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Big Tents and Ideological Purity

The United States, like almost all English-speaking countries, has a two-party political system. That means we have big-tent parties, with a variety of competing political strains under each of the two tents. In other countries, such as Italy and Israel, they have small-tent parties, far more ideologically unified and, indeed, often based on a single political idea. Because the small-tent political system seldom if ever produces a parliamentary majority, the parties must broker a deal to become part of the governing coalition.

In other words, in English-speaking countries, political negotiation takes place before the election while in small-tent countries it takes place afterwards. The very names of the two mainstream American political parties—the Democrats and the Republicans—bespeak their big-tent nature. After all, all Americans not on the lunatic fringe advocate both democracy and a republican form of government. The two parties might just as well be called the Red and the Blue parties.

The recent CPAC conference certainly displayed a variety of political opinions under the Republican tent, from Rick Perry’s clarion call to unleash the genius of American enterprise, to Chris Christie’s moderate approach, to Rick Santorum’s down-the-line social conservatism, to Rand Paul’s libertarian concern with civil liberties and distaste for foreign entanglements.

They are all legitimate concerns for the right half of American politics. And it’s perfectly legitimate for the various factions to fight for their points of view. But it’s important for Republicans to remember that they belong to a big-tent party, not an ideologically pure one. To anathematize other Republicans in the name of one’s own view of “true conservatism” is, at best, politically stupid. You don’t win elections in this country by seeking to make your own tent smaller. To quote Lyndon Johnson’s famous reason for not firing J. Edgar Hoover—spoken with typical Johnsonian delicacy of phrase—it’s better to “have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.”

In their own self-interest, all Republicans should vow to obey Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican. They need the biggest possible tent to win in 2014 and, especially, in 2016.



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