[FOUNTAIN]‘Big-tent’ party often sacrifices its principles

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[FOUNTAIN]‘Big-tent’ party often sacrifices its principles

It is a cardinal rule of retail that business is brisk at a high-traffic location. This is why stores sprout up next to each other on busy downtown streets.
The same holds true for political parties. You get more votes by appealing to a large population. Just as a successful dress shop in a suburb will open up a bigger store downtown, a political party will reach out to broader demographics as it grows. After all, the extreme right and the radical left are limited when it comes to garnering support.
In political science, this wide-reaching party is called a “catch-all party” (“big tent” is another term for the same phenomenon). With no firm ideological basis, it seeks support from a diverse spectrum of voters. Naturally, such parties tend to have similar political agendas.
The term was first applied to parties in the West after World War II. In post-war Europe, socialist parties in particular worked hard to expand their bases. The cadre parties, in which a few leaders had control, also turned into catch-all parties. After all, they wanted votes. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that a party interested in taking power always has the option of becoming a big-tent party.
Observers have varying opinions about big-tent parties. Some say they can bring a divided public together. Others argue that in failing to offer differentiated policies, they compromise the fundamental purpose of party politics, that of representing society’s various interests. A catch-all party can embrace a whole nation, but can also turn into a political hodgepodge.
When parties offer similar agendas, voters cast their ballots based on the character of the candidates. It is likely that parties will become splinter groups, run by a few bosses. That’s just what has been happening to Korean parties. Koreans are therefore skeptical about the idea of a catch-all party.
The temptation to win more votes can turn a party with an ideology into a big-tent party. Faced with this temptation, the party has the choice of becoming stoic or submissive. The Democratic Labor Party, which entered the National Assembly last year with the support of progressives, will encounter its first crossroads of stoicism and submission in the upcoming by-elections. As a self-proclaimed policy-oriented party, how will the Democratic Labor Party balance principle and reality?


by Nahm Yoon-ho

The writer is head of the family affairs team at the JoongAng Ilbo.

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