What happened to the “Big Tent?”

I grew of age (politically speaking) in the Reagan era. I watched the economic and social malaise of the 1970s recede before a message of hope and optimism. A renewed American spirit took hold. That was the period of the Republican “big tent.” It was a party of principles (like small government, individual freedom, and free markets). It was inclusive (within some very broad parameters).

Clearly, there was widespread support for those policies. Reagan won the 1984 election by a landslide, 525 of 538 electoral votes.

I have long believed that America is the embodiment of what Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”  It was eloquently echoed by Ronald Reagan as “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Today, I see little of that sentiment in our outward actions. We want commerce, but we don’t want competition. We want creativity but we reject change. We want a free and open society, but we only really want people like us.

Republicans previously advocated “compassionate conservatism.” In former President George Bush’s words, “people hear ‘conservative’ and they think heartless. And my belief then and now is that the right conservative philosophies are compassionate and help people.” Today, the “heartless” phrase rings true. The “compassionate and help people” not so much.

That statement is still salient. By our words (and Trump’s tweets) we have let the Left paint us as uncaring and elitist. We are elitist not because our leadership came from Ivy League schools, but because we view only those with our same beliefs as worthy of entry into our camp.

When I hear the narrow-minded views of some, I am reminded of a message I saw on a church marque. “You can be sure you have made God in your image if he hates all the same people you do.” Have we remade politics in our own image? Is it intolerable for someone to ask a question that challenges our orthodoxy?

We must be true to ourselves. However, if we want our region to grow, if we want our children to return, we must be willing to open our hearts and minds. If we place a sign at the county line that says, “Don’t stop if you’re not a conservative” (which I have heard a regional businessman say), we should not fool ourselves into thinking we will be attractive to the next generation.

Moreover, if our story is so compelling, why are people not flocking to the cause? We should be trying to pull people in, not keep them out. We must stop blaming the other side for not believing in us; we have not created a story in which they can believe. Our philosophy and ideas should be attractive to a broad spectrum, not just the chosen few. If it is not, the problem is us, not the opposition.

I cannot say that we are the party of hope and aspiration. The argument that, “Well, they are worse” is feeble at best. Is the least bad choice good enough for our country? We no longer speak of that shining city on the hill, rather we are about exclusion. We don’t really want people (like immigrants) that are not “like us.” We have shut the gates.

Even internally, we reject ourselves. I have been shocked to see the vehemence expressed by some leaders when they speak of RINOs (Republican in name only). It means you are an apostate who does not wholly and completely pass the litmus tests: gun rights, marriage, abortion, etc. We broach no deviation. You are either a true believer or you are excommunicated.

Perhaps if we were a Parliamentary Democracy, it would not be so concerning. There would be other alternatives. Such a system fosters many factions. There are ten parties in the British Parliament and another nine without current seats. Because a government requires a majority, often splinter parties are the key to forming a government which gives them influence beyond their actual size.

This is not the case in America’s two-party system? What happens if you have differences? What if you have questions? You become persona non grata, an outcast. RINO’s not welcome here.

What are the choices? Join the Democrats? Seriously, does anyone believe that a conservative can accept many of the aspects of the far-left agenda. But what else is there? Abdicate your civic responsibility and not vote?

We are conservative in this region, but we should not fall victim to the extremism of the current environment. Certainly, much of Trump’s agenda has had positive effect, but we have been his apologists for too long. His attitude and bombast have undermined civil discourse and compromise. This administration has become the Party of “I” (Donald Trump) rather than “we the people.”

Have we devolved from the Reagan era party of the “big tent” to being the “pup tent” under Trump in which absolute adherence to orthodoxy is required?

In the end, we risk leaving too many people with an unacceptable alternative. We must differentiate ourselves from the rhetoric and persona of Trump. We are on the verge of not just losing an election, but of losing the next generation. In that, he has done a great disservice to the conservative cause.

It does not have to be such. I have seen too many good people in this region who gladly lend a hand to a neighbor or aid someone in need. Maybe we just need to understand that our neighbor doesn’t have to look or think just like us to be worthy of our compassion and acceptance.

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