Is God the problem with American politics?

“You’re the anti-Christ, you will be destroyed,” screamed an incensed heckler during a speech by Barack Obama in June this year. It was not the first time Obama had heard this very pointed line, nor was he the first President to hear it.

Anti-Obama rallies are often decorated with signs or t-shirts carrying overtly religious messages, whether it’s likening him to the Devil, demanding that Christian prayers be returned to schools or suggesting that America has a divine mission – one the “Muslim” in the White House is currently derailing.

These remain in a minority. Populist movements such as the Tea Party are predominantly concerned with economic issues, and most signs and banners reflect that – but it is a notable difference from the UK and Western Europe that anti-government rallies include any religious motifs at all.

Despite polling showing a waning in religion’s influence in the US, the country remains one of the most devout in the Western world, an outlier amongst the secular, industrialised democracies, with more than 50% of Americans saying that religion is important to them, almost three times as many as most of Western Europe.

Centuries of bloodshed over God finally persuaded Europeans to extricate religion from political life. The US experience ran counter, with religion and politics becoming inextricably fused, pushed together during the 20th century by the preaching of Billy Graham, the “good versus evil” framing of the Cold War and the end of the self-imposed exile of the evangelical right.

As the German sociologist Hans Joas noted, “The more secularised large parts of Europe became, the more exotic the religiosity of the United States seemed to European observers.”

Which brings us to today: an America in crisis – limp, hobbled and unable to function. All but the opening act of Obama’s six-year vignette has been mired in political dysfunction, the tribes parting as Republicans retreated to an ideological hinterland formerly the redoubt of biblical literalists, economic fantasists and men with too many guns and too little life experience.

Last October, Republicans courted global economic calamity by failing to pass legislation to appropriate sufficient funds to pay America’s international debts – shutting down the government for two weeks, a bizarre act of retribution against the President, enacted by the Tea Party-wing of the GOP for his attempt to reform healthcare.

The current (113th) Congress is the least productive in modern American history. Its divided factions passing so few pieces of legislation that is has garnered a staggering public disapproval rating of 83%. Following the Republican victory in the recent midterm elections, the deadlock looks set to continue at least until the end of the Obama presidency, but very likely beyond for a generation.

Sitting at the heart of this intransigence appears to be religion, with the Republicans, once the party of business and a strong military, morphing into an entity preoccupied with so-called “Christian values.” Representing this change is a new class of politician – Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz et al – emblems of an outspoken Christian political class, fused together by scripture, distrust of the federal government (even though they’re part of it), a fear of Islamism and a sincere belief that the man in the White House is a demon.

As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz pointed out during the presidential campaign of 2012, “‘God’s Own Party’ now really is just that.”

But is this most recent Christian revival at the root of America’s dysfunction? Author Frank Schaeffer bluntly suggested during the government shutdown late last year that America doesn’t have a political problem… it has an “evangelical stupidity problem.” Schaeffer argued that the Republican party had been taken over by Christian extremists – people who believe that Christ will return to judge or kill unbelievers – and that this retributive theology has crossed over into the political mainstream.

“So let’s tell the truth: a fanatical religious element is dominating our political life these days,” he wrote. “Until this hard truth is called what it is and squarely faced, we’ll be stuck with these guys… and gridlock. Wake up: our evangelical-led right isn’t interested in policy. They are an apocalyptic cult led by the none-too-bright.”

For Schaffer, the Christian coup of the Republican Party is at the heart of the “sectarianism” that now dominates Washington, aided by an “us-or-them view, revealing those with whom you disagree to be not just wrong, but lost, or even willfully evil.”

On the surface, it’s a convincing case. America, a country whose political culture is permeated by religion, has reached gridlock, a Manichean standoff in which one tribe is engaged in a zero-sum game, one in which to compromise is to lose. After all, why would you ever compromise with the Devil?

In the UK, no matter how fierce the political protest, you are unlikely to see reference or motif shorn from the Bible. British airwaves are not laden with call-in shows discussing whether George Osborne is in fact the anti-Christ, and half Britain’s political class isn’t trying to make the case that the other half is in league with the Devil.

Yet for Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist specialising in moral psychology at New York University, this type of thinking is not unique to the US, nor is religion the root cause of America’s current political dysfunction. “We’re very good at hating each other and we’re very good at forming alliances,” he told HuffPost. “Religion is built on this psychology but you can easily have quite nasty disputes without it.”

For Haidt, the dysfunction is a product of “affective partisan polarisation”, a straight measure of how people feel towards those (politically) on the other side. During the Seventies and Eighties, data showed that Americans felt slightly negative on average towards people in the other party, howeverduring the past 10-15 years this has plummeted from slightly negative to very negative. “That’s what’s gone wrong with the US,” he said.

Allied to this “affective partisan polarisation” is the US constitutional system, which is very good at putting checks and balances on power (it was designed to prevent a despotism) but this division of power “grinds to a stop when the two parties hate each other”.

In the UK the system of “responsible party government” means that whoever wins the election can actually pass legislation, regardless of the opposition. As Haidt points out, “parliamentary systems are not nearly as vulnerable to gridlock as a separation of powers system.”

One of the most persistent criticisms of the British political class is the charge of elitism. Earlier this year Michael Gove, then a Tory Minister, complained that there were “too many old Etonians” at the heart of British government.

Even across the two main parties, currently the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Shadow Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister all went to Oxford or Cambridge. Likewise, they all live in London, they all know each other and, despite disagreements, they all have informal relationships with one another, making compromise possible.

These informal relationships among America’s political class have long since disintegrated, abruptly ended by Newt Gingrich, who became leader of the House of Representatives in 1995.

Gingrich, who went on to run for president in 2012, deliberately set about remaking the Republican Party into a far more combative entity, changing the political calendar of the House so that work was only done on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

With a now shortened working week, Gingrich encouraged his members not to move to Washington and instead to stay in their states, flying in for three days a week to enact the business of government. Once that happened, opposing politicians no longer saw each other at cocktail parties, their children no longer attended the same schools, and their spouses no longer mixed. “That simple change to Congressional procedure really changed the ability of Congress to function,” said Haidt.

While Britain’s elite-filled government is seen as less democratic, at least these informal relationships enable politicians of different stripes to speak to each other. The prominence of activist populist movements in the US may make the Union more democratic, however, their influence means that Congressmen, particularly Republicans, are unable to vote for what they believe is right. Instead they have to respond to the populist demands of the Tea Party or the various groups that campaign for religious conservatism.

So the problem with American politics is not religion (notions of good and evil seem hardwired into human psychology) but the polarisation of the political class within a system that requires compromise to function. Often this polarisation is expressed through religious metaphors and motifs because that’s the vocabulary ingrained within the culture.

As Dr Uta Balbier, the Director of the Institute of North American Studies at King’s College London, tells HuffPost, “In a political discourse heavily afflicted with religious tropes and prophetic rhetoric there is probably a stronger tendency to evoke Biblical metaphors to describe good and evil such as the figure of the anti-Christ.”

It is this cultural “familiarity with Biblical prophecy as proven by the prominence of apocalyptic thinking” that reduces political discourse to a battle between good versus evil, but this is simply an expression of the deep polarisation of the country.

British political culture has long since shed these “religious tropes and prophetic rhetoric”. As Alastair Campbell famously quipped when the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to speak publicly about his faith, “we don’t do God.

Yet God isn’t quite off the hook. Throughout history, conservative movements have risen in response to rapid transformation, never more so than the massive cultural (and necessary) changes of the Sixties – social changes that, Haidt argues, “energised and galvanised a very powerful conservative reaction”.

Before the Sixties, American evangelicals had traditionally stayed out of politics. It was only after the Supreme Court banned prayer in school and legalised abortion that the religious right became an active political force.

This set in motion the rise of what Schaeffer describes as a “fanatical religious element” within one of the parties, resulting in a current charged climate in which half the population is unwilling to hear “basic economic or environmental facts”, and who “opt for their own special facts mainlined from talk radio or Fox news”.

And with continued “Liberal” victories in the courtroom, most notably the rapid removal of barriers to equal marriage, this “fanatical” religious element won’t be returning to the political wilderness anytime soon.

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

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Despite the dysfunction no new party is likely in Washington

NEW YORK — On Tuesday conservative activist and commentator Steve Baldwin penned an article for the right-leaning website Barbwire calling for the emergence of a third political party in the US, one made up of religious and fiscal conservatives that could supplant the Republican Party. Baldwin even proposed a leader for this new political coalition – Sarah Palin, erstwhile governor of Alaska and, memorably, the vice-presidential Republican nominee in 2008.

According to the activist, the thrust of this new political force would be to eliminate “all federal abortion funding, reversing Roe vs. Wade [the Supreme Court decision to legalise abortion], and prohibiting the Federal government from granting special rights to people based upon sexual behavior (laws that almost always infringe on our religious, property, and freedom of association rights).”

Of course, the notion of Palin leading an alliance of the faithful and the frugal all the way to the White House is fanciful. However the US does have a history of intermittent dalliances with third parties, while the current dysfunction in Washington, a deadlock that peaked with the government shutdown late last year – a period in which Gallup revealed 60% of Americans thought it was time for a third party to emerge – has led to rumblings once again.

Palin herself floated the idea of a third party in a recent interview with Fox News, asking, “If Republicans are gonna act like Democrats, then what’s the use in getting all gung ho about getting more Republicans in there?”

But if Washington is broke, allied to widespread dissatisfaction with both main political parties, why has an alternative not emerged? After all in Britain, a country in which divergent political opinions are far more cramped in the middle, a genuine third party has still found room to manifest in the form of the Liberal Democrats (four parties if Nigel Farage is to be believed).

Speaking from a conservative standpoint, Baldwin suggests the main impediment to a third party in the US is the fear that it will “weaken the GOP, thus allowing more Democrats to win”. It’s certainly a legitimate concern with Tory strategists in the UK currently wracked by similar speculations as to what extent Ukip will split the Tory vote in 2015.

“Although many Americans say they want a strong third party, there are a lot of reasons to doubt that one will establish itself as a long-term presence in American politics,” Andrew E. Busch, a Crown professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College, tells HuffPost. “For one thing, Americans can’t agree on what sort of third party they want.”

For Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, the prospect of a third party emerging is hampered by the existing parties’ grip on power.

“The two major parties do not do many things very well, but they are tremendously skilled at maintaining their duopoly over the American political system,” he tells HuffPost. “When a new issue or movement does emerge on the landscape, one party or the other invariably manages to co-opt it.”

The emergence of the Tea Party, a movement created in response to the 2008 financial crashes and galvanized by the election of the first African American president in US history, is a case in point.

Likewise the Libertarian movement, once an outlier in the GOP, which in recent years has been brought into the Republican mainstream, so much so that Rand Paul, the movement’s de facto leader, is expected to run for President in 2016. “That doesn’t leave a lot of creating room for a third party to emerge,” says Schnur.

According to Peter Levine, the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service of Tufts University, the existing system is rigged in favour of a two-party system. He tells HuffPost, “as long as legislators are elected in single-member districts where the candidate with the most votes gets the seat, two-party systems are inevitable”. As such, Levine argues, a vote for a third party invariably looks wasted.

Busch agrees that the entire electoral system favors big and broad parties, and unlike in proportional representation systems, “you get nothing for coming in second, let alone third with 15 percent of the vote”. He adds: “The most successful third parties in American history fill a space and address issues that are neglected by the major parties, make a splash for a short time, draw one or both of the big parties in their direction, then collapse.”

However, Levine suggests there are exceptions, such as when strong regional parties come to prominence: the rise of the Scottish Nationalists in Scotland is an obvious example. Another exception would be during what the academic calls “moments of disequilibrium,” such as when the old Whig Party collapsed and then the Republicans arose to fill the gap.

It’s a parallel not lost on Baldwin, whose wishful Palin-led collation, he suggests, should “do to the GOP what the GOP did to the Whig Party 150 years ago”. However, without these moments of disequilibrium, Levine argues, “systems like ours produce duopolies”.

Yet if the odds are stacked against a national third party emerging, the prospect of an independent candidate being elected to the state legislature may be more likely. Earlier this year Schnur ran as an independent candidate in California for Secretary of State, a bid he ultimately lost in the state’s June primary election.

Yet despite that defeat, the academic says he believes “even more strongly” than a year ago that “an independent candidate can be elected to statewide office”. He does, however, concede it will take a candidate with “much more time and much more money than the usual campaign” in order to “convince voters to cast their ballot in a fundamentally different way than they’ve become accustomed”.

Schnur concludes: “While the political space probably doesn’t exist for a full-fledged third party, a candidate who was better prepared and better funded than I can certainly occupy the political center that’s been vacated by the two major parties.”

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

Dick Cheney has not only lost his mind on Iraq – he’s lost his audience

“Rarely has a US president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” ran the line in a comment piece about Iraq published in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. Amazingly, the author was not talking about George W. Bush, the man who led the US into a disastrous war that cost the lives of 4,500 Americans, 100,000 Iraqis and nearly a trillion dollars in debt. The writer was taking aim at the current president, Barack Obama.

What’s more, the piece was penned by Dick Cheney, one of the architects of the Bush Doctrine that sought to spread democracy through military power, the success of which can be easily measured in the pictures of mass executions and men digging their own graves that are filtering out from the disintegrating Iraqi state.

In the article, bizarrely published as a joint piece with his daughter Liz (some pundits have speculated that his family are the only Republicans left who will stand with Cheney), the former vice president excoriates Obama for “abandoning” Iraq to Al-Qaeda-inspired ISIS, jihadist militants who now straddle both Iraq and Syria, launching sectarian attacks on those who might oppose their mission to create a cross-border Caliphate.

And where was al-Qaeda before the 2003 invasion? One place it wasn’t is Iraq, demanding an answer to just how the current president is responsible for the hard-line Islamists currently occupying the cities of Mosul and Tikrit and threatening to march on Baghdad?

And this from the man who in 2003 had said that he thought American forces “really would be treated as liberators” and who remains unrepentant about the American and Iraqi lives taken by the conflict and the deep financial hole left in the US national coffers after they were plundered for an illegal war.

Of course, Cheney isn’t the sole cheerleader for the 2003 invasion that has failed to offer penitence. Last week, conservative commentator Bill Kristol, former envoy to Iraq Paul Bremer, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and the increasingly baffledJohn McCain, not only failed to show contrition, but all, apart from McCain (he didn’t know what he wanted), advised the current White house to return to the use of force in Iraq.

In Britain, a similar lack of self-awareness has plagued Tony Blair, with London Mayor Boris Johnson going as far as to call the former PM “unhinged” over his assertion that the failure to deal with the war in Syria is responsible for the crisis in Iraq, not the 2003 war for which he was – and remains – a staunch advocate.

Yet Cheney’s remarks are perhaps the most galling, with the former VP following up his comment piece by announcing the establishment of a non-profit group nefariously named the “Alliance for a Stronger America”, with its mission to educate and advocate for the policies needed to restore American pre-eminence and power in the world.

And where did Cheney make this announcement? On YouTube, stood next to his daughter and wearing a cowboy hat. The post was followed by a joint appearance on Fox News, an interview in which even the GOP shill presenting was forced to ask if Cheney might have the wrong end of the stick as to who was responsible for the crisis unfolding across the region.

Unfortunately for Dick, the world has moved on and so has his party, with the modern GOP far more influenced by the Libertarian movement’s strong non-interventionist bent than has been the case any time in the recent past.

Whereas Cheney could once rely on the Republican hierarchy and a US national media to take note, now the former VP is forced to scramble for hits on YouTube, his inane ramblings on foreign policy, the Obama administration and the crisis in Iraq competing unsuccessfully with the latest J-Lo album teaser and a video on how dogs react to humans barking.

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

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.

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.