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Political parties in the U.S. are built on the “big tent” idea. Our political system evolved early on to one of majority rule — 50% plus one gives control — producing electoral battles between two major political parties. Minor and third parties are just that: minor.

Presidents and governors come from one of two major parties, not smaller parties.

And legislative control is also based on who has 50% plus one of the elected members. For political party control, their philosophy has to accommodate a broad spectrum of ideas. Parties try to bring related but differing points of view together under one big tent. The expression “politics make strange bedfellows” arises from that. Fifty percent plus one requires a big-tent party.

That’s why the effort of a band of right-wing Montana legislative Republicans engaging in a philosophical purge of their membership makes no sense. Driving people from a political party for philosophical purity purposes — shoving them out from under the big tent — may be satisfying to those doing the purging, but it’s a recipe for achieving minority status. Those people will often go somewhere else and, eventually, the purity party will fall below the 50% threshold and lose political power.

Right-wing Republican legislators want to get rid of the “solutions caucus,” Republican legislators who have kept their principles but have worked across the aisle with Democrats to produce meaningful legislation that meets the needs of Montanans.

Accusing some of their fellow Republicans of being RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), purist GOP legislators have been challenging the “solutions caucus” members from the right in primary elections or making life as uncomfortable as possible for them if they still get elected.

Labeling some as RINOs raises the question of who is the true Montana Republican Party: the far right of today or the Main Street, mainstream Republicans I worked with over many years. The GOP itself will determine that. But I find the current GOP purge effort to be a purist movement away from a GOP which is close to Montana’s governing center.

In Montana the majority for winning elections and governing generally comes from one side or the other of the political middle. Most Montanans are not out on the political extremes, they’re under the center of a political bell curve — the big tent. Here, Republicans win and govern best a little right of center while Democrats win and govern best a little left of center. There is a working majority in the center because that’s where most Montanans are — Montanans who also expect that their representatives can work together.

The concept of the political big tent is that to be the majority, a political party must be attractive to a wide range of ideas, personalities and philosophies. That complex mosaic makes up what is under the big tent of successful political parties.

Purging party members is like burning down the tent under which those diverse party members coalesce — a march to minority status. This has happened before in Montana and also in other states. While a general philosophical bent marks each political party, a drive that results in too much political and philosophical purity leads to minority status. That is the path that some in the Montana GOP are pursuing. Only time will tell us the results.

So, if Montana GOP extremists burn down their tent, making it more pure but smaller, I am sure the Montana Democratic Party will make its big tent welcoming and accommodating to former mainstream Republicans who are looking for a political home. That is the way the world works.

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Evan Barrett, who lives in historic Uptown Butte, retired in 2017 after 48 years at the top level of Montana economic development, government, politics and education. He is an award-winning producer of Montana history films who continues to write columns, occasionally teaches Montana history and contributes to community and economic development projects.

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