Outside the Big Tent

The circus had certainly come to town.

Last week at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart ran a typically ingenious segment about the Democratic Party’s level of “inclusiveness” within its ranks relative to the GOP’s.  One attendee, undoubtedly speaking for many, cooed that the party was so hospitable that “we even invite the redneck freaks.”

“The world would be beautiful if we could just accept everyone’s differences,” said another, before unleashing a broadside of insults against all members of the Tea Party.

At issue here is the concept of the “big tent.”  Every election cycle around convention time, both parties fashion themselves as more accepting of people with different backgrounds and views than the other.  In the context of vote-garnering, this appeal to the widest possible cross-section of Americans is not difficult to understand.

It is when electioneering ends and governing begins that the big tent tends to shrivel and collapse.  Good riddance, I say:  Let it lie.

Possibly I have mentioned once or twice, in passing, that I hold a less-than-enthusiastic disposition toward our two-party system.  I have maintained for years that neither party particularly speaks for me—that my own views do not naturally align with either.  If opinion polls are to be believed, a record number of citizens are with me on this—hence the conventions’ earnest efforts at outreach.

I wish they would not waste their time.

For better or worse, political parties are meant to stand for something.  They have platforms—drafted, amended and ratified every four years—serving as declarations of principles that, by their very nature, will offend, repel and exclude a great many citizens of our fifty states united.  They should, and with not an ounce of shame.  A party that embraces everyone would not be worth joining, because it would necessarily stand for nothing at all.

That we disagree about so much is why the parties exist in the first instance.  George Washington and company famously cautioned against the “baneful effects of the spirit of party,” but surely (as the Office gang learned in “A Benihana Christmas”) two parties are better than one.

Unlike our Constitution, party platforms are not legally binding.  By no means has either party ever enacted or proposed legislation that was in perfect ideological alignment with its own official principles—in many cases, it would be politically impossible to do so.  Indeed, oftentimes the party’s own nominee does not agree with every last clause and subsection—Mitt Romney on abortion being but one such example.

Further, not every issue is a “you’re with us or against us” situation.  Things like what the top marginal tax rate should be or how to make ourselves less reliant on Middle East petroleum are open to all the nuances and debate that makes democracy so much fun; they don’t require that everyone on the team be in perfect agreement in advance.

However, a great number of issues—the ones we hoot and holler about the loudest—are every bit a matter of principle over practicality, and cannot be easily reconciled by those not already on board.  Either you believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman, or you don’t.

Of course, because very few people will agree with the entirety of a party’s platform, most choose their team based on the issues that are most important to them and ignore the rest—“cafeteria Catholicism” applied to politics.  There is nothing wrong with this approach on its face, since politics is ever the art of compromise, we’re stuck with the two parties we have and the lesser evil is still better than the greater.

What I question, really, is this urge to join a team in the first place.  To put oneself under contract when there is every reason to remain a free agent.  If a political party means to stand for an intellectually consistent set of values, it should have the courage and self-respect to do so, and its natural constituency will levitate toward it.

In return, those who do not share those values should feel no obligation whatever to act as if they do, to supplant their genuine views simply to satisfy some misplaced sense of belonging.

Resist the big tent.  Do not embrace a party that, left to its own devices and following its own heart, would not embrace you back.  Play hard to get.  Heed the advice by Christopher Hitchens, “People may fight harder for your vote if you don’t give it away in advance.”

Leave the partying to the clowns.

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