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.

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.

Why can’t the English celebrate St George’s Day?

How would you react if you saw a St George’s Cross erected outside a house on your street? Would you be overcome with pride, apathy, or would you perhaps feel a little bit anxious?

Tuesday is St George’s Day, an annual “celebration” in the national consciousness that is uniquely ignored, despite incessant and often fruitless attempts by organisations, brands and politicians to whip up a collective English spirit.

Last weekend, London mayor Boris Johnson hosted an event in Trafalgar Square to commemorate England’s patron saint, telling the crowd it was a “fantastic opportunity to celebrate the very best of what England has to offer, from music to theatre to film”.

A St George’s Day event it may have been, but the pageant was more a publicity exercise for the city of London (and its mayor), leaving celebrations on the actual day muted or absent.

But why has England’s saint been so ignored?

Reasons abound, from the island’s religious history to the more recent appropriation of national iconography by members of the far right. Certainly, for many the English flag represents a facet of the national character that is best hidden away. It’s a chauvinism and a narrowness that, outside major sporting events, has come to be identified with the English Defence League (EDL), the British National Party (BNP) and mobs of travelling football fans.

As an inter-faith group bemoaned on Monday, the saint has been “hijacked” by the extreme right as a “symbol of triumphalism and division”.

England is, after all, a country in which national outpouring is rare.

Every two years, the population watches the country’s best 23 football players get on a plane, returning shortly after the quarterfinals of either the World Cup or the European Championships.

For the brief interlude in between, flags are hung from windows, colours are worn and England becomes united in an acceptable display of national pride. Then the shirts, the silly hats and the flags are promptly put away… apart from the few left draped over balconies of inner city estates. Similar displays were seen for the golden Jubilee, though this was a more British celebration represented by the Union flag. Likewise the London Olympics.

But why are displays of English national identity limited to only a handful of prescribed sporting events? One reason could sit within the decline of faith. The St George’s Cross is, after all, a religious symbol and a Christian symbol. As Greg Jennerhas argued blogging for the HuffPost UK: “If I am going to have to live in a modern England, I believe it should not be reflexively branded with medieval, Christian iconography”.

Historian Diarmaid Macculloch goes even further, arguing that the apathy towards St George’s Day is less to do with secularisation or modern politics and more a consequence of the reformation.

He told the Huff Post UK: “The English, being Protestants for nearly five centuries, have never had much time for saints’ days – same with the Scots,” adding: “Neither really need their patron saints to celebrate nationhood.”

The Welsh, he suggested, despite being Protestants, retain St David’s day to “keep their end up against the English”.

Nationalism too is often borne out of oppression. Scotland, Wales and Ireland have historically been the oppressed members of the Union, giving them a cohesion or national unity against the English. It’s a notion that Robert Ford, a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester and a specialist in far-right politics supports. “Very often, national identities are expressed in opposition to something,” he told the HuffPost UK.

“So St Andrew’s and St Patrick’s Day celebrations reflect the assertion of an identity distinct from the dominant English identity. It is not clear whom the English define themselves against, or in comparison to. Once upon a time it would have been Catholic Europe, while more recently on parts of the right it has been against immigrants with a different culture.”

According to Ford, smaller, non-dominant nations who may be threatened by neighbours have strong reasons to promote and protect their own sense of identity. What’s more, England has no “great political event to focus identity debate and provide the symbolic furniture – as the Revolution did in France, Garibaldi in Italy, or unification in Germany.” As such, when identity promotion has occurred, for example over immigration, Ford argues the debate often turns “negative, defensive and exclusionary rather than positive and celebratory”.

In contrast, the US, despite being the dominant actor in the region, has created a strong national identity – a form of “civil religion”, as sociologist Robert Bellah outlined – focused on the flag, the national anthem, the military and days of national celebration, such as the Super bowl and the presidential inauguration. Every morning, school children across the States are made to recite the pledge of allegiance. In England, there’s no anthem, no pledge and little reference in school to what it means to be English.

Still, this unpatriotic nation may be on the turn. A poll for the IPPR think tank out on Tuesday revealed that more than seven out of 10 backed making St George’s Day a public holiday. Of course it did, the public want another day off. Despite the failure of a recent attempt by MPs to have St George’s Day and St David’s Day declared a bank holiday (the bill was withdrawn despite support from across Tory and Labour ranks), the director of IPPR responsible for the research believes the poll shows “an emergence of an English identity that British political parties ignore at their peril.”

David Cameron duly obliged on Tuesday morning sending his best wishes “to everyone celebrating St George’s Day”, adding: “I think it is important that people in England can celebrate St George’s Day, just as other nations of the United Kingdom celebrate their patron saint’s days.”

For Andrew Rosindell, a Tory MP who has campaigned for more than a decade to have St George’s Day celebrated as a National Holiday, attitudes are changing. He told HuffPost UK: “St. Patrick’s Day, St. Andrew’s Day and St. David’s Day are celebrated so widely now that people in England also want to share in celebrating their unique English traditions and heritage. Of course, it is also proud to celebrate the unifying values that make us British and I am proud of being both British and English, which is a view that I am sure many others up and down the country share.”

That may be so, but English identity remains a difficult question. Richard Wyn Jones, professor of politics at Cardiff University and co-author of the IPPR report, strikes a more nuanced tone: “A cocktail of deepening cultural anxiety, rising economic insecurity and a growing disillusion with the political system has made the English Question something far more complex than simply a response to Scottish devolution and European integration.”

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