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The death of ‘big-tent’ political parties

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus
Opinion
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It certainly seems as if there are plenty of people who don’t want anything to do with either major political party nowadays… However, it doesn’t really seem like the parties want anything to do with most of them either. 

Like checking the “I am not a robot” box when filling out an online form, Republican candidates are increasingly required to note their undying fealty to Donald Trump’s wing of the GOP as a requisite for moving forward in primary elections. Such a litmus test has resulted in some notable acts of capitulation from Republicans desperate for popularity among the base. Just last week, for example, Dean Heller—someone who was once self-described as “99 percent against Trump”—made it abundantly clear he is happy to toe the “Stop the Steal” party line.  

His aide told The Nevada Independent that “71 percent of Republicans in Nevada believe Biden is an illegitimate President and that [Heller] is part of that 71 percent.” Like Steve Buscemi donning a backwards hat and a skateboard in 30 Rock, Heller might as well begin his next fundraising email with “How do you do, fellow Trump fans?” 

Maybe Heller truly believes Biden was illegitimately elected—but it seems just as likely, given his positioning in the polls, that his campaign needs an infusion of enthusiasm to boost his prospects as the primary approaches. And what easier way to accomplish such a goal than throwing some red meat at a contingent of the Republican Party that is not only numerous, but also stunningly abusive to candidates who fail to demonstrate “enough” love for the former president

The way in which some of Trump’s most vociferous fans have grown hostile to Republicans who are less than enthusiastic about our 45th President has been a sight to behold in recent years. Perfectly reasonable conservatives have been pilloried for criticizing Trump, often being demoted from champions of conservatism to boogeymen of “the swamp.” Even the former vice president has earned the ire of such Trump loyalists for his refusal to overturn the election—something he rightly acknowledged would have been well beyond the limits of his constitutional power. 

However, while most of the attention has been on the GOP’s turmoil, the left has been coming to grips with its fair share of intolerant fanatics demanding ideological conformity within their party’s ranks. As Kevin Williamson rightly notes at National Review, the recent divide in the Democrat Party between progressives and moderates has left many partisan activists asking, “Are Democrats the party of Joe Manchin, or AOC?”… The clear implication being that it is, apparently, intolerable for Democrats to be the party of both. 

The predominant trend in politics is quite the reversal from the days of “big tent” politicking, where each party actively recruited as many electable candidates as possible… even if some of those candidates might occasionally betray certain aspects of the party platform. After all, the most urgent role of such organizations has, traditionally, not been about dictating ideological conformity—it used to be about building a big enough coalition of relatively like-minded individuals to win elections and govern with effective majorities. That’s why Bill Clinton moved to the middle in the 1990s and why George W. Bush focused on making the GOP a “big tent” in the run up to his reelection.

Today, however, the predominant voices in both parties seem far less interested in such inclusivity than they do in intellectual homogeny. By and large, partisans seem more concerned with defining political tribes not by the range of ideas included, but by those they self-righteously banish from consideration

And while such debates have raged as long as parties have existed (“RINO,” after all, is not a Republican pejorative unique to the era of Trump) the degree to which dissidents have been chased from their parties has certainly become more excessive. Just last week, for example, Republicans who dared to join the committee investigating the riot on January 6th were censured by their own party—and the abuse directed toward Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for frustrating progressive priorities has been relentless

The consequence of demanding such homogeneity in political parties has been predictable. We’re already seeing it with the swelling of unaffiliated voters in increasingly swingy states, such as Nevada. And while some of this rise in independents is undoubtedly due to the toxicity of both the GOP and Democrat brands, it seems likely much of it comes down to the fact that people simply don’t feel at home in political parties that demand unconditional loyalty. 

While the Trump GOP infighting might earn more clicks and media attention, Democrats would be foolish to pretend they aren’t dealing with similar struggles. Since late 2021, more Democratic voters have fled the party than GOP voters have left theirs in Nevada, and they’re clearly having trouble recruiting the more moderate middle. Those are concerning trends for Silver State Dems as their deeply unpopular President risks fueling a possible “red wave” election year. 

Nonetheless, the Nevada GOP remains in third place behind Democrats and non-major party voters, and current polling shows incumbent Democrats leading (albeit, only marginally) in key races. For a party that so ardently insists on loyalty from its candidates to a deeply divisive and unpopular former president, those challenges merit serious analysis. Maintaining a Trump-loyalty litmus test for GOP candidates could very well keep Nevada from turning a slightly redder shade of purple this November. 

After all, successful politicking requires coalition building, not compulsory conformity—especially in a state where independents and unaffiliated voters outnumber major party registrations and people’s views on progressive and conservative causes are decidedly mixed. A few noted national and local Republicans seem to understand this truth—such as Mitch McConnell and Mark Amodei, who have both suggested the GOP “move on” from the divisive topic of 2020’s election. 

In normal political times, an eroding share of registered voters—not to mention the very real possibility of looming electoral losses—would encourage political leaders to reflect on the soul of their party and work to expand its appeal rather than further narrow the definition of what it means to be a “good” Democrat or Republican. Of course, this isn’t exactly normal political times. 

And so, the attempted exorcism of “non-believers” will likely continue unabated within both major political parties. After all, ideological conformity is far more rewarding to outraged partisans than actually winning elections, right? 

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding consultant based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He is the former communications director for Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary as a columnist, political humorist, and radio talk show host. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.

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