Small Tent or Big Tent?

Why political parties are missing the larger picture

An analogy used to describe the extent to which a political party is exclusive or inclusive is whether or not it is a “big tent” or a “small tent.” This analogy is most commonly employed in reference to the Republican Party. In essence, the terms “big tent” and “small tent” are used to describe the width and depth of a party’s political appeal.

When the Republican Party is said to be a “small tent,” the intimation is that the political positions it holds represent too narrow a segment of the voting public. Frequently this accusation is accompanied by a list of issues upon which the party supposedly needs to change its policy position.

How often these suggested changes are the result of analysis is questionable. Sometimes polling is cited to support making the policy changes. The idea of standing up for principle is almost never cited and those recommending the changes virtually always oppose the positions they recommend be changed.

No doubt, the Republican Party too easily slips into presenting itself too narrowly. To varying degrees it does so most of the time — and suffers for doing so at the ballot box. However, despite claims to the contrary, the GOP does not fall into the “small tent” trap when it refuses to adopt positions held by its opponents. It does so again and again when it represents business and management at the expense of freedom and liberty.

Arguably the same observation could be applied to the Democratic Party; when it subordinates freedom and liberty to unionism.

As both major political parties fail to fully embrace freedom and liberty, the power struggle between them devolves to contests of short-term populism, misinformation campaigns and rhetorical prowess. Under these circumstances the open path to the “big tent,” which the advancement of freedom and liberty offers, becomes a nearly abandoned road.

If its quest is to become a “big tent” party, the GOP must stand with freedom and liberty, even when adopting such positions collides with the immediate interests of business and management. To do otherwise means losing all claims of representing anything more than a limited, though powerful, strata of society. And is there any doubt that this narrower vision of the Republican Party is the image it maintains with large portions of the voting public today?

Think of how often Republican candidates and officials sound as though they believed every voter owned a businesses. Time and again, Republicans mistakenly use issues that are primarily attractive to the business community as if the issues had more general appeal.

Of course, creating conditions under which businesses and the economy can thrive is vital. But in and of itself the message falls far short of what it could be and opens the door to all of the traditional disagreements between labor and management.

Couple that better economy and jobs message with a dedication to real reforms that bring about more freedom and liberty and its potential positive impact increases exponentially. This is not a combination that will appeal only to conservatives. If, and only if, freedom and liberty are placed on the first rank — above all other considerations — does the message call to the full spectrum of voters.

Contrary to what many believe, liberals in general do not love government. They simply distrust and fear other entities and conditions in the world and see government as their primary protector against those elements. Conservatives distrust and fear the same entities and conditions but believe giving more power government will likely make matters worse.

Liberty and freedom are concepts that transcend these differing perspectives.

Based on recent polling, neither major political party in this nation can, with a straight face, claim to have a “big tent” appeal. For years polling has shown that voters tend to want smaller government and to see government more as a problem than as a solution. Make no mistake about it; both of these sentiments are joined at the hip with the fear of freedom and liberty diminishing.

Theoretically this should be an advantage for Republicans. But in recent years it has been an advantage Republicans love to speak to but very rarely deliver on.

The more the game of politics comes down to Republicans representing business and the Democrats representing labor, the more the debate becomes pedantic. It’s too often “our” special interests versus “their” special interests. Each side strives to turn out its base and key elections are decided by voters in the middle who see little virtue on either side. Meanwhile, in a political sense, the eternal and potential “big tent” producing issues — freedom and liberty — remain available and up for grabs.

(Editor’s note: Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential and a veteran Lansing-based journalist. His columns do not necessarily represent viewpoints of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy or Michigan Capitol Confidential.)