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.
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. 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.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) 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.
Use of “Big Tent” in a sentence
- The “big tent” philosophy of the political party allowed for a broad coalition of supporters, encompassing a wide range of ideologies and viewpoints, and was credited with the party’s success in the national election.
- Critics of the “big tent” approach argue that it can lead to a lack of cohesion and clear messaging within a political party, as the attempt to appease various factions might result in compromised principles or diluted policies.
- The party leader’s “big tent” strategy, aimed at building alliances with diverse interest groups, led to groundbreaking legislation that satisfied a majority of stakeholders, showcasing the potential effectiveness of inclusive politics.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.