Is it Time to Restore Big Tent Politics?

Big Tent Wikimedia Commons

Another illustration of the definition of insanity:  recently the Washington Post published a story on how many voters and party officials in both parties seem to think more party purity would help.  Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  In times of strained checks and balances, trying for more party purity is the wrong way to go.  Maybe it is time to restore big tent politics.

Some time ago, the two major political parties began to stop courting moderates. One party became more conservative and the other more liberal.  Many moderate voters, feeling ignored, accelerated the process, and abandoned the major parties.  Last year, according to a Pew Research Center study, 37 percent of all voters did not choose a party affiliation, up from 30 percent in 1994.

As political sorting deepened, we began to see more and more gridlock in Congress. It’s not hard to figure out why:  as the two parties became more polarized, a win by one side felt much more like a serious loss by the other side.  The political stakes became more dire especially because the two parties are becoming polarized by race and by urban/rural differences.  The media are adding to the problem by portraying the whole thing as an emotional fight between rival teams.

Polarization tempts cheating.  If a candidate or party cannot win an election on the strength of their ideas (and 37 percent of us are not convinced by their ideas), then there is a strong temptation to try to win by cheating:  voter suppression, gerrymandered election districts, and attempts to manipulate media ownership.  Every time this happens, the bedrock of representative democracy is undermined a little bit more.

To repeat, polarization tempts cheating. In the US federal system, a party cannot be sure of enacting its agenda unless it controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. As polarization deepens, voters begin to protect against ideological domination by increasingly electing congresses dominated by the party opposite to the president’s own party.  Or, failing that, the party in opposition will try to obstruct all meaningful change.  Either way, the result is frustrating gridlock.  This tempts cheaters:  one party refuses to cooperate with the other on anything, one party changes voting rules in its favor, presidents sabotage bills they don’t like by using signing statements to justify not enforcing them, and presidents use executive orders to take action when Congress will not. Every time this happens, the foundation of representative democracy is weakened still more.

The magic of democracy is its inclusive competitiveness.  Shunning people from your tent because they don’t meet purity standards is not a good strategy.  Tents do need to be strongly anchored, but the way to accommodate more people is to build bigger tents.

  • Legislators – get outside and listen to what’s on people’s minds. Go for big tent politics.  Look for ideas that will attract the missing 37 percent of us who feel ignored.  Be willing to work with voters who haven’t been well represented in your party: find out why they have been missing and figure out how to accommodate them.
  • Media owners – your freedom is tied to the strength of the democracy that you operate within. You can encourage politicians to pitch bigger tents by dropping politics as sports and instead explore which politicians and citizens have the best problem-solving ideas.

This is bigger than just winning and losing: its about preserving our democracy.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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