big tent

big tent

In politics, a big tent refers to an inclusive party which encourages a wide swathe of people to become members. The opposite of “big tent” would be a party which is narrowly focused on only a few issues, or which caters to a particular interest group.

Merriam Webster notes that the expression was first used in its current, political sense in 1975. Big-tent can also be used as an adjective.

The benefits of having a big tent are obvious. A big-tent party can amass support from a huge range of voters. It isn’t beholden to any one group, since it has a broad base of support. Losing one group of voters doesn’t spell its political end.

Having a big tent liberates  a party from the need for a “litmus test” or an ideological “purity test,” as Barack Obama pointed out during the 2019 primary season. Speaking to a group of Democratic donors in California, Obama warned against limiting the reach of the party. “We will not win just by increasing the turnout of the people who already agree with us completely on everything,” Obama said. “Which is why I am always suspicious of purity tests during elections. Because, you know what, the country is complicated.”

On the other hand, some politicians argue that having a big tent means that a party can lack focus. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a Democratic-Socialist member of Congress from New York, has sometimes criticized the Democratic party for being too inclusive.

In January of 2020, Ocasio Cortez grumbled to New York Magazine that “Democrats can be too big of a tent.” She complained that even the term “progressive” had been watered down and had lost its meaning. The Congressional Progressive Caucus should impose some kind of rules about who could join, Ocasio Cortez said, but instead “they let anybody who the cat dragged in call themselves a progressive. There’s no standard.”

It can be hard for pundits to agree on the practical definition of “big tent.” Is the Republican party a big tent party right now? Journalists periodically get excited about the Republican Party’s growing tent, especially when the party appears to veer away from social conservatism. In 2003, the New York Times wrote that the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California was a sign that the party was, indeed, opening up. Citing the long-time Republican consultant Frank Luntz, the Times wrote that

A Schwarzenegger victory would send a strong message that the Republican Party is a tent big enough to include a pro-abortion, pro-gay rights Hollywood superstar who has acknowledged manhandling women and smoking marijuana.

In 2016 Mitchell Blatt, writing in The Federalist, argued that the GOP is indeed the “real” big tent party; Blatt pointed to the fact that the Republican presidential candidates talked about socialized healthcare and the decriminalization of drugs. He saw this as an indication that the party was expanding into new territory. However, NPR has argued that the Republicans’ big tent is “lily white,” which ultimately limits just how big-tent the party can truly be.


Democrats In Name Only (DINO) is a disparaging term that refers to a Democratic candidate whose political views are seen as insufficiently conforming to the party line.

boll weevil Democrat

A Boll weevil Democrat was a conservative southern Democrat in the mid 1900s, largely known for his opposition to civil rights. They used the term because the boll weevil, a southern pest, could not be eliminated by pesticides – politicians therefore thought of them as a symbol of tenacity.

The term fell out of use in the 1980s, and conservative Democrats are now known as Blue Dogs.


Shivercrats were a conservative faction of the Texas Democratic Party in the 1950s named for Texas Gov. Allan Shivers (D).

The term was first used in 1952 after Shivers backed Republican Dwight Eisenhower for president over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

Interestingly, Lyndon B. Johnson initially aligned himself with the Shivercrats as a U.S. Senator but increasingly sided with liberals on domestic policy after becoming president in 1963. Most of the Shivercrats ended up leaving the Democratic party as the liberal-moderate faction took control of the state party after 1970.


The Copperheads were Northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War and wanted a peace settlement with the Confederates.

Republicans started calling them Copperheads, likening them to the poisonous snake. Interestingly, they accepted the label but because the copperhead to them was the likeness of Liberty, which they cut from copper pennies and proudly wore as badges.

Perhaps the most famous Copperhead was Ohio’s Clement L. Vallandigham. Many counties in Ohio and Indiana continued to exist as a kind of solid south in exile for years along the Ohio River.

convention bounce

A convention bounce refers to the surge of support a presidential candidates may enjoy after the televised national convention of their party.

The size and impact of a convention bounce is sometimes seen as an early indicator of party unity.

Blue Dog Democrats

The Blue Dog Democrats are a coalition of moderate House Democrats. The group is dedicated to fiscally conservative legislation and a strong national defense. They present themselves as the “commonsense” alternative to political extremism.

When the blue dog coalition was first formed, in 1995, their main issue was calling for a balanced budget. The group has also worked on legislation to reduce the national debt and to reform the welfare system.

The founding members of the blue dog Democrats complained that they had been “choked blue” by extremist politicians on both sides of the aisle. They took their name from that expression. The group was also inspired by the famous “blue dog” paintings of the Cajun artist George Rodrigue. Blue dog Democrats also say they based their name on “the long-time tradition of referring to a strong Democratic Party supporter as being a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” who would have ‘sooner voted for a yellow dog than a Republican.’”

In 2009, Blue Dog Democrats held 54 seats in Congress, representing 21 percent of Democratic presence in the House. Support for the Blue Dog coalition fell dramatically in 2010, though, as politics became more polarized. Voters preferred to send more strongly partisan representatives to the House, and it became difficult for centrist politicians to hold their seats in Congress. The spread of the Tea Party also hurt Blue Dog Democrats.

In recent years, the coalition has experienced a resurgence, hiring a communications director and planning a nation-wide strategy. Many pundits say that this resurgence is due to the election of Donald Trump, which, they say, has created much greater interest in moderate and centrist Democratic candidates. In 2017, the Blue Dog coalition systematically endorsed candidates running in districts where President Trump won in 2016. They also stepped up their fundraising activities. At the urging of some members, the group stopped accepting donations from the NRA.

As of 2020, roughly two dozen congressional Democrats claimed membership in the Blue Dog coalition. Members of the coalition say that the Blue Dogs have changed since the group was founded over two decades ago. While the Blue Dogs used to be made up of white men, the group now includes women and is racially diverse. And, while Blue Dogs originally came mainly from southern states, the current coalition includes lawmakers from the Midwest, the northeast, and the western states.

At the same time, the Blue Dog coalition faces competition from the New Democrat Coalition, another group of centrist Democrats. The New Democrat Coalition currently has 61 members and holds a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives.

The Blue Dog Democrats continue to push for fiscally conservative policies. In a response to President Trump’s proposed 2020 budget, the group lamented that the country faces a $1 trillion annual deficit and that, as they put it, “a lack of fiscal discipline is forcing us to pay more on interest incurred on the national debt than we spend on our kids.”

Yellow Dog Democrat

A yellow dog Democrat was a Southern voter who was unwavering in their loyalty to the Democratic party. Those faithful Democrats swore that they would “vote for a yellow dog” before they’d vote for a Republican.

According to William Safire, the term was first used in 1928. That’s when a New York Democrat named Al Smith was running for president. Many Southern Democrats disapproved of Smith, who was a “wet,” or anti-prohibitionist. Alabama Sen. Tom Heflin went so far as to leave the Democratic party because he didn’t want to support Smith. Other Alabama Democrats, though, declared their loyalty to the party by saying, “I’d vote for a yellow dog if he ran on the Democratic ticket.””””

The term is largely out of use now. It refers to a time when the Democratic party dominated not only Alabama, but the whole American South. It also dates back to a time when Democratic policies were strikingly different than they are today.

During the lead-up to the Civil War, Southern Democrats called for slavery to remain legal throughout the United States. Meanwhile the new Republican party began calling for limits on slaveholding.

After the Civil War, the Democratic Party established a strong presence in the southern states. Democratic politicians at the time were overwhelmingly conservative and white. They opposed laws that would have protected the civil and voting rights of African Americans. State legislatures in the south imposed Jim Crow segregation laws and made it difficult for African Americans to vote.

Democrats maintained control of the South well into the 20th century. Southern Democrats largely supported the New Deal, although they did try to stop the spread of the labor movement and in some cases opposed the growth of Federal power, arguing for states’ rights. They also blocked the passage of an anti-lynching. Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, the South remained solidly Democratic territory.

The Democratic party finally started to lose power in the South in 1948. That’s when the Democratic National Convention supported President Harry Truman’s stance on civil rights for African Americans. Many Southern Democrats left the party in anger. They determined to nominate Strom Thurmond as their alternative candidate, under the banner of the States’ Rights Democratic Party.

Even after that, Democrats did hold on to local seats in the South and continued to play a major role in shaping local laws. The party’s power in the region shrank little by little over the years, slowly. The party finally took a major hit with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Finally, in 1964, the Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater won a sweeping victory across the Deep South. Goldwater was a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Act and a supporter of states’ rights. His candidacy is often seen as a turning point in American politics. It drove African American voters to leave the Republican party, and it drove many white southern voters away from the Democratic party.