The “big tent” political strategy has many long-running adepts:
In the United States, during the latter half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, the Republican Party boasted membership of big business interests, laborers (both of whom supported the GOP’s tariff strategy) as well as many African-Americans, due to Republican Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery and the party’s stance on civil rights.
Also, 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.
In the United States, the Democratic Party has some big-tent features according to the dominant understanding of the US political spectrum. It has liberal and progressive, moderate, social democratic, and conservative wings.
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) and neo-Thatcherite/neo-Reaganite, a description applied to the economic policies and politics of former Minister for Finance (1997–2004) Charles McCreevy. Fianna Fáil served in the coalition from 1989 to 1992 with the fiscally monetarist yet socially liberal Progressive Democrats, then with the social-democratic Labour Party and yet again with the Progressive Democrats, with Fianna Fáil tailoring its policies accordingly. After the 2007 Irish General Election campaign, Fianna Fáil formed a coalition with the Progressive Democrats, the centre-left Green Party and initially three independent TDs (MPs). The party suffered spectacular losses at the 2011 General election in part due to the current Irish financial crisis, where it lost 57 of its outgoing 77 TD’s being relegated into third place (Behind Fine Gael and Labour).
The Indian National Congress and Italy’s now defunct Christian Democracy both attracted such a broad range of support as to make them catch all parties.
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). The media often refer to Brown’s Ministry as “a government of all the talents” or simply “Brown’s big tent”.
It’s clear that what we’re talking about here is anything but coherent. But – in many cases – it seems to work. For a while at least.
So if politicos can successfully practise it, why not the #occupy movements of “rainbow coalitions” across the world? Why, in fact, do we choose to use this rather hippy-like term for anti-establishment movements which, nevertheless, may be couched in fair and measured reactions to aggressive and unhelpful realities – and yet, when we talk about the actions of establishment professionals, we use containing and inclusive language such as “big tent” and “government of all the talents”?
Compare, for example, the following perception from Rolling Stone (thanks to Patrick for the tweet which brought this to my attention) to the historical description of such strategies which I’ve already quoted from above:
[...] Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It’s about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it. And by being so broad in scope and so elemental in its motivation, it’s flown over the heads of many on both the right and the left.
The relationships inscribed by these two texts are really not all that dissimilar. And if established political parties can legitimately act as catch-alls, can use Third Way strategies to neutralise their oppositions, then I would fairly suggest we should admit the possibility that general movements like these – which are against everything modern society stands for – also deserve at the very least a hearing from the wise in our civilisations.
For it does, in fact, occur to me that much as Cameron is son of Blair and Blair is son of Thatcher, so #occupy instincts across the world are more than likely – in some way – sons and daughters of all these clever and fork-tongued communicators.
And so it is that these “rainbow coalitions” may, in reality, be far less naive than we currently presuppose. They have, after all, had the very best of teachers …