The GOP Jazz Versus the Marching Band Dems

Mark Baisley
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Posted: Feb 24, 2014 12:01 AM

Take your “big tent” metaphor for the Grand Old Party and donate it to the Salvation Army. The implication from that exhausted platitude is that if the party defines itself broadly enough, everyone who wants to can fit in. But that analogy fails on the corollary that a liberally applied self-characterization dilutes the party’s distinction.

The Whigs learned the hard way that if your first priority is to be non-offensive, you will lose membership. In their case, they lost every single member.

What to do? Buy a new metaphor. Consider these words from a friend of mine who plays evenings in a jazz band: “I love Jazz. I love everything about it. I love the freedom, the absolute liberty to shape a well-known song into something the person who wrote it, and every person who ever played it, never thought of. I love the feel, the heart-pounding, blood racing ecstasy of it. I love the cerebral nature of it, the brutal demands it places on a musician's knowledge and experience and presence in the moment. I love its variability, the never-ending variety of shapes and forms and colors it can embody. It is my very first love.” – Nathan Shafer

Juxtapose those sentiments with this actual quote from a member of a high school marching band: “I play the Alto Saxophone… I love band, but I'm scared because I think I won't be able to do it. I don't own a saxophone (I rent the school's) so I can't practice over the summer to perfect my techniques and whatnot, and the band director is REALLY strict! I also have a lot of trouble playing and marching at the same time - which poses a big problem. Overall I'm just scared that I'll fail at it and be laughed at/yelled at because I'm NOT the best at the instrument. I'm just good enough to sound good to an untrained ear.”

As the Democratic Party represents the political left, the Republican Party represents the political right. Leftist ideology seeks uniformity in virtually everything – from the distribution of wealth to the contrast of the sexes. The right celebrates rugged individuality.

In this, the Democrats hold a natural advantage at election time.A centralized band director needs mostly to exude confidence in directing the myriad followers; “I conduct. You march.” The band members each play their assigned piece. It is immediately apparent to everyone when a trombonist is out of synch with the crowd. And there are no solos.

The Republican culture is much the opposite. They play jazz. And not big band jazz, but modal jazz, where everyone plays a solo and nobody is afraid of the band leader. When performed well, the music is phenomenal. And when it is bad, ears bleed.

Republicans are prone to laissez faire in every aspect of their lives. They have opinions, love their own identity, and want to contribute with their personal improvisations. This is true in their personal lives as well as their participation in the political system.

So while the most effective leader of the Democratic Party may hold a baton, Republicans require an entirely different approach to achieve the desired cohesion. The modal jazz band leader will provide direction for all the players through the high-level communication of example. And the key to an inspired piece is the encouragement for every player to contribute their unique gifts.

GOP leaders who do not naturally take to this distribution of improvisation will become frustrated with the perceived chaos. And the panicked response of tightened control will often take on a bullying nature. Rarely do we hear complaints of bullying within the Democratic Party. But in the free-thinking variety of the Republican Party, attempts at uniformity frequently become demoralizing.

Republicans of every stripe (establishment, conservative, liberty-minded, tea-party) want to be heard. And they generally fall within a few percentage points of each other on the ideological scale. Macro-level debates that Republicans should be winning hands-down against the Democrats are many times overshadowed by micro-level debates amongst themselves.

Internal party tension can be leveraged to mature their political philosophy by inviting every voice to participate in the selection of nominees. But the most damaging disconnects that keep Republicans from winning elections are not ideologically based. The greatest party failures result from suppressing healthy, internal dissent.

A marching band performance will rarely bring a tear to your eye. But a collection of talented players who receive the deep respect of their leader will move the audience with their stirring production. Democrats have an easier time of winning elections through formulaic execution. But with a measure of selfless wisdom, the Republicans have the opportunity to truly advance the American dream.