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.