Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who's Afraid of the Big Tent?

John Avalon has a great piece up at David Frum's New Majority website about how the GOP can win in New England again. He notes that before the Bush-era there were still an favorable number of Republicans holding office in New England and now there are none (two if you include New York State.)

One of his tips that the party has to become a Big Tent party:

Somehow Republicans have lost common ground – Reagan invoked the Big Tent constantly as a way of collecting libertarian conservatives, national security conservatives, economic conservatives and social conservatives under one banner. But the spirit of outreach and inclusiveness has been drummed out of the GOP – disagreement is seen as disloyalty, and the search for heretics has become a hobby. Libertarians are losing any logical reason to affiliate with the GOP, while centrist Republicans are seen as suspect almost by definition. When Senators like Olympia Snowe or John McCain win re-election with over 70% of the vote, they are considered sell-outs rather than successes. I’ve debated conservatives on TV who were rooting for Norm Coleman to lose, because they considered him insufficiently conservative. This road leads not just to political disaster, but party suicide. Republicans who have won statewide in the Northeast tend to be centrist on social issues, especially on a woman’s right to chose and gay civil rights. Republicans must welcome social moderates into the big tent of the GOP, focus on finding common ground and not treat them as second class citizens. Remember: In a place where everyone thinks alike, nobody is thinking very much.

This is something that I have long advocated. There are many flavors of Republicans, but for some reason many conservatives think there is only one way to be conservative. Social conservatives look down on those of us who happen to be pro-choice even though we tend to do so on completely conservative grounds.

So, what is it about some in the GOP to be so afraid of the Big Tent? What is so scary about facing a person that might not exactly have the same conservatism that you do? Why has the party so drifted from Ronald Reagan's message of forging alliances with those who agree with you 80 percent of the time?

I don't have an easy answer, only a guess. As religion played more and more a role in the GOP, the party itself has become more rigid. If the lines between religion and politics blur, the party becomes less open to ideas that are seemed as sinful in religious circles.

Take gay rights. There are many African Americans that have issues with gay marriage. African Americans also tend to be an important aspect of the liberal coalition. However, Democratic politicians who do support gay marriage don't fear being treated as not "Democratic enough" because religion doesn't play as big a role in the Democatic Party as it does the GOP. In the modern Republican party, there are many who see gay marriage and homosexuality itself as a sin and want that expressed in national policy. They also believe that it should be expressed in the party platform and made a tenet of conservatism. So, if you are a conservative who happens to believe gays should be tolerated in society and should have the right to marry, you are not only going against religious teaching, but because church and state are blurred in the GOP, you are then deemed not a true conservative.

Which is why, I believe, that many social conservatives are afraid of the Big Tent. If you admit people who support gay rights, or abortion rights into the party, you are admitting those who support sinful practices and there taint the party. This is why the Kathleen Parkers of the world have called for the GOP to not be so identified with religion. Someone like a Joe Carter have interpreted that to mean that social conservatives should be kicked out of the GOP. That's nonsense. Nor do we want to silence those who have a faith. But the fact is that social conservatives have kept power in the party to the exclusion of anyone else that tends to believe in small government or low taxes but have a more socially moderate views. But in their eyes adhering to those bedrock coservative ideas don't not matter; God doesn't get upset with wanting big government, but would- in their eyes- if you treat gays like human beings and not as someone that committed a sin.

Which is why in the end, I believe that if we want to have a viable GOP that follows a Big Tent Conservatism, it will have to come from the margins and not from the powerbrokers. The social conservatives are too strong, and the powerbrokers are too beholden to the social conservatives to make room for other flavors of conservativism. If we want to see more Republicans running and winning seats in areas like New England, it has to come from insurgents who are willing to buck the established order and bring about a more tolerant and open Republican party.

Will it happen? It all depends on the outsiders being able to raise hell.

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