14 December 2010

'No Labels?' Not for long...

The air was leaking out of the new 'No Labels' movement on behalf of moderate politics almost before it held its first public event at Columbia University yesterday. That was because the person most likely to serve as the movement's front-man, Mayor Bloomberg of New York, had declared over the weekend that he had no intention of running for President in 2012. Regardless of Bloomberg's prospects, however, No Labels was received with immediate skepticism, at best, from many opinion-makers. The makeup of yesterday's event somewhat justifies the skepticism. A movement dedicated to moderation, compromise and common ground should aspire to be as comprehensively representative as possible; it should "look like America" in its diversity of opinion. But one group was very conspicuous by its absence, and that absence, to the extent that it appears to result from exclusion, will serve to label No Labels, whether they want a label or not.

In one of the more positive reports, an Associated Press correspondent deemed it "auspicious" that No Labels "attracted several GOP-aligned officials who were defeated in last month's midterm elections." To be more specific, those Republicans -- or in the case of Gov. Crist of Florida, a Republican apostate -- were defeated in last summer's primaries. If such characters serve to signify No Labels' bipartisanship, they also signify something else that was probably implicit in the group's anti-polarization mandate. The group may claim that it's "Not Left, Not Right," but its choice of martyred Republicans marks it as an anti-Tea Party movement. Members may reject the label. They might point out, maybe rightly, that they reject polarizing extremism from the left wing of the Democratic party. But the symbolism of yesterday's event is inescapable. Maybe they invited Tea Partiers, and maybe some were there who weren't mentioned in reports, but No Labels leaves the impression that its call to common ground leaves TPs out.

Christopher Beam's article on Slate typifies the almost contemptuous reception No Labels has received in some circles. He writes:

Everything you need to know about the new political group No Labels is contained in its slogan: "Not Left. Not Right. Forward." It's smug. It sounds like an Obama campaign catchphrase. And it ignores the whole reason politics exists, which is that not everyone agrees on what "Forward" is.

Beam argues that No Labels simply wants to ignore that the public itself is ideologically polarized. "Politicians aren't any meaner now than they were 30 years ago," he writes, "It's just that over the last few decades, the two parties have become more ideologically coherent." For some people, though, that's just another way of saying politics has gotten meaner. Meanwhile, Beam tries to minimize the number of truly independent voters in the country, claiming that swing voters (his definition of independence) represent no more than 10% of the electorate. At the same time, he claims vaguely that structural incentives exacerbate ideological polarization, and that these can't be remedied without "labels" that tell people what a group's ends are, not just its means.

The group itself explains its, er, label this way:

The “No” in No Labels means no preconditions, a “No” to the hyper-partisanship of labels.We cannot make progress until we check our preconditions at the door. In this way, we will mobilize the people who feel that we cannot go on this way forever. We must create a political force powerful enough to say "No," to the stagnation that paralyzes our nation.Hence, our name, No Labels, is significant for this very reason, that it begins with a no rather than the yes. It says “no” to the labels that would define us as separated when in fact, we are one country with common hopes and aspirations.

In this context, labels are simply cues to ignore other people's opinions or interests because they're "special" or, worse, "un-American." This mission statement is at odds with Beam's fatalistic account of fundamental, irrepressible disagreement on the meaning of "forward." I don't know Beam's own politics, but he seems to take for granted that there is not or can't be an objectively compelling definition of forward, or of the common good, while No Labels' appeal to "common hopes and aspirations" at least acknowledges the possibility. No Labels' understanding of the common good may inevitably put it in opposition to the Tea Partiers, who have their own understanding that is absolutely conditional upon individual entrepreneurial freedom. The TPs may have a skewed notion of the common good, one with little regard to the good of each or all, but at least they have a notion. I don't know if someone like Beam, who seems to question whether there's a common good at all, is the best person to judge them or the No Labels group. The group may have problems from the start, but it doesn't quite deserve the catcalls it's been getting from cynics and fanatics alike.


Anonymous said...

The way I see it is that on one side, you have people who feel they ought to get something from the government - ie an "entitlement". On the other, you have people who feel the there ought to be no such "entitlements" and will fight tooth and nail against it. (At least until they need it.) As long as either of those groups speaks for a large percentage of Americans, there will be no objective "common good".

Until one side or the other is either eradicated, forced to resign it's position or shrinks to minority status, this country cannot move "forward" as there will be at least two very differing opinions as to which direction "forward" is.

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

You should have looked closer... they're very clear in their rejection of BOTH forces like the Tea Party as well as forces like those who align with MoveOn.

No Labels isn't some warm fuzzy group. They said several times at the launch (which I was actually at), that they're going to go on the offensive. They're going to couple fighting the extremes with supporting and pushing for bipartisan action from those who are open to that.

Its so funny how people are building so many straw man out of No Labels. Its not complicated. Just watch the panel that Avlon was on early on in the program, or the panel the founders were on at the Clinton school a few months ago.

Samuel Wilson said...

Solomon: I doubt whether most people outside of the punditocracy see MoveOn and the Tea Party as equivalent menaces, so I expect to see NoLabels, given its choice of Republican invitees, portrayed primarily as an anti-TP movement. Is any effort being made to reach out to TP constituents, if not to leaders? If not, NL is likely to be identified with exclusiveness rather than inclusiveness.

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

I know plenty of regular people who think MoveOn and the Tea Party are both terrible forces in American politics. But its a bit like apples and oranges, since the Tea Party is an actual multiheaded hydra of a movement, while MoveOn is one organization.

I was very specific in what I said, saying forces LIKE the Tea Party and MoveOn. They're both just examples of extremists. I could have just as easily said left wingers and right wingers, but I like to mix it up, haha

I'm confused why you would even ask if they're reaching out to the Tea Party people... I just said they reject both forces like them and similar forces on the far left. What part of what I said are you purposefully ignoring to make some kind of point?

And organization, or movement for that matter, can have a "big tent" if it wants to, but trying to have no tent at all is absurd. You can't say you're about fighting against hyper partisan rancor, and then not be against the worst examples of such.

Samuel Wilson said...

Solomon: I asked simply because there are a lot of people who identify with the concerns that animate the Tea Parties, if not necessarily with the policies that TP organizations end up endorsing. If you feel that there's overlap between those concerns and those of NL, that's fine. If NL regards all TPs at all levels as the enemy, that's also fine; it's not like I love those people, either. The NLs should just prepare to be labeled if that's the case, whether they like it or not.

Solomon Kleinsmith said...

Please tell me you're not one of those people who thinks the name No Labels is meant to mean they think people should drop their labels and affiliations... I'm a big fan of your blog because you look into things deeper. Would be disappointing if you've bought into that garbage.

I don't think No Labels is reaching out to any segment in particular right now, its just pushing its general message out and helping grasstop folks like me get their local chapters rolling in a few weeks.

The extreme Tea Party elements that are upping the rancor are the polar opposite of No Labels. Anyone, including Tea Partiers, that can be civil, even if they can't find much common ground on the issues, are people who No Labels would probably be very interested in working with.