Marti Halverson: There Is No “Big Tent”

Guest columnist Marti Halverson writes: "The few Republicans in 2021 clinging to the notion that there is still a 'Big Tent' are living in the past."

Marti Halverson

March 23, 20217 min read

Marti halverson photo
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)


The Big Tent idea started in the mid-1970s, spearheaded by Ronald Reagan as he sought the presidency in 1976 and 1980.  At the time, Reagan led a fragile right-leaning coalition that ranged from the Christian right to libertarians, and Goldwater Republicans to northeastern old-establishment Rockefeller Republicans.

Reagan won in 1980, and then won a landslide in 1984.  The ideological Big Tent held again in 1988 with the election of George H. W. Bush.

However, in 1992, the Republican “Big Tent” was showing signs of disintegration.  President G. H. W. Bush became known as the “establishment,” “country club,” “Rockefeller Republican” who broke his “no new taxes” pledge.  Ross Perot attempted to pick up the conservative tent shreds.  Bush and Perot garnered 56% of the vote, while the moderate Democrat Bill Clinton won with only 43%.

Then, in 1994, Newt Gingrich came up with the conservative Contract with America and Republicans took the US House for the first time since 1952.  Now that Republicans had found a way out of the wilderness, Gingrich completely abandoned the Big Tent notion, and ran Republicans on a solid conservative Contract.

The establishment moderate Republican Bob Dole was defeated in 1996, failing to learn from, and capitalize on, the winning conservativism of 1994.  The please-everybody Big Tent folded for good in 1996.

George W. Bush ran as a conservative in 2000 and prevailed.  There may have been a wink-wink to the old Party establishment, but conservatism won the day at the polls.

After eight years of Barack Obama, Donald Trump picked up the traditional conservativism banner, stuck his finger in the eye of the big tent, moderate establishment and scored a huge electoral victory. 


The few Republicans in 2021 clinging to the notion that there is still a “Big Tent” are living in the past

In 2021, there is no big tent of ideologies.  In 2021, the country is totally polarized – progressive or conservative.  Any leftover “moderate” “establishment” “big tent” Republicans better pick a side.  There is no mushy middle anymore. 

President Trump personified an insurgent, anti-establishment rage against establishment “politics as usual” and the Republican Party’s “big tent” of the last century.

The only thing that has survived the 1970s and 1980s is Reagan’s 80/20 rule.

Today, the “Big Tent” is a Republican Party that has room for many people as they seek a home in a solid, anti-progressive, anti-socialist, small government, freedom-loving party – but, not for the varied and various, please-all ideologies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Republicans no longer need to, or should, dilute our principles to gain members and votes. That will cause the Republican Party to fail, as any entity that abandons its core principles fails.  It is about delivering mainstream conservative values to benefit every American – low taxes, less government regulation, and less government in our daily lives.  The last vestige of the big tent concept in 2021 is the broadening support for Republican, conservative values as more and more disenfranchised and disenchanted Democrats and Independents join us in the tent.

The term “Big Tent” no longer means that we welcome a broad spectrum of views.  Following Ronald Reagan’s 80/20 rule, we Republicans welcome those who might disagree with a few platform points but agree with us on most of the others.  And, the Party grows. 

For many years, the pro-choice standard bearer in the Republican Party, Ann Stone was given podium time at Republican national conventions, despite the party’s pro-life platform planks.  Because, in every other aspect, Ann Stone is a good, solid, highly respected, Republican woman, working hard for her party.

In 2018 and 2019 the Democrats successfully purged the last of their pro-life members.  Today, in the US House, there is not a single pro-life Democrat left.

In contrast to the 80/20 Republican Rule, the Democrats demand 100% conformance with their platform.  Even when Democrats met in Philadelphia, the Democrat, pro-life governor of Pennsylvania was not permitted to address the crowd.  There was not a dime’s worth of difference among the 2020 Democrat primary presidential candidates on abortion-up-to-birth, tax increases meant only to punish success, socialized medicine, unlimited immigration and open borders, hatred for big corporations, and the open disdain for religious Americans.  There is no diversity of opinion permitted or tolerated in that party.

The Republican party does, indeed, tolerate Republicans with small differences with its platform.  The 80/20 rule of thumb permits Republicans to disagree on 20% of the Platform, while “substantially” upholding the rest.  It is no coincidence that the GOP Platforms of 1860 and 2018 conclude with “Finally, having thus set forth our distinctive principles and views, we invite the cooperation of all citizens, however differing on other questions, who substantially agree with us in their affirmance and support.”  Our Party Bylaws define the Role of the party as “to achieve the election of Republican candidates who substantially uphold the platform of the Wyoming Republican Party.”

The anonymous uses a lower bar of 70% agreement with the Platform to distinguish “Republicans” from “Republicans in name only.”

Those who claim that the Republican Party is “inclusive” are right only 20% of the time.

Since 1854, the Republican party has been relatively exclusive.  If you supported slavery and the slave trade, you were not welcome in the new Republican Party.  If you supported the dissolution of the Union, you were not welcome in the new Republican Party.  If you supported the “extravagant and corrupt” federal government over the sovereignty of the states that created it, you were not welcome.  If you opposed the Homestead policies and a coast-to-coast railroad, you would not have been happy in the new Republican Party. 

In 2021, if you support a bloated state government to be maintained and sustained with more and higher taxes, and restrictions of the free exercise of religion, and abortion on demand, you might not be a Republican. 

If you think Wyomingites are “freeloaders,” you might not be a Republican.

If you support socialized, government-run health care, and gun control, and federal jurisdiction over 48% of Wyoming’s land, you might not be a Republican. 

Even if you are pro-life and pro-traditional social values, but you deny the sovereignty of the state of Wyoming, bending to the whims of an unelected federal and state bureaucracy, and the opinions of federal courts, and the demands of powerful unions and other special interests, you might not, actually, be a Republican.  If you support group rights over individual rights, you might not be a Republican.

Republicans can be all over the map on the issues of drugs and criminal justice reform, for example  – the Platform takes no stance on these issues.  Clues might be found in the party’s Resolutions wherein we take stands on the issues of the day.  But, those are temporal, timely issues – not the bedrock principles that distinguish us from the Democrats.

The history of the Republican Party shows that the more variances on our principles we tolerate or embrace, the more the party suffers.  Grass roots Republicans abandon the party when we get squishy on the issues that used to unite us and distinguish us from the Democrats.  In 2015, the Republican Party was losing its focus.  Then we developed the conservative 2016 State and National Republican Platforms.

In the last five years since 2016 two things have happened since the Big Tent of the 1970s:  the Republican Party has come home, or gone back, to its conservative roots; the Big Tent is now a people tent – not the tent of diluted, squishy, moderate ideologies crafted only for the hope that people will like us.  Folks are returning to the Republican Party with cries of, “It’s about time the Party stood on its principles!”

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Marti Halverson