29/07/2011 09:34 BST | Updated 26/09/2011 06:12 BST

Extremely Republican or Republican Extremism?

Observers of the American economic crisis might characterize Republicans' refusal to raise the nation's debt ceiling as mere brinkmanship orchestrated to undermine President Barack Obama's leadership.

Observers of the American economic crisis might characterize Republicans' refusal to raise the nation's debt ceiling as mere brinkmanship orchestrated to undermine President Barack Obama's leadership. This same audience might dismiss Tea Party members as wing-nut extremists, with figureheads like Sarah Palin reducing its relevance to that of a circus sideshow. They may wonder why mainstream politicians allow the GOP's 'radical' side to explode in furore like those surrounding Tea Partiers Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann.

However, 'slash-and-burn' tactics like union-busting, dramatic cuts to public programs, and individual states' rejection of federal funds do not represent the worst excesses of Republican extremism, but in fact have been part of the GOP's appeal to core constituents since the Vietnam War era. Similarly, the Party's current willingness to play a risky game of 'chicken' over the nation's borrowing limit is not mere intransigence, but, rather, hearkens back to conservative values in place since the 1960s.

Tea Party views can be traced back to Ronald Reagan, who, in turn, supported conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in his unsuccessful 1964 presidential campaign. In a 1961 speech in Goldwater's home state, he proclaimed:

Here is the main battleground! We must reduce the government's supply of money and deny it the right to borrow.

Even the most centrist Republican favors fiscal conservatism and opposes federal spending, but Reagan considered 'big government' an enemy of the people. America's Cold War crusader against the Red Menace equated the establishment and proliferation of government programs, and the attendant rise in taxes, as the sort of 'encroaching control' that enabled Soviet totalitarianism to take hold and spread worldwide. Following Reagan's rhetoric, Tea Partiers like Bachmann paint the Obama administration as 'Socialist,' and they echo Reagan's antipathy towards taxation and public benefits. Last month, the Tea Party formed its own '" >debt panel,' which will meet over the summer to formulate its recommendations.

As the Republican Party's most vociferous advocate, the Tea Party's impact rivals that of the Reverend Jerry Falwell's 'Moral Majority,' which politicized Protestant Evangelists in the 1980s. From Reagan onwards, GOP politicians supported the Moral Majority's agenda, just as the Moral Majority endorsed the Republican Party. Encouraging free enterprise and reducing welfare programs constituted its economic objective, and enhancing America's military presence abroad was its foreign policy goal. Culturally, it worked to promote prayer in public schools, thwart the encroachment of 'big government' upon personal prerogative, and establish a clear bias against homosexuality and women's right to choose. Indeed, in a move rare for an incumbent, Reagan published an essay on 'Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation' in The Human Life Review in 1983. Reagan's outspoken stance is unsurprising considering his upbringing: his mother belonged to the Protestant Disciples of Christ church and Reagan received his Economics degree from Eureka College, a Disciples of Christ institution. Similarly conservative sentiments regarding the sanctity of the nuclear family and maintenance of conventional gender roles are now parroted by the likes of Bachmann.

Like the Moral Majority, the Tea Party began as a grassroots movement, hovering at the fringes of the GOP's matrices of power. It deploys its marginal status to articulate polarizing aspects of the Republican platform on the national stage, maintaining the Party's image of sober traditionalism among non-partisan voters. Autonomous organizations like the Moral Majority and, now, the Tea Party, act as test-beds while the GOP's establishment keep a safe distance from the controversy they stir up.

But surely Governor Walker's union busting represents a sinister new twist in the 'story' of the Republican Party since Reagan's time? Hardly. In 1947, as President of the Screen Actors Guild union, Reagan testified against purported Communists in Hollywood to the House Un-American Activities Committee following the Taft-Hartley Act of that same year, which limited workers' organizing rights and forced unionists to sign anti-Communist affidavits. As Governor of California, Reagan defeated two public sector strikes and as President, he crushed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), despite the fact that it was the only union to support his campaign in 1980.

Republicans are fighting tooth and nail towards what seems a Pyrrhic victory over the national debt issue. If a deal is not reached by 2 August, and the American government defaults on its loans, it will cut state funding and nation-wide social programs. What possible benefit would such an achievement hold for the GOP as it approaches election season? Despite the fact that Republican leaders have often raised the debt ceiling, the Party will spin the Obama government's capacity to borrow and spend as anti-American. Furthermore, the conflict clarifies distinctions between the parties for the non-partisan voter and it destabilizes Obama, who will be forced into huge concessions to satisfy the opposition and avoid a default. Despite the fact that the GOP's refusal to play ball has exacerbated the crisis, Republicans will use every 'shame and blame' tactic at their disposal to ensure that Democrats take the full hit.

In 1984, Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill identified the emergence of a 'right-wing agenda,' which has since moved from the margins to the center of Republican politics. Perhaps what we're now seeing through the debt crisis and Tea Party is not the lamentable future of American politics, but, rather, a return to the Reagan years with a vengeance. Given the Reagan legacy's enduring popularity, a timely invocation of his policies may be the GOP's ticket to electoral success. The antics of characters like Walker and Bachmann will galvanize the Party's true believers, while the debt showdown will enhance its reputation, deserved or otherwise, for fiscal responsibility.