A tent can be a metaphor, a symbol, or an idyllic place of refuge, safety or hiding. Tents can be a place to dwell for some, like the nomadic Bedouins, who’ve lived in black goat hair tents for centuries, eschewing permanent dwellings, preferring portable tents or shelter that affords them the flexibility to move around with their families and animals in the forbidding African Sahara. T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” once wrote of the nomadic lifestyle as “the most biting lifestyle of all social disciplines, a life too hard for only the strongest and most determined.” The Song of Solomon, confirms those ancient tents, “Dark I am, yet lovely, daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, dark as the curtains of Solomon.”
For some it conjures thoughts of a grand circus under the big top. Others imagine camping, or wilderness adventure. For the faithful, tents harken back to the early days of evangelistic revivals, when firebrand preachers like Billy Sunday, Dwight L. Moody and Billy Graham extolled God’s Word to large crowds, beneath expansive open air tents in America, and places around the world from England to South Korea, to the plains of Africa. The Apostle Paul was a tent maker.
In political ideology a “big tent” is a catch-all phrase, a strategy to attract voters from different points of view-an invitation of welcome, despite one’s political view-tolerance of differences on certain issues. On a national level, in 2012, the Democrats were loathe to move from their centrist strategy. However, by 2019, with the stable of Socialist presidential candidates, they’ve jettisoned the old guard Democrats for a “bigger tent” strategy. It has turned out to be an endorsement of “no tent.” The walls of the tent have been “rent from top to bottom” and anyone can enter. Their tent’s increasingly porous and predominately secular.
With the Bush dynasty in the rear-view mirror, and President Trump’s ascendency, there’s talk of “political purity v. big tent party building.” Mostly talk. Make no mistake, contrary to the cable news, the two parties don’t exist solely to bludgeon each other. They represent two divergent world views. The GOP worldview is often summed up by Ronald Reagan in restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty. Today, the GOP emphasizes constitutional governance, upholding the 2nd Amendment and the life of the unborn, that are increasingly under assault. Reagan’s litmus test was too tolerant for many liberty minded voters today, where standing for the unborn is a bedrock, non-negotiable platform. The polar opposite of the Democrats. Populism has replaced the neocon guardians. They’re still disquieted.
To stoke our fading memory, in November of 1989, the first year of Bush 41’s presidency, there were two closely monitored gubernatorial elections-one in New Jersey, the other in Virginia. Democrat candidates won both races. In both campaigns the candidates’ position on abortion, many believed, played a role in the outcome. Douglas Wilder in Virginia, and James Florio of New Jersey were pro-choice, while their GOP rivals J. Marshall Coleman and Jim Courter, were anti-abortion. This stirred speculation by some that the GOP’s hardline against abortion would present a problem in the 1990 mid-term elections, permitting the Democrats to gain seats in both Houses. The press has been on that trail ever since.
Some remember the late Lee Atwater, who created the infamous “Willie Horton ad” that many believe played a pivotal role in Bush 41’s defeat of Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988, by making Dukakis appear soft on crime. Atwater, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, known as a master of using “wedge issues” like abortion and crime, was asked by the media what he thought about what the gubernatorial elections forebode for the GOP? Atwater’s reply helped popularize a political term that lives today. “Our party is a big tent,” he told reporters that day. “We can house many views on many issues. Abortion is no exception.” He didn’t coin the term. In 1975, Democrat House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill informed a reporter, “The Democratic Party is a big tent. We are widely diversified.” In the 1980 presidential election, the GOP National Chairman, Bill Brock, urged the party to embrace a “big tent” strategy, the year that Ronald Reagan won in a landslide over President Carter. Carter’s rise in ‘76 on a pro-abortion platform, spawned the meteoric rise of the Moral Majority coalition, founded in 1979, led by the late evangelical preacher, and founder of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell.
At recent Natrona County GOP Executive meetings, “big tent” language punctuated the room, purportedly to attract younger members to the GOP ranks. Some members of the executive committee, including a state legislator, invoked the term “big tent” to expand inclusion of the Young Republicans Committee. One legislator called for “knocking down the walls of the tent” to accommodate younger members. A tent without walls? Is that where the local GOP’s heading? Both the Wyoming State Central Committee and the Natrona County Central Committee have platforms. They’re similar. Not identical. What’s the minimum threshold to join the GOP? It's suggested that candidates, vying as Republican officeholders, should support “80%” of the platform. It’s apparently inconsequential if one doesn’t. Voters will decide at the ballot box. Do GOP voters understand the platform they claim to support? Neither the Wyoming State or County platforms contain the term “big tent.” Remember that old bromide about permitting the “camel’s nose under the tent?”
Governing requires compromise. But elevating compromise itself to a principle is like building a house on shifting sand. Where’s the foundation? Will it hold? Clear distinctions are still needed to distinguish what a party upholds and is willing to support. It’ll demand more than claiming we’re “different than Democrats.” Our principles and platforms should reflect immutable values. Regarding adherence to the “80%” guideline, consider this, “If I’m hired as CEO of an organization, after accepting the job, I inform them, ‘You can count on me to support 80% of your mission statement! What would they say?’” Will the “big tent” movement prevail? A recent Missoulian editorial warned, “GOP purists burning down the party’s tent.” That’s Montana. Democrats actually get elected there. Some insist the Wyoming GOP “big tent” is a convenient cloak for Democrats until they’re inured to run for office. Will Generation X Y, and Z flock to the GOP under a “big tent” policy? Does it weave a convoluted, unrecognizable mosaic? Vigorous debate should continue to be the hallmark of our party.
These “tents” of which we speak, are temporal. One day, this “earthly tent” will be exchanged for an eternal heavenly one, according to 2 Corinthians 5:1. The price of admission was paid more than two millennial ago. Hallelujah! What do you think?
Mike Pyatt’s a Natrona County resident. His email is email@example.com.