter?”

Trust proved the evening’s major theme. Does the public still trust the media? Is citizen journalism more reliable than traditional reporting? Dare we eat the dill and prawn canapés?

Throughout the debate, a Twitter feed ran in the background reminding us that in this not so brave new world anyone could say anything and everyone has a say. As the chat progressed, the upside to all this content was made clear. Blogs and social networks offer access to information and commentators that you may not have otherwise heard of. Agreed – I’m not sure how I would have found people like Sam Harris, Slavoj Žižek, Max Blumenthal, P Z Myers et al had it not been through Twitter or YouTube. Also, the interconnection of media enables you to access great swathes of information from a single source, while opinion either individual or grouped has never been easier to disseminate. This all works for me. However, there seems to be a downside and one that was only briefly touched upon at the gathering.

Witness the US experience in which an increasingly diverse media appears to have exacerbated the polarisation of political views, with left and right entrenched like the soldiers facing each other across the Somme. There are, of course, other factors at work beyond the Atlantic, but the fact that individuals and groups now have the ability to publish via blogs and social networks seems to confer a legitimacy to anyone with a computer, regardless of how fringe their views. Also, if every available opinion is out there, is it not instinctive for most consumers to see out information that reinforces their pre-existing opinions?

During the debate, the proprietor suggested that in the US distrust towards old media may be due to the experience of Iraq, when newspapers were used by the administration to sell a war on shoddy information. Fair enough, but there also seems to be a climate in the US whereby any media outside a persons’ core network raises suspicion.

Covering a political conference in Washington earlier this year (for a UK paper) I found myself constantly being asked by attendees which news organisation I worked for. This was nearly always followed by the question “are they left or are they right?” Even then, I was occasionally further tested with questions about my own personal stance on a range of issues, including one exchange with a woman who demanded to know my feelings on the legacy of The Gipper. All this before she’d even consider answering one of my questions. It was like having to audition for your own interview. And these weren’t extras from Deliverance splashed with mud from a tractor pull, but highly intelligent, highly articulate and very politically aware activists from every state in the union.

To quote the creator of Craig’s List, “trust is the new black”. And trust it seems is in very short supply at the moment, whether that’s potential presidential candidates mocking the “lame stream media”, or Tweeters in the UK campaigning for advertisers to pull cash from the News of the World. How this plays out in both countries is anyone’s guess. Still, the new media age is here to stay and the benefits to consumers (and journalists) seem to far out way the pitfalls. As such, the arrival of The Huffington Post in the UK should be a welcome addition to the media firmament, and one that will hopefully prove as popular here as it has stateside.

Twitter made for equally interesting reading on Wednesday night. The phone hacking story rumbled on thanks to a piece by Peter Oborne, topped only by the latest sacking on The Apprentice. As was pointed out at the debate, “self-expression is the new entertainment”. And with the exception of the unfortunate Cher Lloyd, whose dislikes had now risen to 57,456, it appears we’ll all be entertaining for a long time yet…

This first appeared in The Independent. The original article can be found here.