The Politics of a Big Tent

October 22, 2023 4 mins to read

I admire Fareed Zakaria, the celebrated Indian-American journalist who hosts CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. It is neither due to the fact that his parents are from Mumbai, India, nor that he belongs to the intellectual elite. I admire him for his powers of observation and perception. His comments on the Politics of a Big Tent should be important for any country.

One evening in late August, as I was trying to catch some sleep, I was kept up by a You Tube video of Zakaria’s analysis of the recently concluded 2020 Democratic National Convention. While it was very much based on the US elections, I could relate it very much to Malaysia, the larger Asian region, and even Europe. He insightfully observed that Joe Biden’s strategy of a big-tent party would prove more crucial to winning the elections than campaigns on Twitter or the rest of the social media. Zakaria noted that the Democratic National Convention this year was marked by a “conspicuous display of ethnic, racial and gender diversity.” Rightly so, it would seem, because the Democrats would need such ideological diversity to win the White House on 3rd November. Left leaning progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Stacy Abrams, moderates such as Mike Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton, and conservatives such as Cindy McCain and Colin Powell featured among the speakers at the Convention.

Malaysia, as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, has most of the time, if not always, tried to embrace diverse ideas. In spite of isolated extreme views, in general there has been a willingness to embrace diversity, which has helped political parties accommodate differing views. So, has it been in India for most of the time, with the contest of ideas between market and socialist policies as well as secularist and nationalist views. Ghulam Nabi Azad, the current Leader of Opposition in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, and a member of India’s grand old party, the Indian National Congress, has called on the party to be more inclusive and also practice internal party democracy if they want to win power again. In the UK, the Labour party embraced market capitalism with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In France, Marine Le Pen, launched a second bid to become President in 2017. While, she just won about 21% in the first round, she was able to gain about 34% of the popular vote in the second round running against the eventual winner President Emmanuel Macron.  She has moved away from the nationalist credentials of her father to become more republican, becoming more inclusive and purging from the party members making controversial statements.  Big tent politics is inclusive rather than exclusive.

Fareed Zakaria reiterates that in the US, a nation of 330 million people “with wide variations in geography, economic activity, history and culture,” it should be obvious that not everyone sees things the same way. Look at India with its 1.3 billion people and tremendous diversity: National parties had to seek regional coalitions to be inclusive and address the huge diversity. It is the same with Indonesia, with its spread-out islands and diverse cultures.

Zakaria says, “For some ideological warriors, to accept this reality is to make sordid compromises. But it is the durable way to actually get things done.” Bernie Sanders is articulate, persuasive and convincing but he has had very little legislative success. One cannot but agree with the view that to translate ideas into action, one has to face the political realities of the nation. You can only lead the nation to continued prosperity if you can make changes, and one can only do it with a coalition in today’s world.

The commitment towards embracing diversity and forging coalitions cannot only be in name, but in spirit. It has to be based on a consensus approach. A Harvard Study concluded that ideologically diverse teams produce superior performance The study revealed although individual bias fuelled by passion and strong convictions is usually undesirable, it has a different effect when people work in teams. The study concluded, “Collectively, teams with mixtures of bias that are willing to engage and collaborate can yield superior performance.”

This finding provides hope in these polarised times. I always remember former US President Obama’s reference to “a contest of ideas.” The people have to choose. Hopefully, there would be a general acceptance rather than resistance towards accommodating diverse views. I hope with Fareed Zakaria that politics around the world will embrace a kind of “deliberative democracy,” which involves working with people holding opposing views, to make policy changes that endure and lead to a harmonious nation. The Big Tent accommodates far more people and views than a narrow tent that stifles people and generates discontent.