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

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

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

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

Here’s what is known:

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

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

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

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

Why is there no gun control?

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

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

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

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

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

Would gun control work in the United States?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s an ‘American’ problem.

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

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

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

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

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.

British MEP tells American conservatives to ‘act worthy’ of themselves at CPAC

Dan Hannan delivered a bravura performance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday morning, demanding a room full of predominantly American political activists “act worthy of themselves” as heirs to a common inheritance of Western values.

In a 20-minute address increasingly punctuated by applause, the British Eurosceptic intellectualised the conservative position, a rare approach at a convention in which the word “Benghazi” is enough to provoke a paranoid squeal, while invoking a brand of Atlantacism that honoured Britain and the US as the standard-bearers for constitutional freedom in an increasingly divided world.

“Think about the world as it stood in 1941,” said Hannan, invoking Winston Churchill, a character whose reverence in these parts is second only to Reagan. “Constitutional freedom was confined to the Anglosphere,” freedoms that were retained, Hannan argued, as a result of specific military victories in the Second World War and the Cold War.

“The easiest temptation to get into my friends is to take things for granted and become blasé about the unique privileges into which we’ve been born. We could all so easily fall into the error of assuming that freedom – free contracts, free elections, the freedom of newspapers, habeas corpus, equality between men and women – that these things are somehow the natural condition. But history tells us a different story. Those precepts were overwhelmingly developed in the language in which you’re listening to now.”

Moving into contemporary territory, Hannan highlighted the increasingly vocal critics of the US, but said, “They would be a lot quicker to complain if it went. You don’t have to look to far to see some of the alternatives”.

“Forty million people around the world tuned in to see your presidential inauguration – it would have been nicer if it was another president – but can you imagine anyone tuning in to watch the proceedings of the Russian Duma or the National People’s Conference in Beijing or the European parliament, God forbid?”

The MEP drew a series of standing ovations for lambasting Washington over the US Federal debt, which he said acted as a hindrance on the authority and legitimacy of the US to spread Western values around the globe.

“When you’re faced with a debt of $17 trillion that becomes an issue of national security,” he said, reminding those in the Potomac Ballroom that the interest on that debt alone is equivalent to a third of the Chinese defence budget and a half of the Russia defence budget. “When we are talking about numbers on that scale it’s not just your problem any more, it becomes a problem for the Western world in general.”

At a conference that to outsiders can appear inward looking, heralding such bastions of insularity as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Sarah Palin, it was unusual to see a Briton take the podium talking about American domestic policy in an accent cut from the spires of Oxford. This is, after all, the encampment of the Tea Party, a movement whose very name evokes hatred of the British.

It was an incongruity that Hannan highlighted himself and redressed: “I’ll answer frankly, my friends. No English speaker can be indifferent to the fortunes of this Republic. We’ve been through too much together. You are a separate country but you are not a foreign country.”

“You are citizens of the greatest Republic on this planet and that carries responsibilities as well as privileges. It is for you to keep fast the freedoms that you inherited from your parents and to pass them on in tact to your children. Act worthy of yourselves.”

Hannan’s message may have its critics (many in the UK), but at an event in which the political parade prefers to spit bumper sticker charges at Obama or pontificate on the banal tensions between Republicans and Libertarians, the Briton’s performance was a welcome piece of theatre, while perhaps also highlighting a scarcity of genuine intellectual talent within the leading figures of the American political right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The certain world of Michele Bachmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking on same sex marriage and the gay community:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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