Time to Restore Big Tent Politics

Insanity:  doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Last year, the Washington Post published a story on how many voters and party officials in both parties seem to think more party purity would help.  The same thinking appears evident in 2019 as potential candidates jockey for position in the races for 2020.    In times that strain our system of checks and balances, trying for more party purity – meaning moving the two major parties even further apart – is the wrong way to go.  Instead, it is time to restore big tent politics. 

Some time ago, the two major political parties stopped courting moderates. One party became more conservative and the other more liberal.  Many moderate voters, feeling unpersuaded or ignored, accelerated the process, by abandoning the major parties.  According to Pew Research Center data for early 2018, 40.5 percent of all voters did not identify themselves with any political party, up from 30.5 percent in 1990.  Of these, 30 percent of the voters were leaning towards one of the major parties, even if they couldn’t fully embrace one or the other, while 10.5 percent were indifferent, with no leaning and no preference.

Calculated from data from the Pew Research Center

As political sorting deepened, gridlock in Congress increased. 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 such divisions as emotional wars between rival groups.

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, disinformation campaigns, 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 or emergency orders to take action when Congress will not. Every time these things happen, the foundation of representative democracy is weakened still more.

The magic of democracy comes from 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 win (find more people who will vote for you) is to build a bigger tent.

  • Legislators and party leaders – get outside and listen to what’s on people’s minds.  Go for big tent politics.  Look for ideas that will attract the missing 40.5 percent of us who feel ignored or unpersuaded.  There are low-hanging fruit:  30 percent of voters lean towards one major party or the other.  Can you claim us back?  Harder, but still available are the remaining 10.5 percent who don’t lean towards any party and/or have no preferences at all.  Find out why these people have gone missing and figure out how to accommodate them. 
  • Media owners and reportersyour 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 war, 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. 

This is an updated version of a blog post that first appeared in April of 2018.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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