The Problem with the Big Tent

Out of the tumult and chaos of the 2016 election cycle, there emerges a painfully clear lesson: the Republican Party is a house divided against itself. For proof of this, consider only that 17 candidates vied for the Party nomination—enough to warrant “secondary debates”—with 12 of them having enough support to participate in at least two debates. The primary fight dragged on for months as three candidates duked it out. Most telling of all, the #NeverTrump movement threatened to seriously split the Republican vote, and support for not one but two conservative third-party candidates proper grew large enough to gain substantial media coverage and nontrivial support at the ballot box.

As usual, the candidates focused on the minutia of hot-button policy questions, attacked their rivals’ records while alternately touting and defending their own, and engaged in ever-escalating personal mudslinging. All the while they universally employed a “big tent” strategy; that is, they tried to appeal to the widest possible audience, using tactics ranging from choosing their words carefully, to softening their policy positions, to outright pandering.

At first glance this might seem innocuous enough—after all, Republican nominee Donald Trump won the general. However, he is not a conventional conservative; his ideology is better described as populism with conservative sympathies. Thus his victory can only with difficulty be counted as a conservative triumph. Moreover, it was the quintessential squeaker, and although conservatives rightly defend the legitimacy of the Electoral College when this is brought up, Trump did lose the popular vote. At the same time, according to data from Michael McDonald of the United States Elections Project, a measly 56 percent of the electorate cast votes for president in November. Trump won less because conservatives were energized by his campaign than because Sec. Clinton’s base happened to be less energized.

And therein lies the problem. Nearly half of all Americans are either indifferent towards or fed up with politics, and the Republican Party has failed to engage them. The cause is simple to understand: Republicans have given them no reason to care about conservatism. That is, no one, conservatives included, can say concisely, certainly, and precisely what “conservatism” stands for. Because the conservative movement lacks a clear mission and message, it is nearly impossible to encourage enthusiasm for it.  

That many Republicans should seek the party nomination in any given election does not, in itself, lead to this problem of lacking a clear message. It could happen some year that many run, but all are largely consistent in their values, policy positions, etc. In such a case the primary would be decided by the candidates’ comparative charisma and perceived leadership ability. This, however, is not what happened in 2016. Instead, we saw nearly 20 candidates who bitterly disagreed with each other. Their leadership abilities were not up for serious debate; such were scarcely mentioned except as tools for mudslinging.

The battle for the nomination was fundamentally a battle over what conservatism is and ought to be. Three main camps participated in the struggle: first, the new populists represented by Trump; second, the old Tea Party movement exemplified by Sen. Cruz, Sen. Rubio, and Dr. Carson (though it no longer referred to itself as such); and finally, the so-called establishment personified by Gov. Bush and Gov. Kasich. Each of these factions has a comparably strong claim to represent genuine conservatism. The populists indeed won the nomination, and can point for validation to their plurality support in the primaries. The old-guard establishment insists that its two new rivals are but pseudo-conservative innovations deceptively coopting the conservative name. Lastly, the Tea Partiers can contrast their record of dedication to both principle and action with the populists’ amorphous, noncommittal ideology and the establishment’s prioritization of politicking over statesmanship.

One might propose that the variety of opinion within the Republican Party, and conservatism in general, is a strength; that by pitching a “big tent”, moderates and disaffected progressivists might more easily join the conservative movement, thus allowing it to gain or maintain traction and survive in the long run. Such is well within mainstream conservative opinion. Indeed, Liam O’Connor ’20 articulates the argument for it quite well within this very issue of the Tory.

However, such reasoning fails for two closely connected reasons. First, big-tentism alienates the more stringently conservative base of the Republican Party. Attempting to include positions and values deeply contrary to theirs only encourages them to defect to more traditionally minded third parties, or discourages them from voting at all. Second, it fails to address the sense that conservatism does not stand for anything and the resultant widespread apathy towards the movement.

In the words of leadership analyst and author Simon Sinek (cited by Mr. O’Connor, in fact), “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Sinek was speaking of sales in the marketplace, but the same principle applies here. If the conservative movement is to survive in the long term, it needs sell the American people on the Why? Put another way, the movement needs to reform itself, by clearly and consistently articulating its philosophical and theoretical underpinnings. To do this, conservatives must first dig down to axiomatic bedrock, and use it as a foundation to build up a unified ideology. We cannot attempt to market several opposing worldviews as complementary without eliciting some combination of confusion, ridicule, and increased apathy. This is precisely where we see the second failure of big-tentism: the various camps under the tent, drilling separately, may each hit bedrock, but their mutual opposition isolates their foundations, thwarting any effort at presenting a coherent narrative to a skeptical audience. Discontented progressivists may be persuaded to cross the aisle in small numbers, but the big tent lacks the universal message it needs to persuade effectively.

Indeed, it even seems to me that the term conservatism is a poor label for what conservatism ought to be. By adopting big-tentism, conservatism has been allowed to degenerate into pseudo-conservatism, an ideology essentially the same as contemporary progressivism: embracing of every ideology and policy position whose inclusion is politically expedient. When progressivists use this approach, they end up supporting such mutually contradictory positions as feminism (third-wave or otherwise) and gender theory: the first claims to promote women’s rights, while the second asserts that women are only subjectively distinguished from men. When this approach is used on the right, it produces much the same result: in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, for example, it has become increasingly acceptable among conservatives to treat the legalization of same-sex marriage as “settled law”, and therefore to acquiesce.

The sad result of this is that the word conservatism does not represent a set of principles and ideals, even in an abstract, unspecified sense. It does not even represent a range of opinions that fall within certain consistent boundaries—that is, the shape of the big tent is always subject to change. Rather, it has come to represent progressivism in slow motion. The conservative movement, having adopted big-tent pseudo-conservatism, will generally resist progressivist impulses for a time. Too often, however, when it becomes expedient to do so—a lost case in the Supreme Court, a progressivist bill passed in Congress—pseudo-conservatism will stretch its limits to accommodate progressivism. In short, pseudo-conservatism will defend the status quo, but will only rarely return to first principles to defend the status quo ante.

Rather than attempt to rehabilitate the name conservatism, I propose the adoption of a new label for the reformed conservatism I have described above. (Note that I do not attempt to sketch its philosophy or policy positions. Those are matters of political theory and public policy considerations beyond the scope of this article.) Those conservatives who appear to me to most closely fit the vision of a philosophically consistent and articulate ideology often describe themselves, their mores, and the institutions they value as “traditional”. Considering also that conservatism ought to be “handed down” unchanged, built on the same axiomatic foundation regardless of the times, it seems appropriate that the label traditionalism take up the conservative mantle.

Two main benefits of a new name become immediately clear. First is that it would facilitate the rebranding of conservatism. The power of preconceived notions of “conservatism” to drive people away from the movement would be lessened, and the message could be presented to the public afresh. Second is that the traditionalists would have the power to define precisely what their new movement stands for—notwithstanding any media bias, whether from the left or the right—and to do so without watering down their message by adopting big-tentism.

One potential drawback of this particular name is precisely the media bias, as well as individual bias, that I just assumed away. “Tradition” could be interpreted as backwards-looking, and thus suffer knee-jerk mischaracterizations such as “patriarchal”, “racist”, etc. However, if in promoting traditionalism it were made abundantly clear that it is a new tradition whose commitments are to reason and consistency rather than nostalgia and reactionism, this problem might be avoided. The modification new traditionalism could be expedient in this regard.

In any case, would-be traditionalists ought to prioritize the more important goal of the elimination of big-tentism; the usefulness of the new name rests not on the particular choice of moniker, but on creating distance from the now-polluted term conservatism. Most importantly, for a renaming to be worthwhile, it must occur in concert with the task of reforming conservatism. This in turn must be undertaken by the conservative movement as a whole in order to accomplish its objective. To adopt a new name without effecting the requisite reform would be merely to become another faction under the big tent, and a self-defeating faction at that.

 

Matthew Penza is a sophomore from New Fairfield, Connecticut, majoring in the Computer Science Department. He can be reached at mpenza@princeton.edu.

 

Weblinks:

“data”: Waldman, Paul. “Why Did Trump Win? In Part Because Voter Turnout Plunged.” The Washington Post. 10 Nov. 2016. Web. 25 Mar. 2017. <http://tinyurl.com/trump-turnout-wapo>.

“Simon Sinek”: Sinek, Simon O. “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” TEDx Puget Sound. Newcastle, Wyoming. 16 Sept. 2009. TED. Web. 25 Mar. 2017. <http://tinyurl.com/sinek-tedx-inspire>.

 

Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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