The Problem with “Big Tents”

(Note: This post originally appeared as a column in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

The thing that makes Canada a great country, besides its vast maple syrup reservoirs, is we Canadians enthusiastically embrace diversity and tolerance.

(And if you don’t agree with me on that, it clearly means you’re a dunderhead who should be deported to Borneo!)

Yet, despite the obvious wonderfulness of Canadian diversity and tolerance, I’d argue that political parties in Canada which get too diverse and too tolerant are unwittingly planting the seeds of their own demise.

Yes, I know that sounds terrible, but before anyone gets overly outraged and reports me to the nearest Human Rights Tribunal, hear me out.

The point I’m simply making here is that whenever a political party dilutes its ideological core belief system by welcoming into its ranks people of varying ideologies and agendas, it’s just asking for trouble.

And I say that fully realizing that opening up a party to different ideas — this is often called practicing “Big Tent” politics — has many undeniable political advantages.

After all, a party that’s less ideologically dogmatic and more tolerant to differing viewpoints can draw upon a greater talent pool of candidates, it’s often more flexible when dealing with national problems and, of course, it’s more representative of the population as a whole and thus has more potential voter support.

But history shows us that political tents which get too big are invariably unstable.

Consider the case, for instance, of the Progressive Conservative Party of the 1980s when it was led by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who deliberately created a “Big Tent”, when he opened his party’s flaps to Quebec nationalists and allied them with Western populists and Ontario-based Red Tories.

It was an unlikely alliance of factions which had little in common ideologically, yet Mulroney somehow managed to lead this heterogeneous political force to two consecutive majority government victories.

But then, almost overnight, the PC “Big Tent” collapsed on itself – in the 1993 election it won only two seats.

What caused this Armageddon?

Well, once the euphoria of their electoral victories began to fade, the PCs resurrected their tribal resentments, grievances and prejudices which ultimately caused them to turn on each other like hungry wolves.

In short, without a unifying ideology to bind it together, the once mighty PC party split apart at the seams and sank into irrelevance.

And the same sort of thing happened to the federal NDP.

Recall how, when he led the NDP, the late Jack Layton decided to play down his party’s socialist platform in an effort to broaden its base.

In the short term, Layton’s strategy worked; in the 2011 federal election his party achieved the greatest victory in its history, with the NDP becoming the Official opposition and gaining a stronghold in Quebec.

And a more ideologically-tolerant NDP even elected a former Quebec Liberal, Thomas Mulcair, to succeed Layton.

Yet, during the 2015 election, when the more tolerant and diverse NDP came under ideological stress over such issues as banning the niqab, many of its new Quebec converts jumped ship and the party’s base cracked.

Maybe this is why a common theme in the ongoing NDP leadership race is that the party must return to its left-wing roots.

Or maybe the NDP is just learning from the Liberal Party, which certainly seems to prefer ideological conformity over tolerance.

Keep in mind it was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau –the self-proclaimed champion of diversity and tolerance — who basically purged his party of pro-lifers.

I guess the Liberals realize that in politics you can either have a “Big Tent” or a “Peaceful Tent”; you can’t have both.

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