How many single issues can fit in a tent?

In a thought-provoking PJM analysis, Clayton Cramer asks "Just How Big Should Our Tent Be?"

...a Republican Party narrowly focused on social conservatism will have a tent so small that few converts will come inside. I fear that it would be like a much larger but still too tiny to matter Libertarian Party -- from which emanates some bruising and pointed arguments between the "incredibly small tent" and the "infinitesimal tent" activists.

A Republican Party that stands for almost everything will be like John McCain's campaign, with similar results -- the base had little enthusiasm, except for Sarah Palin.

But do we really need to make a choice? Sometimes. But now we should focus more on common ground.

Cramer takes a close look at the abortion issue, and makes a good case that conservatives are more in line with the American majority now:
The "big tent" crowd also needs to think about their antipathy towards the social conservatives. A majority of Americans finds something disturbing about abortion -- at least some abortions. Partial-birth abortions? Yucky. Abortion because your wedding dress wouldn't fit as well? Yucky. Yet a majority accepts abortion for some really troubling situations: the 13-year-old impregnated by an adult, a fetus who is going to die an excruciating death soon after birth from Tay-Sachs Disease. There is clearly a widespread moral objection to abortion as backup, or sometimes primary, birth control. The "certain circumstances" crowd may not agree with the pro-lifers about the absolute immorality of abortion, but they do see it as morally troublesome.
I'm personally appalled by abortion, but I'm also appalled by the idea of imprisoning women who kill their fetuses. Whether that makes me "pro-choice," I can't say. The more advanced the pregnancy, the more human the fetus becomes, and I don't see much distinction between killing a third trimester fetus and outright infanticide. (But no, abortion is not true infanticide, and calling it that does not make it that.)

In debating the size of the tent, I think that what leads to problems is that the debates on various issues tend to be dominated by single issue thinkers (commonly known as "activists"). A common pattern with their arguments is the assumption that statistical agreement or disagreement by the public on each issue will translate into votes for or against a candidate. If this were the case with abortion, then John McCain would have won the election, as his views are more in line with the American majority (which, as Cramer points out, is largely against abortion). Obama, the most pro-abortion president in US history, won handily despite being out of touch with the majority.

Pro-life voters helped elect a fiercely pro-choice president.

There's a reason for this. No matter who is "pro-life" or "pro-choice," (or like me, pro-life and anti-prison), abortion is simply not considered a paramount national issue for voters, at least, at least not paramount enough to decide the outcome of elections. Perhaps in deciding upon the size of the tent, weight should be assigned to the importance ordinary voters assign to these issues.

Gay marriage is another one. To most people, it's maybe an annoyance, perhaps a source of amused debate. But the heated, angry rhetoric? Once again, that's activist stuff.

Unfortunately for regular folks, both parties tend to be dominated by collections of activists. Whether they're "the base" or "the grass roots," there's hell to pay if they're offended, because they feel more strongly about issues than normal people, and if some ordinary Joe comes along and just doesn't feel as strongly (or doesn't see priorities the same way), they'll see him as a compromiser with evil or a sellout or something. The louder the activists are, the more they tend to drive the ordinary Joes, and the easier it becomes for the quieter but deadlier activists on the other side to claim their louder opposites are a bunch of raving kooks.

This is not to say that activists should be excluded from the tent. That would be impossible, even absurd. And while I know that single issue activists will never get along with their single issue opposites, there ought to be a way to get single issue thinkers to get along with people who are not single issue thinkers.

Let me admit my bias here. I suffer from activist phobia. To that extent, I might be called an anti-activist activist, although I try not to get carried away. In the last cycle, thought Obama's friendship with activists was an important single issue, and therefore a huge negative. OTOH, one of the reasons McCain appealed to me was that he tended to be hated by activists.

One problem was that many Republican activists hated McCain even more than they hated Obama. Another problem was that the Democratic activists did a far better job of maintaining strict silence during the election. They also had a pliant media, not only to assist with this silence, but to portray the noisier Republicans as a bunch of angry right wing kooks, and even racist lynch mobs.

Tragically, the single issue for the voters was the economy.

(On that issue, I'm an admitted right wing kook.)

posted by Eric on 06.08.09 at 11:13 AM


The reason why various policies become part of a political party platform (or are part of the party's culture?) is because they matter, whether abortion or something else; This is because the Government is not neutral on Moral issues. Government is so intrusive that the fight between (for example) Proabortion & Prolife is because both sides are trying to control the Government; which controls the moral policy through law and policymaking... ...which it delights in doing....

If we wish to have an open society with less heat in all the arguments, we HAVE TO MAKE GOVERNMENT SMALLER. Get it away from conducting our lives for us. Let Freedom work it out.

Susan Lee

Susan Lee   ·  June 8, 2009 4:42 PM

I know he's your friend, but he is not living in the real world. I know he didn't write that header, but damn, Eric. That's some seriously stupid shit.

Can't him and Huckabee and Newt stay in Idaho until the Rapture and leave us figure this mess out without their help?

dr kill   ·  June 8, 2009 8:59 PM

Both parties are shrinking.


M. Simon   ·  June 8, 2009 10:14 PM

The "Big Tent" once included a Republican Governor from California who signed one of the most liberal abortion laws, at the time, in this country.
He probably couldn't get nominated for President in today's GOP with that albatross hanging around his neck.

Frank   ·  June 9, 2009 12:30 AM

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