The conspiracy theorist-in-chief

His name has never once appeared on a ballot paper and he has never held public office. Yet Dr. Ben Carson has spent much of the past 50 days sitting second in the polls to be the presidential nominee for the Republican Party ahead of the 2016 election.

Only the insurgency of Donald Trump, a man with an equal paucity of elected experience, has demoted his rival to the role of subsidiary, though recent polls have Carson besting his competitor in the early voting state of Iowa.

Either way, both remain far ahead of the “traditional” candidates in the race for the nomination, a roster that includes three former governors, two current governors, three senators, one former senator and a member of the House of Representatives.

Much has been written about the appeal of “political outsiders” across the US and Europe in recent years. The predominant American narrative has Carson and Trump riding a wave of conservative discontent birthed by the election of Barack Obama, and nurtured by a Republican party impotent to offer coherent opposition ever since.

Yet Trump and Carson are also exploiting a very American flavor of disgruntlement – the obsessed, conspiratorial mindset of a pocket of the population besieged by paranoia and a fear of the hidden hand.

Their approaches, however, do differ. Whereas the billionaire property tycoon is peddling empty optimism, fawning to a sense of injustice that says a longstanding political cabal has robbed America of its God-given dominance of the world, Carson’s campaign has the hue of an Internet comment board, replete with Nazi analogies, hatred of the media, conflation of the welfare state and Stalin’s gulags… and yet more Nazis.

A fetish for Hitler references has contaminated Carson’s campaign, the MD given to likening the United States to the Third Reich or warning that Democratic policies are paving a path for the next Fuhrer. “Socialism” is discharged as a similar catchall for “bad.”

Although Trump recently denounced Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders as a “communist,” generally the businessman resists using McCarthyite slurs to attack his competitors. Evoking Herr Hitler or the Soviet Union is too thin a branch even for the rambunctious frontrunner. Not so Carson, who applies a heavy garnish of fascist fear mongering every time his feather-caked voice leaks towards a microphone.

Witness the recent gun debate following the Oregon shooting in which Carson shoehorned a Nazi analogy into the tragedy by suggesting the Holocaust would have been “greatly diminished” had the Jews been armed.

Likewise in 2013, Carson called Obamacare (that’s the provision of healthcare to millions of working class Americans), “the worst thing since slavery,” while noting that American citizens were living in a “Gestapo age.

In August this year, Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization that provides reproductive health services, was decried by Carson as an agent of “population control” in black neighborhoods. “Read about Margaret Sanger, who founded this place [Planned Parenthood],” he told Fox News. “Look and see what many people in Nazi Germany thought about her.”

On evolution Carson forewent the Nazis, settling on that other bête noir the Devil, arguing “the adversary” had possessed Charles Darwin and was therefore responsible for the Victorian naturalist’s famous theory. At the same meeting in 2012, he claimed the Big Bang was a “fairy tale” cooked up by “highfalutin scientists.”

When the doctor is challenged on his historical parallels, he claims he has either been misrepresented or misquoted, opting not to defend his position but to blame the media.

Much of Carson’s twaddle appears to be inspired by the 1958 book ‘The Naked Communist,’ in which the author heralds a Red plot to take over the world. “It reads like it was written last year,” Carson told Newsmax in 2014, while suggesting viewers read ‘Mein Kampf,’ to find out the truth about President Obama.

The ’58 tome was written by W. Cleon Skousen, a far right conspiracy theorist who, when not crusading against hidden communists in society, was warning against a cabal of global bankers. Although written half a century ago, this paranoia has become the tone for much of the right wing Internet, a vernacular that Carson is gleefully corralling into a run for the White House.

Policies aside, Carson is an odd chap – and not just because his eyelids look like a half-closed blinds with weights tied to the trim. The delicate tenor of his voice jars with the savagery of his rhetoric. Red faces etched with mounting dander usually deliver right wing bluster. Hearing Carson quietly mumble his way through musings on Hitler’s manifesto is jumbled.

The 64-year-old attributes his slow and measured demeanor to the tranquility of his faith. This maybe so, but faith likely accounts for Carson’s conspiratorial bent too. This is, after all, an educated man from Detroit who followed a successful career in medicine by becoming the author of hugely popular books in which he employed his own life story as an aspirational metaphor for the United States. Yet he speaks in sentences that could be cut from the bottom end of a comment board on YouTube.

It could be that the bounds of rationality have long since been breached. Carson fluffs with abandon his Seventh Day Adventism, a protestant sect that eagerly awaits the Second Coming of Christ. Central to the faith’s doctrine is the belief that the Son of God was due to swing by in 1844. He did not, but adherents insist he remains en route. If Carson can swallow that conspiracy with a straight face, perhaps it’s not surprising to find him indulging in more sinister make-believe, including jackboots goose-stepping up Pennsylvania Avenue.

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

Shouting ‘gun control’ across the Atlantic isn’t going to save a single life

“What the fuck is wrong with America?” It’s the stock refrain that echoes across the rest of the developed world after another mass shooting blights an otherwise civilized, progressive and responsible state.

“Gun control,” comes the shout from Europe’s ancient capitals. Kill the Second Amendment; excise the law that routinely leaves bodies heaped in schools and churches across the bloodied republic.

It’s an easy answer and wholly unsatisfactory. Democratic America is what it chooses to be, but the issue is so aged, politicised and now polarised that banning guns is not only impossible, it would likely do little to stop the type of bloodshed witnessed last week in Roseburg.

Here’s what is known:

The US boasts a high murder rate — one of the highest in the developed world. Guns are likely the main cause of this higher rate, being the prime weapon in around 65 percent of all US murders.

An American is five times more likely to be murdered than a British person, and 40 times more likely to be murdered with a gun. However, overall crime rates in the US are falling, with the rate of gun deaths halved since the early Nineties.

Nobody knows how many guns there are in private hands. A 2007 Small Arms Survey suggested around 270million but it’s likely much higher.

The reason there is no national firearms database is because the government has not been allowed to create one. The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, argues that the government knowing who owns a gun is an infringement on the constitutional right to bear arms. Not only can Washington not stop citizens buying a gun, it doesn’t have the right to know who owns one.

Why is there no gun control?

The disproportionate power for the NRA, which plays on an old and ingrained distrust of the government, has turned Second Amendment absolutism into a test of identity. You cannot be a true Republican, a true conservative, a true constitutionalist, or a true American and countenance gun control, so they argue. Backed by the gun manufacturers, the NRA has money to bully politicians, funding those who display Second Amendment fidelity, while financing the opponents of politicians that pose a threat.

And there is plenty of money to go around. In the past seven years, the share price of most major gun manufacturers has increased; Sturm Ruger’s share price has gone up 700 percent since 2009.

The upsurge in sales is tied to the election of Barack Obama; gun enthusiasts, anxious that the commander-in-chief would enact gun control, responded by stockpiling weapons.

However, the gun lobby didn’t cause this anxiety. The election of the country’s first African-American president churned up a raft of ugly sentiment — racial, religious and social — allied to a shifting national demographic that led many citizens to feel America was changing and not for the better. The gun lobby feed off this anxiety while stoking the flames.

Despite the increase in sales, crime rates have still fallen. Yet the US retains a deserved reputation for gun violence. This is because although the overall trend is downward, the numbers of mass shootings, the type that capture national and international attention such as Oregon, are rising.

Would gun control work in the United States?

It is unlikely that implementing controls, such as background checks for buyers, would stop the type of mass shooting that increasingly plagues the national body.

Neither would banning guns, at least in the short term. There are an estimated 300 million weapons in circulation in the US; restricting access to guns, as enforced in the UK and Australia, would not hinder a determined buyer. The time for that has long passed.

And despite a succession of mass shootings (11 during Obama’s tenure alone), there remains little public appetite for gun prohibition. A 2011 poll showed that only 26 percent of US citizens want to ban handguns.

What onlookers can fail to appreciate is the depth of feeling towards concepts of liberty and individual freedom that burns in the national consciousness. Even if it were proven that gun controls would prevent mass shootings, some Americans would still resist.

The loathing for government restrictions is so deeply entrenched that there is almost no price for which many Americans would hand over their firearms. And for Second Amendment absolutists, the NRA included, liberty is so sacrosanct that they would be willing to endure any atrocity to retain the right — even if that means scraping 10 children off the wall every six months.

It’s a Faustian pact, but it’s also a choice. If there were a genuine demand for legal restrictions, candidates would emerge in regional and national elections campaigning on that plank — “vote for me, I’ll ban the guns.” Citizens would vote for those candidates en masse and the country would change. That they do not is down to crony capitalism and the influence of the NRA, but it’s also because Americans choose not to.

Here’s the real question: does a lack of gun control make mass shootings inevitable? This is where fact gives way to conjecture and politics. The NRA skillfully diverts attention away from guns after every massacre, framing the problem as a mental health issue.

But it’s a far broader cultural problem. So what is it about American culture that drives young men to take an automatic weapon to a school, church or cinema and start shooting?

Guns are part of the problem, but guns alone don’t turn sane people into mass murderers. Then again, there is something perverse and fetishistic in the way guns are revered in the US that is individual the country.

Opponents of the Second Amendment point to the success of banning weapons in the UK and Australia after the Dunblane and Port Arthur massacres. Would those countries have suffered further atrocities had guns not been banned? Possibly, but with the multitude of guns in circulation in the US (unlike in the UK and Australia) comparisons are problematic. The best you could say for a blanket ban is that it may eventually cause a cultural shift away from firearms, but probably not for generations.

It’s an ‘American’ problem.

Guns have become a tribal issue in a country increasingly separated by two opposing identities. Speaking about this article to an otherwise dispassionate and rational ally in the Midwest triggered a visceral response in which gun control was instantaneously dismissed. Likewise, speaking to colleagues in New York sparks an opposing but equally primal reaction.

This plays out on a national level with massacres met by entrenchment on both sides — those who believe guns make individuals safer and those who believe they make the country as a whole more dangerous. The makeup of these opposing groups falls along political, ethnic, social and geographic lines, as revealed by Pew polling.

Speaking after the shooting last Thursday, Obama scolded the nation for becoming “numb” to the problem. He is right; it has become “routine.” But the detachment is not because Americans don’t care… it’s because they don’t know what to do. Half the country advocates measures that wouldn’t stop mass shootings while the other half refuses to acknowledge the gun’s role in creating a destructive culture. And that, to answer the original question, is what is wrong with America.

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

Chris Christie scandal could have major implications for 2016 US Election

Since becoming governor of the American state of New Jersey in late 2009, Chris Christie, a straight-talking former attorney from the city of Newark, had built a reputation as a pragmatic politician.

Christie has governed the state, which sits just across the river from New York City, as a moderate Republican with a strong focus on eschewing the national squabbles of Washington in favour of delivering balanced budgets and improving education.

However, the notion that Christie could transcend party politics — a perception cemented in late 2012 when he and U.S. President Barack Obama were pictured arm-in-arm touring the stricken Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy — recently came crashing down.

Newly released emails revealed that in August, a top Christie aide ordered the closure of two entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the main traffic artery connecting the New Jersey borough of Fort Lee to New York City, because Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor didn’t endorse Christie’s reelection bid.

An email from Christie’s deputy chief of staff read, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” One of Christie’s top aides who worked at the agency that runs the bridge, replied, “Got it.”

The revelation led to the immediate dismissal of the deputy chief of staff, while providing the American political lexicon with a new shorthand for an act of revenge — “Bridgegate.” Christie has denied all knowledge of the affair and said he was“blindsided” by the emails. Investigations continue, with the possibility of more incriminating revelations in the coming weeks.

While the scandal has yet to make a dent in Christie’s favorability ratings, the long-term implications for the governor may be more profound. His popularity had given rise to talk of a run for the Republican presidential nomination ahead of the 2016 election. The real political fallout from “Bridgegate” might not be evident until it’s dredged up by Christie’s Republican rivals. And the main beneficiary of one of the more bizarre political episodes of recent years may turn out to be none other than the 2016 Democratic Party nominee.

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

American politicians finally come together – but can the truce last?

In the five years since Barack Obama became the American president, the government has virtually come to a standstill. The daily business of Congress has reached a stalemate with the Republican Party blocking nearly every proposal or policy put forward by the Democrats. Gridlock has become the norm in Washington.

But that appeared to change this week, when a rare moment of compromise allowed the two parties to come together to pass a budget for the country. The new deal loosens some of the painful cuts that were imposed due to the parties’ failure to reach a budget agreement in 2011. It also means the wheels of government can continue to turn for the next two years, with federal agencies assured enough funding to pay their employees.

Agreeing on a budget sounds like one of the most basic jobs of any government, yet the two parties in Washington have become so polarized that the deal has appeared to push Republicans into an all-out civil war.

For several years, the Republican Party has been divided between establishment Republicans, those who have long occupied positions in Washington, and the party’s very vocal, conservative right wing, often known as the tea party. The far-right faction has had great success at raising money, and as a result has increasingly influenced decisions made by establishment Republicans. This has led to some disastrous strategy agreements for the Republican Party, including taking the country to the brink of financial calamity because Democrats wouldn’t agree to scrapping Obama’s health care law.

However, it seems the establishment Republicans have finally had enough. After conservative groups attacked the budget agreement, John Boehner, one of the most high-profile members of the Republican Party, accused them of “using the American people for their own goals.”

Tea party groups shot back, saying those who had voted in favor of compromise — the majority of Republicans in Congress — were not being “true conservatives.”

So the battle lines have now been drawn, with the heavily funded tea party faction once again threatening to challenge members of its own party in upcoming midterm elections, while the establishment Republicans look to distance themselves from the far-right groups that have been responsible for much of the national deadlock in recent years.

The notion of a divided Republican Party is certainly nothing new, with tensions between centrist members and its more ideological wing evident as far back as the early ’60s. Yet the tensions have now been laid bare for the public, with Republicans focusing their attacks not on the president or the Democrats, but on each other. Whoever comes out on top in this civil war will not only have a defining role in the next general election in 2016, but will determine whether the citizens of the United States have a fully functioning government anytime in the foreseeable future.

The long-term implications are more profound. Should establishment Republicans hold sway, the tea party will likely splinter and fade, becoming just another footnote in the history of American politics. Should the far-right come to dominate, the party of Lincoln, Reagan and Bush could well find itself a party of opposition for more than a generation.

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

Fear mongering about socialism is ‘nothing new’ for Republicans in US healthcare debate

In January 1948, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee gave a radio address to explain the introduction of the National Health Service (NHS), part of the “most comprehensive system of social security ever introduced to any country“. Notably, the Labour leader said during the creation of these new social services, “all parties in the state have borne their part and I am therefore not speaking to you in any controversial spirit.

Three years earlier, President Harry Truman had come to power in Washington, lending his full support to similar provisions of publically funded healthcare. However, unlike Attlee, Truman had met with staunch opposition, most notably from the American Medical Association (AMA), who were quick to entangle the debate with the Cold War politics of the day.

As such, Truman’s vision of compulsory health insurance was quickly mired in anti-socialist fear mongering, so much so that during a 1946 Senate hearing on the National Health Insurance Bill, Republican Senator Robert Taft shouted out: “I consider it socialism. It is to my mind the most socialistic measure this Congress has ever had before it,” before leading his party members out of the room.

An AMA pamphlet printed two years later suggested the tone had not changed: “Would socialised medicine lead to socialization of other phases of life?” it read, adding: “Lenin thought so. He declared socialised medicine is the keystone to the arch of the socialist state.” Despite Truman’s victory in the 1948 election, his healthcare plan remained sidelined, unable to counter the influence of interest groups or to corral a public seemingly happy with its health system.

Resistance to healthcare reform in the ’40s mirrored that faced by FDR and his social security expansion of the 1930s; the debate over Medicare in the ‘60s proved equally fractious, likewise the Clintons’ push to pass the Health Security Act in the ’90s. More recently, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), famously referred to as “the crown jewel of socialism” by Michele Bachmann, has drawn out similarly toned opposition, with Louie Gohmert, a Republican congressman from Texas, finding the bill so repulsive he felt compelled to ask: “How much more socialist can you get than the government telling everybody what they can do, what they can’t do, how they can live?

According to Iwan Morgan, the Commonwealth Fund Professor of American History at University College London, GOP right-wingers’ use of Socialism to instil fear about healthcare reform “is nothing new”.

“Their patron saint [Ronald Reagan] did it a half-century ago when the Cold War was at its height,” he told HuffPost, highlighting a record cut in 1961 entitled, ‘Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine,’ which was sponsored by the AMA as part of its campaign against the pre-Medicare Herr-Mills bill.

“In this, Regan asserted that ‘one of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine’,” said Morgan, adding: “If you read the speeches of modern day conservative Republicans, they continually condemn healthcare reform in particular and, more generally, any expansion of the federal government’s socio-economic responsibility (but not socio-moral responsibility) as socialistic in intention.”

For Dr Jonathan Bell, a specialist on US social change at the University of Reading, there was a critical moment in the ’40s when healthcare reform in the US looked likely, however because of the Cold War and the “way the American political system was so receptive to extreme ideas”, particularly a fear of totalitarianism and communism, it “allowed opponents of the New Deal state to take control of the political agenda.”

Yet scaremongering is not the only reason why the US has proved so resistant to progressive healthcare policy, while Britain, France Canada, Japan, Australia and many others have long-since moved to wards a more egalitarian system.

According to Bell, one of the main hurdles to a single-payer system is the way the US medical profession has developed into a powerful and strong private sector lobbying presence in government “that’s very much been concerned to ensure private healthcare has predominated.” As such, lobbying groups have not allowed government to get a foothold in the provision of medical care. “It has been very strongly felt by the AMA and medical lobbyists that their control over their own ability to decide medical procedures and finances would be damaged by government,” said Bell.

That was also true in Britain – the British Medical Association (BMA) was initially hostile to the NHS – but that opposition was quickly abandoned. “The medical lobby has to be put into the context of the American political system,” said Bell.

It is also worth noting that in the ’40s and ’50s, healthcare in the US was not the sprawling mass of conglomerated hospitals and medical maintenance organisations underpinned by private insurance it is today. It was often smaller practises, usually family run, while the expansion of the insurance industry in the decades after the war meant that most people were covered via their employer.

“There was the sense that people didn’t need a public option,” said Bell. “It was only when that health insurance system started unravelling and coming under strain in the ’70s and ’80s that the issue raised its head again.”

Following Obama’s victory in 2008, the Democrats used their sizable majority in Congress to pass the ACA, patching up the US system by adding government regulation to remove inequities and by increasing coverage. However, as a consequence of finally pushing through healthcare reform, Republican opposition was able to wipe out the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, from where they’ve been conducting a massive and quite personalised, bitter war with the President ever since.

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

US government shutdown over Obamacare has serious implications for global economic recovery

Once again Europeans may be forgiven for looking on baffled at the bizarre maneuverings of Washington’s political class this week as the US government careers towards a shutdown. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare, remains the President’s signature legislative achievement, having made its torturous journey through Congress in 2010, emerging with the promise of finally providing coverage for an additional 30 million people that had been cast adrift by the country’s failing health care system.

Yet despite being signed into law more than three years ago, the legislation, a major part of which is due to be finally implemented this week, threatens to derail not only the US government but provides an ominous portent for the US debt ceiling debate, with severe implications for Britain, the eurozone and beyond.

Unlike the single-payer systems of Europe and Canada, the ACA offers a mechanism for those without insurance to pool together for lower health insurance premiums through state-run exchanges, scheduled to open on Tuesday. This follows several provision that have already been implemented, most notably a ban on insurance companies hiking up premiums based on pre-existing medical conditions.

Even before it became law, Obamacare had been the target of vehement hostility, representing for some an unwelcome federal intrusion into medicine, for others a step towards a European socialised system, and to a vocal few confirmation that the President was indeed the anti-Christ. Still, the law was passed and was subsequently upheld during a Supreme Court challenge, followed by the 2012 election in which the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney, ran on a platform of repeal, effectively turning the vote into a referendum on Obamacare. It was a campaign that Romney and the Republicans lost, despite myriad shortcomings of the Obama administration over the previous four years.

Even after being signed, upheld and then ratified by the electorate, the law remains almost pathologically unpopular with members of the GOP, so much so that the Republican-led House Of Representatives has fielded more than 40 (mostly symbolic) challenges to the ACA since 2012. As Alex Waddan, a US specialist in Leicester University’s department of politics, points out, all major social welfare policy change is controversial, “but comprehensive health care reform is especially so,” he tells the HuffPost UK. That’s not to dismiss Obamacare as just another difficult piece of legislation, amounting to “the biggest health care shift since at least the mid-1960s and the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid.”

Both the Clinton and Bush (43) administrations failed to pass welfare reforms, while the last comprehensive social policy that was successfully introduced was the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a Republican-backed welfare reform bill signed by Clinton despite opposition from the left.

Yet what is distinct about the current fight is its longevity. As Waddan makes clear: “What is unusual about Obamacare is three years after it became law and a year after the Supreme Court upheld most of its provisions, the battle to repeal it still rages.”

Such is the dogmatism within a minority of Republican members that the ACA has become a proxy war between a Tea Party faction bent on repeal and the establishment GOP. And with the implementation of Obamacare drawing near, the so-called “extreme wing” has spent the past week attempting one last assault, dragging a seemingly rudderless party with it, by threatening to close down the government unless the Democrats agree to delay the individual mandate for a year(thus giving the GOP an opportunity to take both houses of Congress in the 2014 mid-term elections, effectively killing the law for the reminder of Obama’s second term).

On Tuesday, Tea Party-backed Senator Ted Cruz, aided by a pair of “comfortable tennis shoes”, spent the best part of 21 hours speaking in favour of defunding the law. It proved a bizarre oratory with little practical purpose beyond raising the Texas senator’s profile and solidifying his position as head of the extreme faction which make up about 18% of the elected GOP.

With the Democrats holding a majority in the Senate and Obama wielding the power of veto, Republican ambitions of passing a measure that tied government funding to a one-year delay of Obamacare had no chance of success, leading to this week’s likely shutdown and the temporary closure of some federal agencies and welfare provisions. A similar shutdown in 1995 led to a decrease in Q4 growth in the US, which, if it happens again, could have a knock-on effect for growth in the UK. More worrying, however, the fight over Obamacare could be a prelude to a more critical battle ahead – the increase of the US debt ceiling.

Last week, US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew implored Congress for a speedy resolution on an agreement to raise the $16.7 trillion statutory limit on government borrowing, which is likely to expire on the 17 October. The Republicans have already agreed to raise the limit, but only if it’s tied to a raft of conservative causes, concessions the President has flatly refused to countenance. Should the parties reach a similar impasse as they have over tying Obamacare to the budget, the effects would have far graver repercussions for the US and beyond, leaving British officials looking on with nervousness.

The Bank of England is already holding off printing more money as Ben Bernanke is expected to start winding down the Federal Reserve quantitative easing programme. However, the US being unable to service its debts could force the Federal Reserve to inject another dose to for stabilisation, which would likely force the Bank of England’s hand as they rush to keep the shaky economic recovery on track in Britain.

Their efforts to steady the British economy could see interest rates increase, investors take fright and the FTSE 1000 tumble. Businesses would inevitably suffer should US debt ceiling paralysis take hold due to its trading relationship with the UK, receiving 16% of British exports. “The US is the UK’s individually biggest export market so it matters hugely what happens there,” Martin Beck, UK economist at Capital Economics, tells the HuffPost UK. Beck anticipates that the economic shock would not be as severe as the full brunt of the Eurozone crisis in 2012, partly because the share of UK exports going to the EU is 45%, many times more than go to America.

Yet the European economy would be in line for a similar shock should the US default. Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist at Capital Economics, tells HuffPost: “If the US recovery comes to a grinding halt and there’s serious market volatility then that’ll have quite serious knock on effects on Europe.” However, Loynes adds a caveat. Congress could just be engaged in another bout of political brinksmanship. Even if it is an act, Loynes warns that the political instability could show how weak America’s finances are.

“It is worrying that these sorts of episodes seem to be occurring at such a regular basis and it’s indicative that the US fiscal position is not in such a good shape and at some point they’ll have to implement more fiscal tightening,” he said.

Yet for Waddan, the current wrangling over Obamacare could in fact help negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. “If the House Republicans need a chance to let off steam and that happens over the continuing resolution bill to keep government open then perhaps the debt ceiling negotiations might be easier.” he said.

“The administration has insisted that it will not negotiate over the debt ceiling, but the House republicans might simply see that as giving them more leverage. On the other hand, the potential consequences of default – and no-one really knows what the consequences would be – should make everyone think twice before going down that route.”

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post and was written with Asa Bennett. The original article can be found here.

Atheists in Parliament and Congress highlight disparate political cultures

Few outside the US would have heard of Congressman Pete Stark, a Democrat who served in the House of Representatives for 40 years before losing to a rival in the general election of 2012. Yet when Stark, a former banker with an engineering degree from MIT, left office, Congress lost its first openly atheist member.

Yet with 535 seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, it is implausible that Stark was the only non-believer. Barney Frank, other Democratic Congressman also admitted to a lack of faith, but only after he retired early this year. For perspective, Frank had come out as gay more than a quarter of a century earlier.

In a 2011 interview with the Guardian, Herb Silverman, the head of the Secular Coalition of America, said he knew of several members of Congress (excluding Stark) that had “no belief in God”. Apart from Frank, none have so far stepped forward.

The situation in the UK is almost the reverse of the US. There is no concrete data on the religious beliefs of MPs, but while American politicians frequently go out of their way to declare their fervent belief in God, British politicians tend shy away from public declarations of faith and atheism is no barrier to election.

David Cameron is a Christian yet his deputy, Nick Clegg, is an atheist. Asked in 2007 whether he believed in god, Clegg replied: “No”. Ed Miliband also declared following his leadership victory in 2010 that he was not a believer. ”I don’t believe in God personally, but I have great respect for those people who do,” he said.

And while Tony Blair is deeply religious, his top spinner Alistair Campbell famously intervened to prevent the then-prime minister for publicly declaring his faith. “We don’t do God,” Campbell said when Blair was asked in an interview about the issue. Whitehall officials also stopped Blair from ending his TV broadcast informing the country that the 2003 Iraq War had begun with the phrase “God bless Britain.” One civil servant told him: “I just remind you prime minister, this is not America.”

The US has always been a far more religious country than its colonial progenitor, with only a gentle increase in those who profess atheism (to pollsters at least) in the past hundred years. Research by Pew in 2012 found that only 2% of Americans admitted to non-belief, while 9 out of 10 Americans say “yes” when asked if they believe in God (Gallup). In the UK, only four out of 10 are likely to admit to belief in God, while 25% of Britons are happy to profess their non-belief (2010 Eurostat Eurobarometer poll).

Even taking 2% as a base figure for atheism in the US, more Congressmen than just Stark and Frank are statically likely to share their non-belief. That none have said so is a statement on American political culture, one that has become so entwined with religion that it is often difficult to tell well the stump starts and the pulpit ends.

According to Dr Uta Balbier of King’s College London, the nuance of US national discourse remains deeply religious. “This subtext shines through Presidential inauguration speeches and is prominent at Congressional Prayer Breakfasts,” she told The Huffington Post UK. “Through patriotic rituals that blend religious and national language like in the Pledge of Allegiance with the reference to ‘One Nation Under God’ citizenship and faith become intertwined.”

For Balbier being America means having faith, which makes it difficult for anyone of non-belief, particularly in public office. “If your faith is questioned, your abilities as citizen or office holders are questioned at the same time,” she said. “That makes it hard for US politicians to come out as atheists.”

According to Paul Raushenbush, the HuffPost’s religion editor, in the US the term atheism suffers from “misunderstanding and prejudice”, making atheists an identity most people are unfamiliar with. However, there is hope. “As increasing numbers of good and moral people begin to acknowledge their lack of religious convictions, while articulating the positive influences that cause them to want to serve, the more voters will become comfortable entrusting them to serve them in public office,” he said.

This trend will no doubt be aided by the increasing number of Americans who do not identify with any religious tradition or affiliate themselves with a single denomination church. Yet it remains unlikely that in the near future Washington will be welcoming its first atheist President. As Balbier quipped: “An atheist President of the ‘One Nation Under God’? At this moment, it’s unthinkable.”

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post and was written with Ned Simons. The original article can be found here.