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In politics, a big tent or catch-all party is a political party seeking to attract people with diverse viewpoints and thus appeal to more of the electorate. The big tent approach is opposed to single-issue litmus tests and ideological rigidity, conversely advocating multiple ideologies and views within a party.
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.
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).
When Gordon Brown became British Prime Minister in 2007, he invited several members from outside the Labour Party into 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".
In most western democracies, two or three major political parties profess an ideology of some sort (for example, social democracy, conservatism or liberalism) but in practice follow a big tent approach. In general, political parties with rigid ideologies do not perform well at the polls because of their reluctance to absorb a diversity of opinions, which in turn limits their influence on the electorate, thus resulting in them remaining 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 big tent concept is practiced today within the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, and in the recent past within the Reform Party. In more recent times (the early 1990s) 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. 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.
However even the Republican, 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 liberal, excluding the former party establishment centered around the Democratic Leadership Council, Blue Dog Democrats, and social conservatives. The Republicans are also a big tent party, as demonstrated by those elected Republicans who disagree with prominent party members 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 former Nebraska Senator and current United States Secretary of Defense 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 the only Republican Senator 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. Tax cuts, abortion, and gun policy are three examples. For example, Grover Norquist chaired the Republican National Committee session presenting the candidates for Chairman. Norquist gave the candidates a catechism on these issues before they spoke.
The Libertarian Party of the United States, following the 1974 Dallas Accord, embraced the big tent idea to the extent it ensured that the anarchist-capitalist views would not be excluded from the majority minarchist party. The Republican Liberty Caucus and similar groups aim to shift the US Republican Party's "center of the tent" towards Goldwater-Reagan ideals and those of libertarian Ron Paul.
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.
- Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, Brazil
- Christian Democracy, Italy
- Five Star Movement, Italy
- Institutional Revolutionary Party, Mexico
- Justicialist Party, Argentina
- "In full: Brown's government". BBC News. June 29, 2007.
- "The fallout from Brown's job offer". BBC News. June 21, 2007.
- "First 100 days: Gordon Brown". BBC News. October 5, 2007.
- ATR debate page, with link to archived footage
- Mike Hihn, "The Dallas Accord, Minarchists, and why our members sign a pledge", Washington State Libertarian Party, August 2009.
- Paul Gottfried, The conservative movement: Social movements past and present , Twayne Publishers, 1993, p. 46.
- Less Antman, The Dallas Accord is Dead, Lew Rockwell.com, May 12, 2008.
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