“Big Tent” Conservative Movement?

I’m always looking for new books. It’s an addiction. Because of this, I love book reviews. I’ll even spend an afternoon reading book reviews of a book I’m unlikely ever to read, just out of curiosity.

I was looking at some recently released books, about politics and history. One book that is a collection of essays caught my attention, simply because of the title. It is Big Tent: The Story of the Conservative Revolution–As Told by the Thinkers and Doers Who Made It Happen by Mallory Factor and Elizabeth Factor. That is an intriguing premise.

It is intriguing because I suspect few people, maybe especially among conservatives, would identify the conservative movement as “Big Tent”. The problem of “Big Tent” movements for conservatives is that they necessitate compromise and cooperation among people who disagree and sometimes have opposing views, purposes, and interests. Conservatives, at least in mainstream politics and punditry, regularly claim to hate or be wary of this kind of compromise and cooperation. What these leaders of the conservative movement want instead seems to be ideological purity.

It makes me wonder if some of these leaders or the activists who had been following them are beginning to question this tactic of ideological purity. The purveyors of the “Small Tent” view has been the Tea Party movement, which hasn’t wanted to claim that it is identical with the conservative movement. But the Tea Party has lost a favor, even among conservatives and Republicans. Maybe some people, such as the authors of this book, hope to redirect the conservative movement in a whole new direction. All of a sudden, those on the right are realizing that they can’t have a future by focusing merely on the demographic of old white people.

One reviewer, in his conclusion, seems to voice some doubts about whether those on the right will want to buy  what the authors’ are selling (The Conservative Movement vs. the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, Stan Greer):

Whether or not conservative/libertarian readers ultimately concur that they do belong (and want to belong!) to a club that has both Donald Rumsfeld and Rand Paul as members, Big Tent, which Factor edited and coauthored with the assistance of his wife Elizabeth, will surely help them come to a better understanding of how they came to their own beliefs.”

Yes, whether or not, maybe with probability leaning toward the ‘not’. The apparent argument of the book seems counter-intuitive.

A part of me finds something appealing about “Big Tent” politics. It used to be, earlier last century, that both parties had a right-wing and a left-wing. As such, there was less right-left polarization between the parties, although obviously other things distinguished the parties. According to Pew data (Beyond Red vs Blue), the Democratic Party is still a “Big Tent” party with an almost equal division between liberals, moderates, and conservatives (about a third of Democrats self-identifying with each of the three labels). The same Pew data doesn’t show such a self-identified spectrum in the Republican Party.

However, parties and movements aren’t necessarily the same thing. It is possible that the conservative movement is “Big Tent”, even if the GOP isn’t. Part of the problem is how to define “Big Tent” and how to objectively measure it. Who is supposed to be part of this “Big Tent” conservative movement? Why would those who don’t identify as conservative. such as libertarians, want to be part of any conservative movement? Libertarians are among the biggest critics of conservatism, especially in mainstream politics.

Does the author offer any demographic or polling data to give evidence for his claim that the conservative movement is a “Big Tent”? Having a wide range of conservative-to-rightwing members/supporters isn’t necessarily the same thing as “Big Tent”. What evidence is there that most Americans ascribe to these views? It is possible that supposed “Big Tent” conservatism is broad in some ways while also being shallow in other ways.

An important confusion is the difference between symbolic and operational forms of ideologies. 

Most Americans, when given a forced choice, choose to self-identify as ‘conservative’. But when given an unforced choice, most Americans choose ‘moderate’. Also, many more Americans will choose to self-identify as ‘progressive’ than will choose to self-identify as ‘liberal’, but even more interesting is the fact that also more self-identify as ‘progressive’ than as ‘conservative’. This goes against the assumption that Americans see progressivism and liberalism as the same and it undercuts the conclusion that most Americans are truly conservative… or else it implies that most Americans are generally confused/uncertain about the meaning of labels (and if that is the case, all these polling about self-identified labels may be less than useful and accurate in telling us much of anything about the general public’s view on politics and ideologies). 

This issues is more complex than it gets presented in the mainstream media and by partisan politics.

I wonder about the author’s argument, as I see lots of evidence to the contrary or else evidence that complicates simple assessments and straightforward conclusions. But I always listen to opposing arguments and take them on their merits. The only way I can judge the merits of this particular argument is to see what objective evidence can be offered, either by the author or others who agree with the authors, but I’m not feeling motivated to buy and read this book. I see the premise for this argument as more of a hope than a reality. Even so, if these authors and those who agree with them want to try to make it a reality, I give them my full support.

In terms of present reality, for those making this argument for a “Big Tent” conservative movement, the following is the evidence one has to somehow counter, explain, reinterpret, and/or disprove:


“More Americans have a positive opinion of progressivism, significantly more than their opinion of conservatism. As many have noted, progressivism has basically become the label for those who like liberalism but are afraid of the negative connotations of the word itself. There isn’t a vast difference between what liberals support and what progressives support.

“Even most Republicans give a positive response toward progressivism. This probably relates as well to why many people who self-identify as conservatives will support many traditionally liberal positions. These positions back in the Progressive Era used to be called progressive. Americans strongly support them. That is the true Silent Majority or rather Silenced Majority.

“Now, prepare to have your mind blown… or else your stereotypes dismantled.

“More Democrats have a positive view of of libertarianism than Republicans. And fewer Democrats have a negative view of libertarianism than Republicans. This shouldn’t be as surprising as would be suggested by watching the MSM. Libertarianism is a direct political competitor with the Republican Party, but Libertarians socially have more in common with liberals and progressives.”


“The media villagers lazily recite the Gallup polling to assert that America is a center-right country ideologically.
Political scientists, however, know better. The old classifications of liberal, conservative and moderate have long since lost their meaning.The decades long far-right media assault to demonize “liberals” has caused many liberals to defensively identify themseleves as “progressives.” The “liberal” brand of the Democratic Party has been watered down by conservative corporatist Democratic organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council, New Democrats, Third Way, Boll Weevils and Blue Dogs, etc. Today’s Democratic Party is not the party of FDR and Truman, or LBJ.

“I have said many times that conservatives today “are not your father’s GOP.” Conservatives today are the John Birchers whom Republican conservatives like William F. Buckley kicked out of the GOP for being too extremist, and the theocratic Christian Right whom “the father of movement conservatism,” Arizona’s Sen. Barry Goldwater, rejected as being too extremist. Think about the irony in that for a moment. This is the man who famously said that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”

“The media villagers collectively suffer from amnesia and cannot recall that the Republican Party once had a liberal wing and many moderates. They have since been purged from the Republican Party by its extemist fringe, but they are still out there in the electorate.

“When respondents are given more options from which to identify their political beliefs and, more importantly, when polled on specific issues, a surprising and seemingly contradictory result emerges (only because of media mislabeling). Americans are far more left-of-center in their beliefs on specific issues, even self-identified conservatives. These “liberal” beliefs are in fact the “centrist” or “moderate” position of large majorities of Americans.”


“”According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are. Unsurprisingly, Republicans think voters are way more right-wing than they actually are.”

“It’s unsurprising that right-wingers are clueless about the average American. That is the nature of being a right-winger, often not even realizing one is right-wing, instead thinking one is a normal mainstream American

“”Liberal politicians, meanwhile, don’t imagine that their constituents are super-liberal. A majority of them also believe that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. Which, well, that explains your Democratic Party since the Clinton administration. They weren’t polled, but I’m pretty sure “nonpartisan” political elites in the media share the exact same misperception. (“It’s a center-right country,” we hear all the time, which it turns out is both meaningless and untrue.)”

[ . . . ]

“”Left-liberals who actually pay attention to surveys of popular opinion on things like raising taxes on rich people and expanding Medicare instead of raising the eligibility age are frequently a bit annoyed when they watch, say, the Sunday shows, and these ideas are either dismissed as radical or simply not brought up to begin with, but all of Washington is still pretty sure that Nixon’s Silent Majority is still out there, quietly raging against the longhairs and pinkos. In fact the new Silent Majority is basically made up of a bunch of social democrats, wondering why Congress can’t do serious, sensible, bipartisan things like lock up all the bankers and redistribute their loot to the masses.””


“Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist for the 1980 and 1984 elections , writes in The Greatest Communicator about what he discovered when he went to work for Reagan in 1980. Wirthlin , a Berkeley-trained economist, had been educated in the rationalist tradition to think that voters voted on the basis of whether they agreed with a candidate’s positions on the issues. Wirthlin discovered that voters tended not to agree with Reagan’s positions on the issues, yet they liked Reagan. Wirthlin set out to find out why.”


“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”


“Actually, the GOP could dominate the region more completely- much more completely. In 1944, the Republican nominee for president, Thomas E. Dewey, received less than 5 percent of South Carolinians ‘ votes (making John Kerry’s 41 percent in 2004, his worst showing in the South, sound quite a bit less anemic). That was a solid South. The real story of Southern politics since the 1960s is not the rise to domination of Republicanism but the emergence of genuine two-party competition for the first time in the region’s history. Democrats in Dixie have been read their last rites with numbing regularity since 1964, and there is no question that the region has become devilish terrain for Democrats running for “Washington” offices (president, Senate, Congress). But the widespread notion that the South is one-party territory ignores some powerful evidence to the contrary. For one thing, more Southerners identify as Democrats than Republicans. For another: more Democrats win state and local elections in the South than Republicans. The parity between the parties was neatly symbolized by the total numbers of state legislators in the former Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Republicans, 891 Democrats. The South is many things, not all of them flattering. But it is not politically “solid.””

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