God says ‘no’ to birth control in proxy war over Obamacare

To what extent should an employer’s religious beliefs affect the rights of its employees? You’re quite correct – they shouldn’t. Once you pass from the private sphere into the public sphere – the marketplace, for example – employees are protected from the whims of employers by the law.

This is fairly straightforward stuff, yet amazingly this simple premise is set to be challenged in the US, with the Supreme Court hearing two cases in which employers will argue that their private religious affiliations prevent them from offering female employees birth control provisions.

Let me run that by you again – the seemingly most prosperous, scientifically forward and politically advanced (the American revolution is after all still going) nation in the world is set to debate whether employers can legally refuse to provide female birth control as part of their healthcare package.

Unsurprisingly, as with everything in contemporary US politics, this is yet another proxy war over the Affordable Care Act, with Obama’s landmark legislation being tested, pushed, pulled, bitten, scratched and kicked at every turn by a Republican Party that has placed its entire stack of chips (plus its watch, its car, the house and its wife) on Obamacare’s repeal.

Myriad companies have attempted to sue the government over a rule in the Act that states for-profit companies (excluding Churches and non-profits) should provide birth control in their health insurance plans. We’re not talking about abortion here – we’re talking about IUDs and the morning after pill.

Yet that has been enough for two companies, aided by a febrile atmosphere in which the political right are determined to scupper the ACA backed by a religious right determined to see birth control reduced to prayers and a pair of crossed fingers, to have their grievance heard by the highest court in the land.

The companies in question are a Christian-owned craft supply chain called Hobby Lobby and a furniture company owned by a family of Mennonites. Both argue that they morally object to being made to pay for birth control provisions because they believe it is akin to abortion.

Yet even if you think religion is an important matter – it is soaked into American political culture like a 200-year-old bloodstain – the problems of letting employers decide on which laws they will follow and which they won’t because of moral objections are obvious. What if an employer believes cancer treatment is morally wrong? What if they believe HIV is a curse sent by God and those infected deserve his wrath? Should the employees be forced to pay for these prohibitively expensive treatments on their own?

What if a restaurant owner objects to serving black people on moral grounds? Should they be allowed to circumvent the law based on whimsy? The Supreme Court is due to hear the cases early next year, with a decision likely next summer. Fortunately, the Obama administration has proved itself resolute on matters of the Affordable Care Act, despite the main exchange website offering all the technical wherewithal of a ZX81.

“The President believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women,” read a White House statement on Tuesday. We wait to see if the Supreme Court agrees.

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

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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.

Obama and the Tea Party…

Though the origins of the Tea Party are difficult to discern, from the failed 2008 Republican nomination campaign of Ron Paul, to a Florida resident organising a demonstration via Facebook, by early 2009 a populist, grassroots movement had gained ground in American under the banner of “fiscal responsibility” and “smaller government”.

The Tea Party movement drew from the ranks of conservatives, Republicans, libertarians, constitutionalists, Christians and various other political and religious stripes. Men and women, disaffected, anxious and fearful of events about them joined together, with touchstone issues ranging from disillusionment with the political process to immigration to the erosion of individual liberty.

Though ill-defined, hazy and nebulous, the Tea Party was the latest incarnation of populist tradition stretching back more than a century, from the People’s Party to the Temperance Movement to the Moral Majority – the expression of a desire for a rebirth, a new way or a political third party.

Yet like its populist forebears, the Tea Party became different things to different people. For one follower it was a buttress against government expansion, to another a defender of the nation’s border, to another it was a flag bearer for social issues, from homosexuality to abortion.

The Tea Party’s dramatic and rapid growth coincided with the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, which critics took as an indication of the movement’s true character. Fiscal responsibility may be the watchword, opponents of the Tea Party argued, but this was really a movement fuelled by anxieties about race.

Yet to dismiss the Tea Party as a political entity defined or motivated by questions of race alone is to miss the swell of economic, religious, social and historic waves crashing up and around the American people at the time. The Tea Party certainly is about race, but it is also about so much more…

The 2008 financial crash

A month before the inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009, outgoing President George Bush gave an interview to CNN in which he explained the passing of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (October 2008) as the abandonment of “free-market principles to save the free-market system”, a move he said was necessary to ensure “the economy doesn’t collapse.”

The Act was designed to prop up America’s ailing financial institutions in the face of economic turmoil, or “bailout Wall Street”, as it became known.

In February the following year, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a stimulus package offering a mix of spending and tax cuts in the hope of further containing the economic maelstrom.

That same month, CNBC’s Rick Santelli gave an impassioned rant on the woes of economic stimulus, calling for “a Chicago Tea Party in July”. The video went viral and is now often ascribed as a tipping point in the formation of the Tea Party as a national movement.

The content of his now-famous clip caught the prevailing mood post the passing of the stimulus package. “The government is promoting bad behaviour,” said Santelli, stood on the trading room floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. He then proposed an online referendum “to see if we want to subsidise the losers mortgages or would we like to buy houses, buy cars and foreclosure and give them to people who might actually prosper down the road”.

The benefits of the stimulus aside (argument continues as to whether its passing prevented recession becoming depression), the ideological battle lines for the next four years had now been drawn. These were not social and these were not racial; they were economic, as free market capitalism bumped up against bailouts, regulation and government intervention.

That it was unfettered and unregulated markets that had created the housing bubble and its subsequent collapse that led to the 2008 stimulus was an irony seemingly lost on Santelli. Regardless, the bubble burst, leading to a downturn in US property prices, which threatened global institutions worldwide. The consequent collapse of the stock market and decrease in international trade forced global governments to act, with Bush’s Economic Stabilization Act, which included the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act ploughing more than $1trillion combined into the beleaguered US economy.

According to former U.S. Representative Dick Armey, currently co-chairman of Freedomworks, a Washington-based conservative organisation with close ties to the Tea Party, it was Bush-era policies which propelled the movement to national prominence, arguing that: “The Government expansion during President George W Bush’s reign provided the fuel. And it was his Wall Street bailout that ignited the firestorm we see today.” For Armey, Obama had simply “doubled down on the bad policies of the Bush administration”, and in doing so had poured “gasoline on a bush fire”.

Amid the foreclosures, rising unemployment and declining consumer spending, rallies began to spread across the country, under the banner of the Gadsden Flag. Most boasted a few hundred protesters; some in the bigger cities attracted thousands, though debate raged in the media as to the exact numbers.

One of the biggest rallies of 2009 was held in April in Atlanta, part of a National Tax Day event, with protests reported across hundreds of major cities. Numbers for the events were difficult to quantify, exemplified by debate over the Atlanta rally. Fox News reported a crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000. Others put the number more at 7,500.

Common to all the rallies was a voicing of economic concerns, whether that was manifest in opposition to healthcare, the bailout or the perceived increasing size of government (hence spending), usually sub-vocalised as a rant against the evils of “socialism”. Estimates of the total number of people protesting that day run from anywhere from 200,000 to 350,000. Regardless, the Tea Party as a national movement, albeit disjointed, devoid of leadership or, as the BBC’s Mark Mardell put it, “hydra-headed”, had arrived.

In September 2009, the Tea Party Express, a bus convoy of activists, snaked its way across the American heartland, stopping at more than 30 cities to spread its six-principled message: “no more bailouts, reduce the size and intrusiveness of government, stop raising our taxes, repeal Obamacare, cease out-of-control spending and bring back American prosperity.”

A second convoy set off a month later with a mission to “highlight some of the worst offenders in Congress who have voted for higher spending, higher taxes, and government intervention in the lives of American families and businesses.”

The impact of the movement at the ballot box was first registered at the 2010 mid-term elections, with a number of Tea Party-backed candidates winning office, most notably Rand Paul, son of Ron Paul, who beat Trey Grayson in a GOP Senate primary in Kentucky.

Despite victories that propelled the Republicans to a majority in the House of Representatives, they missed out on a majority in the Senate, often with Tea Party-backed candidates beating establishment Republicans for the nomination only to lose the election to the Democratic candidate. It remains speculation as to whether the establishment Republicans would have fared better than the Tea Party-backed candidates against their Democratic counterparts.

Still, the mid-terms probably represented the high-point in Tea Party support amongst Americans, with a Gallup poll putting support at around 30 per cent. By August 2011, following the debacle of the debt ceiling crisis, that figure had dropped to 25 per cent, while opposition to the Tea Party had increased with “more Americans holding intensely negative feelings toward the movement than intensely positive feelings”.

Implacable demands from Tea Party-backed Republicans during the debt ceiling debate, most notably Junior Senator Jim De Mint, had led to a game of political brinkmanship that almost cost the United States its AAA credit rating. During the crisis, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner outlined the danger of not increasing the debt: “failure to raise the limit would precipitate a default by the United States. Default would effectively impose a significant and long-lasting tax on all Americans and all American businesses and could lead to the loss of millions of American jobs. Even a very short-term or limited default would have catastrophic economic consequences that would last for decades.”

For a movement that crowed “fiscal responsibility” as a mantra, holding the US economy hostage on a matter of ideological purity was perhaps the least fiscally responsible route available. However, the power of the Tea Party, this strange grassroots activist movement that had gained popularity n a platform of debt reduction, had now been displayed, and at Washington’s top table.

Healthcare as a rally point

On January 4, 2012, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann gave a speech suspending her campaign for the Republican nomination, having won only 5 per cent of the caucus vote in Iowa, her home state. Reflecting on her run for the nomination, she said:

“On the evening of March 21, 2010, that was the evening that Obamacare was passed… that day served as the inspiration for my run for the presidency of the United States because I believed firmly that what the congress had done and what President Obama had done in passing Obamacare endangered the very survival of the United States of America, our Republic because I knew it was my obligation to ensure that President Obama’s programme of socialised medicine was stopped before it became fully implemented.”

The 2009 health care debate, culminating in President Obama’s September address to a joint session of congress, outlining the reform of public and private health insurance and the subsequent passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, is one of the defining moments of the 44th presidency (so far).

Along with the passing of the Wall Street bailout and the stimulus package, healthcare reform worked to galvanise an already vociferous opposition, particularly among the grassroots Tea Partiers, who now had another tangible legislative totem against which to rally.

In his congressional speech on healthcare, Obama pitched the debate as a moral choice. Quoting a letter from the recently deceased Ted Kennedy, himself a long-term proponent of healthcare reform, Obama argued: “What we face… is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

Notions of social justice have long been anathema to the free market ideals of the GOP, and while South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst (“You lie!”) perhaps caught the mood of opposition (albeit in response to rumours that illegal immigrants would receive insurance), there were also some extremely persuasive legal arguments that said the Act was unconstitutional.

Central to Obama’s reform was what became known as the “insurance mandate”, which requires every American citizen to buy and maintain health-care coverage by 2014. But could the government compel its citizens to buy insurance and remain within the parameters of the constitution? The debate continues yet regardless of the outcome, opposition to the bill was no longer just ideological but legal, giving further impetus to the Tea Party and their message.

Another indicator of the importance of the healthcare bill was highlighted by the election of Scott Brown, the Republican candidate who won the 2010 special election to succeed U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. Despite a record not attuned to the social conservatism – Brown is pro-choice and unopposed to gay marriage (Boris Shor of the University of Chicago called Brown a “liberal Republican who is to be found to the left of [his opponent] Dede Scozzafava”) – the movement still backed him due to his vocal opposition to Obamacare.

Arguably this was a marriage of convenience, with Brown benefitting from the Tea Party as much as the Tea Party thought they would benefit from Brown’s election. However, that the movement was willing to be ideologically flexible on social issues as long as the candidate stood firm on healthcare points to the importance of the Affordable Care Act’s repeal within Tea Party ranks.

During the 2012 Republican nomination process, Michele Bachmann was not the only candidate to run on a platform of repeal. “If elected president on my first day in office I will grant a waiver for all fifty states for Obamacare,” Mitt Romney told the audience at the New Hampshire Republican presidential nomination debate in June 2011.

Similar sentiments were expressed by the other candidates. To make this sop to the political right, Romney was forced to contort his record and by doing so opened himself up to charges of political expediency from his rivals. However repeal of Obamacare, for the majority of Tea Party supporters, remains a central, unalterable goal. As such, even Romney, the architect of the Massachusetts’ healthcare plan on which Obamacare was based, had little option but to abandon his state-based achievement in favour of the rabid anti-government message now demanded by the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party and racism

It is less than fifty years, little more than a generation, since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and despite steadily changing attitudes, the issue of race pervades. In short, the US remains a nation divided by colour.

An oft-heard criticism of the Tea Party is that it is racist in character. There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence that gives credence to this view, from signs calling the president a “half breed Muslim” or demanding he be “traded” back to Kenya, to accusations by politicians and lawmakers of hearing or being called the word “nigger” at a protest rally on Capitol Hill prior to the passing of the healthcare bill.

Racism exists within the society therefore perhaps it is no more surprising to find it at a Tea Party rally than at a football game. However, two questions remain: is racism a characteristic of the Tea Party and how reflective is this of the movement at a whole? Neither has a simple answer as racists tend not to volunteer their bigotry to pollsters, however, research carried out by Professor Gary Jacobsen suggests that members of the Tea Party are more likely to harbour some form of racial resentment than non-Tea Party affiliates. Using national data compiled by a congressional election study on political attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs following the 2010 mid-term elections, Jacobsen concluded:

“Tea Party activists have denied accusations that their movement is racist, and there is nothing intrinsically racist about opposing ‘big government’ or clean energy legislation or health care reform. But it is clear that the movement is more appealing to people who are unsympathetic to blacks and who prefer a harder line on illegal immigration than it is to other Americans.”

On the makeup of the Tea Party, Jacobsen also pointed out that:

“The movement energised people who opposed Barack Obama from the start and who subsequently developed intensely negative opinions of him and his agenda that were extended to his Democratic allies in Congress. Tea Party sympathies helped to mobilize an electorate that was older, whiter, more Republican and more conservative than the one that had given the Democrats control of the government two years earlier.”

Though the research is far from conclusive (and was immediately attacked in the blogosphere as part of an academic liberal conspiracy to discredit the Tea Party), when allied to the myriad YouTube clips displaying racist signs and various demographic studies that show the Tea Party member tend to be “older, white and male”, Jacobsen’s argument becomes persuasive.

Yet racism seems to be a very specific charge to throw at such a sizable and nebulous group. A broader and more potent characteristic of the Tea Party appears to be the fear of change, and not just the immediate individual concerns of unemployment or higher taxes, but the long-term remodelling of America and what it is to be an American.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton gave an address on immigration to the students of Portland State University. He said:

“Today, nearly one in ten people in America was born in another country; one in five schoolchildren is from immigrant families. Today, largely because of immigration, there is no majority race in Hawaii or Houston or New York City. Within five years there will be no majority race in our largest state, California. In a little more than 50 years there will be no majority race in the United States. No other nation in history has gone through demographic change of this magnitude in so short a time. What do the changes mean? They can either strengthen and unite us, or they can weaken and divide us. We must decide.”

A decade on, the US Census Bureau published a report that projected that by 2042, whites would no longer be the majority of the population, though they will remain the biggest single grouping (around 70 per cent) within the population until well after 2050.

Writing in the Atlantic, Hua Hsu argued that the rise of multi-culturalism in the US, manifested in myriad ways, from the growth of hip hop culture to Tiger Woods success on the golf course, has led to a “cultural and socioeconomic dislocation” for whites, who have become aggrieved by the sense that “the system that used to guarantee the white working class some stability has gone off-kilter.”

The politics of white identity in America, which for Hsu means “the gradual erosion of ‘whiteness’ as the touchstone of what it means to be American”, has left the country’s white working majority adrift in a world where “‘whiteness’ no longer defines the mainstream.”

And what greater indication of America’s shifting identity than the election of a Hawaiian-born, mixed-race man with a Kenyan father and a foreign-sounding name to the office of President?

Not that Obama’s victory triggered this crisis of identity, but in an unsophisticated way, the election of a black man to the white house probably brought the issue into sharper focus for America’s blue collared masses, certainly more than the projections on a Census Bureau report. As such, Tea Party members are not only politically conservative, but they are, in the literal sense, fearful of change. It’s a fear that has revealed itself in a number of ways, from the need to seek out new communities (the Tea Party as an expression of white identity) to investing in conspiracy theories that decry Obama is a secret-Muslim-fifth-columnist.

Like their John Bircher Society forebears, the Birthers, a group of people that claim that Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States, see only conspiracy and plot. Questions over the president’s constitutional eligibility originated as a political smear, playing to base fears of ‘otherness’ seared into the American psyche through decades of propaganda from the Cold War to the so-called War on Terror.

The rumours started during the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, when a handful of anonymous Hillary Clinton supporters tried to reignite her faltering campaign by questioning her opponent’s citizenship. Following Obama’s inauguration, the rumour was picked up by the Republican blogosphere, appealing not only to those who sought to make political hay, but also the vast legions of online conspiracy theorists seeking the “truth” on everything from the 9/11 attacks to the moon landings.

According to Kathryn Olmsted, conspiracy theories gain traction in the US for two main reasons:

“First, they’re highly effective because they tap into deep, historic American anxieties about “un-American” agents within the republic — perhaps even within the White House. Second, these stories have some powerful sponsors in the media and in politics, sponsors who insinuate their paranoid theories into the mainstream debate to promote their own political goals.”

For Olmsted, the birther issue is borne out of racism:

“Above all, his [Obama] ‘Americanness’ is almost certainly suspect because he’s not white. It’s hard to imagine the same theories being used against Sen. John McCain — even though he was born overseas and could have his U.S. citizenship legally challenged. These fears are worsening now partly because the economy has fallen on hard times, and also because there is a substantial part of the American electorate that will never accept a black president as legitimate.”

Polls give indications, though questionable, about the resonance of the birther myth within Tea Party ranks. A CBS News/ New York Times poll conducted in April 2010 found that 30 per cent of Tea Partiers thought Obama was born in another country, yet 41 per cent said they believed he was born in the US. Even among the wider US population, 20 per cent said they thought the president was not born in the US.

Though not its defining characteristic, racism remains part of the Tea Party makeup, betraying the anxieties of a social group stricken with a loss of identity and fearful of a future in which the tenets of the past have increasingly little hold.

Religion and revolution

Like race, religion is a pervasive aspect of American identity, soaked like a dye into the very fabric from which the nation was cut.

Though the makeup of the Tea Party remains hazy and imprecisely defined, research from Pew conducted in February 2011, suggested that “the movement “draw(s) disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants.” The research also concluded that “most people who agree with the religious right also support the Tea Party”, however the analysis found that support for the Tea Party “is not synonymous with support for the religious right”.

On social issues, Tea Partiers are more likely to base their decision on religious beliefs, with opposition to same-sex marriage running at 65 per cent, 15 per cent more than all registered voters. It was a similar story on abortion, with 59 per cent of Tea Partiers saying that abortion should be illegal in all/most cases, against the national average of 42 per cent.

Yet even if most Tea Party followers tend towards the religious right, this is perhaps one of its least distinctive characteristics. As noted by Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to the United States, in politics “God does not even get a walk-on part in our [European] elections. In America he is centre-stage, wherever you place yourself in the political spectrum, to be invoked as much by Barack Obama as Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has apparently been told by God to stay in the Republican primary race.”

If the bible is entrenched as the basis for moral or spiritual law for the Tea Party, the 1776 revolution and the constitution is equally as important as the basis for civic law.

For Jill Lepore, the revolution has been transformed into “civic-minded folklore that has been turned into historical fundamentalism” in the Tea Party mindset. There is nothing new about poaching episodes from history to buttress modern political positions, whether that’s the hijacking of Ronald Reagan’s legacy to the holding of a “Restore Honour” rally on the anniversary day of Martin Luther King’s historic freedom march.

Yet for Lepore, this “historical fundamentalism” has turned the revolution into an almost religious event, the birth of a country with a manifest destiny given by God.

As Lepore argues, “historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past—‘the founding’—is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts -‘the founding documents’- are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on scepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.”

To question the founding fathers or the constitution is to be a heretic. “Historians question the past, fundamentalists revere the past,” argues Lepore. For the Tea Party, the founders are divine, while the constitution has been raised to the level of a sacred document, similar to the gospels.

Conclusion

Fear not race is the defining characteristic of the Tea Party. The 2008 economic crash was played out on Wall Street, but the consequent evictions, foreclosures, rising unemployment figures and failing businesses had the biggest impact across the towns and cities of working class America.

In 2000, US national debt stood at $5.3 trillion. In 2008 it stood at $10 trillion. By 2018, projections put the debt at $18 trillion. Fear again pervades – how will we pay for this debt, how will the next generation pay for the debt? Reducing debt means higher taxes or debasing the dollar. Or, as the Tea Partiers argue, decrease borrowing now.

For much of the last decade, the US has been engaged in two costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to a 2011 congressional research report, the total cost of the wars stands at $1.3 trillion, not to forget the countless bodies (more than 8,500 fatalities) that have been repatriated to the US in black bags along with countless injuries during the conflicts. Support for the wars was built on fear – fear of WMD, fear of Muslims, fear of the spread of Islam, fear that petrol prices will rise, fear of terrorism, fear of anything “other” than America or that threatens America’s standing.

To the east, Chinese industry threatened US global economic hegemony, while to the south a seemingly porous border added to the number of illegal immigrants on American streets, with 11 million illegal immigrants lived in the US in 2008, 56 per cent of which came from Mexico.

Added to the fear of outside threats came perceived threats from within. The bailout, and the stimulus packaged jarred with the country’s free markets fundamentals, used by the opponents of the administration to whip up economic anxieties. Likewise healthcare reform, which not only challenged the sovereignty of the markets but also treaded on the toes of the constitution.

The country was changing and in the midst of this shift, Barack Hussein Obama was elected to office, embodying a new form of America- culturally, economically, politically and racially. To that end, the Tea Party came into being as a product of the forces pushing inwards and outwards on the society. However, Obama’s victory in 2008 and his subsequent policies, many forced by the same outside pressures, threw into sharp relief the changes and fears that beset the nation.

Mitt, Michele and the pizza to go…

The race for the 2012 Republican nomination got underway last night as the big hitters of the GOP took part in a CCN-organised debate in New Hampshire. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann provided the sparring, giving snapshot answers on questions ranging from the economy to abortion to Libya. As is the form in the US, actual debate proved rare, with the emphasis on providing pithy, coherent sentences and, more importantly, avoiding mistakes. Past campaigns have fallen foul of the faux pas. As such, each candidate took their place at the podium hostage to a potential knock-out blunder.

Fortunately, the broadcast ended without gaffe, slip-up or bungle. The winners and losers, however, were clear. Former Massachusetts governor and early frontrunner Mitt Romney consolidated his position with a presidential performance that had as much to do with his own assurance as it had with his opponents’ failure to land a glove. Going after the frontrunner offers the lesser-known candidates a chance to improve their profile. Instead, there was deference, most strikingly from Tim Pawlenty. The Minnesota Governor had attacked Romney on the Sunday talk shows over his “socialised” healthcare system in Massachusetts, drawing a parallel between that and the much-despised Obamacare. The chair offered Pawlenty the chance to confront Romney to his face. Romney glared, Pawlenty demurred. Similarly, Rick Santorum, a strong pro-life candidate, failed to take the Mormon candidate to task over his past dalliance with the pro-choice agenda. The former Pennsylvania senator remained a peripheral figure throughout much of the evening.

The unexpected beneficiary of the debate was Newt Gingrich. The portly former speaker looked like Elvis circa ‘77 and, on the back of a mass resignation by his campaign staff this weekend it appeared the thrice-married family values candidate was simply there to make up the numbers. On the contrary, he provided a performance of bluster and charisma, as well as offering a surprisingly nuanced argument when it came to immigration.

The one unsavoury moment for Gingritch came courtesy of Herman Cain. When asked to defend his recent assertion that he wouldn’t hire a Muslim to work in his administration, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO delivered a slice of verbal confusion that concluded with potential Muslim applicants being subjected to an interview to prove their allegiance to old Glory. Having watched Herman descend slowly into a hole, Gingritch duly followed with a rant that seemingly justified loyalty tests for US citizens. A whiff of Joe McCarthy, or at least that of his drink-sodden corpse, wafted through the auditorium. It was not a conversation that reached out to the moderate arm of the party, let alone any wavering Democrats. Cain, who in a previous debate hosted by Fox News had emerged the unlikely victor, looked anything but presidential. When asked for political analysis on Libya, he turned to his family for inspiration. “To paraphrase my grandmother… it’s a mess.” Not exactly Robert Fisk. The Georgia businessman did look assured on one question – whether he preferred “deep crust or thin?”

Ron Paul trotted out his usual isolationist rhetoric and even parodied himself with a few quips about The Federal Reserve, his default topic. He’s a game old goose, the congressman who enjoys huge popular support throughout the college campuses. His idealism, particularly in regards to the constitution, was in contrast with the more prosaic offerings from the other candidates. He is always enjoyable to watch and one of the most interesting players on the American political stage, but as always his brand of Libertarianism provided nothing more than a sideshow, and the Texas congressman will no doubt remain a fringe figure within US conservatism.

Another character on the periphery, Michele Bachmann, does appear to have come out of the debate with increased standing, offering up several forceful points that would have no doubt appealed to the grassroots and her Tea Party faithful. She’s got a chequered past, pronouncing views on evolution 100-years out of date, as well as helping to fan the “death panel” propaganda during the Obamacare debate. Her thoughts on homosexuality are a matter of record. However, there’s no denying that she has a large and growing fan-base, while the event offered her the chance to present a coherent, albeit hard-right message, while standing alongside some of the big players within the Republican establishment. Comparisons with Sarah Palin are inevitable, but the gulf between the two is clear. Bachmann isn’t Palin-light – they share many views – but the Minnesota congresswoman is far better prepared and far more articulate, delivering a consistent narrative, the type that Palin found it so hard to enunciate during the 2008 campaign. Whereas Palin took refuge in naked provincialism and borderline racism, Bachmann managed to deliver her brand of ultra-conservatism without looking completely insane. There seems little point in the former Governor of Alaska throwing her black Cole Haan boots into the ring for 2012 while Bachmann’s in the running, though as one CNN pundit astutely pointed out, “Palin may yet play kingmaker”.

Each candidate managed to throw a few punches Obama’s way particularly with regards to the economy and rising unemployment. However, if the President was watching the debate, he would have done so sitting comfortably on Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite the frosty economic climate currently chilling the US, his lease on the White House looks secure for some years yet. The problem for the GOP remains winning Tea Party support alongside the more moderate Republicans. Could a Romney/Bachmann ticket unite the party’s increasingly disparate ranks? It seems like an unlikely marriage, but with US politics, just about anything is possible.

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

Dispatches from the red planet

Cheers echoed around the huge conference hall as the name was finally announced. For the second year running, Texas Republican Ron Paul had won the straw poll for the Presidential nomination at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). For most in attendance, particularly the 1100 or so supporters of the Texas Governor who had made the trip to Washington, the result was never in doubt.

Yet despite their enthusiasm, Paul remains at best an outsider within the Republican Party thanks to his fixation with the Federal Reserve and his advocacy of complete isolationism in regards to US foreign policy. Earlier in the conference, Donald Trump, a fellow potential nominee, had draw jeers from the crowd by stating that Paul had “no chance”. Most serious political opinion agrees with Trump, though these are strange times for a Republican Party whose shape is being shifted by the gravitational pull of different groups, factions and figures from within its own broad ranks.

Speaking after the event, Tony Fabrizio, the Republic pollster in charge of collating the results, offered some perspective: “In the same poll in 2007, Rudi Giuliani and Mitt Romney finished a close first and second. Guess who came in fifth? John McCain.” A year later McCain won the Florida primary en route to his ultimately unsuccessful run for President. Sarah Palin, then a little-known Governor of a peripheral state, was not even on the ballot card. In short, the poll means nothing; anything can happen.

Every year, CPAC offers those affiliated with the right of American politics the opportunity to come together, debate the direction of the movement and, in the years preceding an election, cast an eye over prospective candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. Organised by the American Conservative Union Foundation, the event started in the early seventies, growing through the decades to become an annual point of focus not only for the thousands of attendees, but the many millions throughout America for whom conservatism is not only a political leaning but a way of life.

Yet recent yeas has seen a schism develop in American conservatism with the Tea Party, a grass roots movement born from the ruins of Republican defeat in 2008, outflanking the GOP to secure huge swathes of populist support throughout much of America’s heartland. Theirs is a message of fiscal and moral conservatism, anchored in the twin pillars of Christian teaching and Reaganomics.

Much of their ire is directed at President Obama, with oft-quoted accusations ranging from genuine concerns about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, to the downright conspiratorial, in which the President is a Kenyan-born fifth columnist planted in the White House as part of a communist/Muslim plot.

Despite the movement’s willingness to propound outlandish beliefs, their political power has grown spectacularly during the past three years, so much so that many in the GOP have been forced to shift further from the centre in order to ally themselves with the Tea Party’s more conservative agenda.

Last year’s mid-term elections, in which the Republican Party secured the House of Representatives, including the election of a number of Tea Party-backed candidates, served to emphasise the growing re-alignment of the GOP, moving rightwards as to remain connected to the vocal Tea Party base. Only recently, John Boehner, the new leader of the house, refused to denounce those that question Obama’s constitutional eligibility, arguing that “it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.” Although Boehner has a strong conservative voting record, he is certainly no crackpot and has stated on record that he believes Obama is a US citizen. Yet his refusal to denounce the “Birthers” (those who question Obama’s citizenship), a sop to the Tea Party faithful, indicates how much their support is now prized within the GOP.

The emergence of the Tea Party has certainly energised the American Right, breathing new life into a Republican Party that less than three years ago looked old, ponderous and frail next to the Democrats and their newly-elected talisman. Since then, the fallout of the global economic crisis, the healthcare debate and the ongoing issue of immigration have eaten away at Obama’s popularity, hindered further by a Tea Party whose concern about shifting demographics, particularly the influx from the southern border, has galvanised their opposition. “Take Back Our Country” is a crude yet all-encompassing emblem for the Tea Partiers, whether their concerns are economic, demographic or, in the case of those convinced of an Islamic/communist coup, fanciful bordering on sinister.

So where does this leave the 2012 election? The emergence of the Tea Party may well skewer the field for the next election not only pushing new candidates to the fore, but also influencing the campaign message of the established candidates. One of the Tea Party’s central messages is cuts in spending. As such, expect to find that issue high on every Republican candidate’s agenda. As a Muriel Coleman, a board member of the American Conservative Union told me on the second day of the conference, “the winner will be the person who takes the core principles of Reagan and moves them into 2012”.

Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts who was also a candidate for the 2008 election, looks a certainty to run, alongside former Arkansas Governor turned Fox News host Mike Huckabee. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty also looks a likely candidate, along with Haley Barbour, the current governor of Mississippi’s and Indiana’s governor Mitch Daniels.

Outside the main field, Ron Paul has plenty of support among young Republicans and Libertarians. One man that has already said he will stand is Fred Karger, an openly-gay Republican strategist who served in the Reagan Administration and will run as an independent. Then there’s Donald Trump. All of the above attended CPAC with the exception of Huckabee.

Speaking to Karger, it seems his candidacy is more about offering publicity for gay civil rights than a genuine tilt at the White House, though running as a centrist (“a fiscal conservative and a social moderate” as he puts it) does offer an alternative to the very polarised nature of current domestic politics in the US. And perhaps the most polarising figure in US politics remains the big unknown for 2012.

“I think Sarah Palin is going to get in to this,” says Karger. “If she does it’ll throw a money wrench into everyone else’s plans”. Like Huckabee, Palin also failed to appear at CPAC, yet her shadow loomed large over the three-day event. The 2008 Vice Presidential nominee has yet to rule herself out, however despite her undoubted popularity in the heartland, many attendees in Washington, especially the younger conservatives, were unconvinced by Palin’s credentials. “I can see why she resonates with a lot of people in this country,” Eric Chester, President of the Libertarian Club at the University of Delaware, tells me on the third day. “But I certainly wouldn’t vote for her.”

Likewise Ashlee Filkins, a student at the West Virginia University: “Palin is a good cheerleader and very good at voter-initiative but I don’t think she’s a viable candidate for 2012.”

Speaking to other attendees, Palin’s no show, along with her recent foray into reality TV hasn’t proved endearing. Another factor that could diminish her popularity is the emergence of Michelle Bachmann, a representative for Minnesota’s 6th congressional district who in recent months has been hailed as the new darling of the Tea Party, Similar to Palin, Bachmann is a staunch conservative who believes in the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools, the phasing out of social welfare programmes and a ban on same-sex marriages. Whether she can have an impact on the race for 2012 is debatable, especially after she gave her own Tea Party-backed response to Obama’s recent State of the Union address, much to the chagrin of many within the GOP. Then again, she opened the conference at CPAC.

Karger remained diplomatic on his potential fellow nominees. “I’m an advocate of the big tent,” he says. “It’s the more the merrier.” More there certainly will be, but with no front runner and prospective Republican candidates faced with the almost impossible task of appealing to both the moderate and extreme wings of the party, come November 2012 the merriment may well belong to the Democrats and Barack Obama.

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