Big tent

Big tent

In politics, a big tent party or catch-all party is a political party seeking to attract people with diverse viewpoints. The party does not require adherence to some ideology as a criterion for membership.


The big tent approach argues against any sort of single-issue litmus tests or ideological rigidity, and advocates multiple ideologies and views within a party.

This is in contrast to political parties that promote only a specific ideology. Advocates of a big tent believe that people with a broad variety of political ideologies and viewpoints can unite within a single party to advance shared core issues they agree on, even if they disagree on other issues. This way the party can attract a large base of support at the polls. Big tent parties are far more common in first past the post systems with only a few large parties.


In the United States, a very good example of this approach was the New Deal coalition which formed in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies. This coalition brought together labor unions, southern Dixiecrats, progressives, and others in support of FDR's economic program, even though these groups strongly disagreed on other issues.

In Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada is not strongly ideological or regional, but is instead open to members with a wide range of views. While some criticize the party for lacking in conviction, supporters argue that compromise is an essential feature of democracy.

The Democratic Party in the United States has liberal and progressive, moderate, and conservative wings, though the liberal and moderate wings are larger than the conservative wing. While some state Republican Parties have moderate or liberal elements, such as the Vermont Republican Party, the national Republican Party is almost entirely dominated by conservatives.

Other famous examples of "catch all" parties include the Republic of Ireland's Fianna Fáil, which has variously been categorised as "socialist" (according to former deputy leader Brian Lenihan)fact|date=February 2008 and "neo-Thatcherite/neo-Reaganite", a description applied to the economic policies and politics of current Minister for Finance Charles McCreevy. The party originated from a 1922 split in the nationalist Sinn Féin party, not on any ideological grounds but on whetehr or not to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Personality politics and semi-tribal loyalty of voters continued to define its rivialry with Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil served in the coalition from 1989 to 1992 with the right wing liberal Progressive Democrats, then with the socialist Labour Party and is again in government with the Progressive Democrats, Fianna Fáil tailoring its policies accordingly. After the 2007 Irish General Election campaign, Fianna Fáil formed a coalition with the right-wing Progressive Democrats, the left-wing Green Party and four independent TDs (MPs).

The Indian National Congress and Italy's now defunct Christian Democrats both attracted such a broad range of support as to make them "Catch all" parties. In India, this is called "Tamboo mein Bamboo".

When Gordon Brown became British Prime Minister in 2007, he invited several members from outside the Labour Party in to his government. These included former CBI Director-General Digby Jones who became a Minister of State, and former Liberal Democrats leader Paddy Ashdown who was offered the position of Northern Ireland Secretary (Ashdown turned down the offer). [cite news
author =
title = In full: Brown's government
url =
work = BBC News
date = 29 June 2007
] [cite news
author =
title = The fallout from Brown's job offer
url =
work = BBC News
date = 21 June 2007
] The media often refer to Brown's Ministry as "a government of all the talents" or simply "Brown's big tent". [cite news
author =
title = First 100 days: Gordon Brown
url =
work = BBC News
date = 5 October 2007

Ideological parties actually 'big tent'?

In most western democracies, two or three major political parties profess some sort of ideological leaning (for example, social democracy, Christian democracy, liberal democracy, conservative, labour) but in practice follow a big tent approach. Political parties which allow only a narrow ideology, in general do not perform well at the polls and so remain minor parties. Canada provides two examples of how the adoption of a big tent approach has helped propel a formerly marginal party into broader electoral success, in the Green Party of Ontario and the (now-defunct) Social Credit Party of Canada. In the United States, the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party had its only electoral success to date by allowing a popular figure who did not support the party's secessionist agenda to run for Governor of Alaska on their ballot line.

In the United States, the big tent concept is practiced today within the Democratic Party and the Reform Party. This is in contrast to such political parties as the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party, the Socialist Party, and various small Communist parties, which seek to advance a single ideology. Historically in the United States, political parties adopting a big tent approach have performed well at the polls. Parties promoting only one narrow ideology have attracted marginal support at best, or have seen their issues adopted by one or both of the major parties in a big tent effort, effectively co-opting the issues and putting an end to the minor party; this happened to the Prohibition Party and the Populist Party.

However even the Democratic and Reform parties have vocal factions which advocate that those parties take on a more ideologically rigid character. There are factions in the Democratic Party which would like to make the party purely left-wing or progressive, excluding more conservative constituencies such as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Blue Dog Democrats, and social conservatives. Though not a big tent party, there are a few, mostly state-level elected Republicans who disagree with party leaders George W. Bush and John McCain on one or more social, political, or economic issue. They may be socially liberal like Washington, DC city councilmember Carol Schwartz, support non-interventionist foreign policy like Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, or support a reduced role of the federal government, like Texas Representative Ron Paul. Others, like Mitt Romney when he was Governor of Massachusetts, disagree with George W. Bush and John McCain in multiple areas, including taxation and government-provided healthcare. In 2001, John McCain was one of two Republicans to vote against the Bush tax cuts, though he started supporting them during Bush's second term. Former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, the other Republican who voted against Bush's tax cuts in 2001, was one of two Republican Senators to vote against the Iraq War resolution.

There are also those within each party who would like to make certain issues litmus tests for party membership even though there is substantial disagreement on those issues within the parties themselves. Abortion and gun policy are two examples. For example, it is speculated that Bill Clinton did not want Robert P. Casey to speak at the Democratic National Convention in 1992 because of Casey's opposition to abortion ("see 1992 Democratic National Convention#Casey Controversy").

The Libertarian Party of the United States, following the 1974 Dallas Accord, embraced the big tent idea by seeking to make the party a home for supporters of both anarcho-capitalism and minarchism.

The effects of a move towards 'big tent' politics

When a party that is motivated by ideology begins a shift to a "catch-all" or "big tent" party, it's usually marked by a move to the center of the political spectrum and a very flexible and pragmatic platform. Many believe this is a powerful way to make a party more popular, as it no longer limits itself to a specific ideological sector of the population. Opponents of this tactic argue that this alienates the ideological bases of a party. In the United States, for example, some members of the Democratic Party argue that the party should become a more centrist party, such as the DLC. More left-leaning members wish the party to remain a pure center-left party, to balance out the Republican Party, an ideologically solid right-wing party.

Not surprisingly, when a country's major parties become catch-all parties, this usually leads to the rise in popularity and support for more ideologically extreme parties. For example, in the UK, as the Labour party has moved to the center and turned less ideologically pure, the Liberal Democrat Party has risen in popularity, often being to the left of Labour on social issues. In the United States, many Democrats fear that moving to the center could cause a rise in popularity for far-left leaders from other parties, such as Ralph Nader. So in a two party system, a party must be careful when selecting how ideologically driven to be. Too ideological could mean that the party only appeals to a small portion of the population. Too pragmatic (or big-tent style) can cause a major faction to split off from the main party.


Critics of catch-all parties accuse them of populism, adopting whatever policies they need to win without any ideological conviction or clear policy goal. Also, the rise of catch-all parties can lead to lower voter-participation, as people don't see a consistent idea of what each party stands for.


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