Plainly put, today’s Republican Party (and its Tea Party wing) represent the first bona fide radical political party to rise to dominance in Washington in nearly 100 years. With good reason, “radical” is a term to be used with great caution; more often than not it has been employed in American history by demagogues and ill-informed ideologues as a way of labeling opponents as “un-American.” It conjures memories of old McCarthyite tactics and outrages, and the labeling of decent and patriotic citizens and movements as traitorous. Even in comparatively benign usage, the term radical is often thrown around recklessly to impugn beliefs for being out of touch or foreign to mainstream thinking.
Yet the fact remains that the Republican ideas now ascendant in Washington would dismantle and transform social and economic policies that have been the basis of prevailing political consensus since the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, through his cousin Franklin’s New Deal, through the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, and even from the Great Society through the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton decades. If that doesn’t register as radicalism, I’m unsure what would.
Public policy in the twentieth century was about protecting and expanding the social compact, based on recognition that effective government at the federal level provides rules and services and safety measures that contribute to a better society. This is especially the case in realms where private enterprise and the states cannot or will not do what needs to be done for the common good: from insuring food and drug safety (begun in 1906) to progressive taxation (1913) to the creation of the National Park Service (1916) to regulation of banking and securities (1933) to compulsory Social Security retirement accounts (1935) to protecting the civil rights of all citizens (the 1960s) to environmental protection (1970) to guaranteed medical care for the elderly (1965).
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has applauded Republican/Tea Party efforts to privatize social security, eliminate environmental protection programs, restructure Medicare through voucher-like options, overturn Roe v. Wade, “self-deport” immigrants, and push for tax relief for the wealthiest citizens.