Monday, December 20, 2010

No Labels: A Moderate Movement Which Really Scares, Irritates Partisans

What does it mean when people on the political left and the political right absolutely freak out and take aim at you and call you names because you want to change the way of doing business in American politics? Perhaps it means that you’re onto something.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a new non-partisan, middle-of-the-road political group No Labels which extols the high-minded ideals of putting aside hyper-partisanship and ditching the Democrat/Republican/liberal/conservative labels in favor of making commonsense decisions about issues and finding ways to work together in the arena of ideas, all while refusing to demonize those with whom you disagree. At the time, I wrote that while I love the group’s premise, I wondered if they had a snowball’s chance in hell of ever seeing anything they stand for come to fruition, questioned whether this was just a quaint Mr. Smith Goes to Washington notion or a workable blueprint for ethical, civic discourse in the future.

I routinely watch the MSNBC talk show Morning Joe each morning because of the fact that it embodies the No Labels notion: People from all points of the political spectrum INCLUDING those in the middle -- who usually get ignored because it’s not as “exciting” to interview someone who refuses to throw rhetorical darts at others -- are featured and they all engage in vigorous, intellectual debate. I like that. It compels me to think, prompts me to assess the various political positions and tease out the areas in my own head where people, should they be willing to do so, could carve out a workable policy. Joe Scarborough, one of the hosts, a former Republican congressman and has appeared at No Labels events, has famously criticized and praised both Republicans and Democrats and he doesn’t shy away from staking out his positions without making it personal. The guests on the show reflect that.

And yet the likes of left-leaning columnist Frank Rich from the New York Times have taken on Morning Joe (which he called a “clubby and chipper . . . gabfest”) and No Labels which he derided as having a patronizing raison d’etre while likening it to “a progressive high school’s Model U.N.” (Pot, here’s the kettle . . .) Then he added this: “The notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild American is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation.”

Childish. It’s “childish” to say that when elected officials disagree that perhaps it would be wise to seek areas of common ground and try to work from there instead of retreating to opposing corners and hurling spitballs? It’s “childish” to suggest that it’s unproductive to demonize people because of their political labels because that’s not how the hard world of politics operates?

I teach my kids to behave in the way that No Labels is advocating that those in the political arena embrace: I ask my children to build consensus, to listen to one another and to ignore the urge to pillory someone personally because he or she doesn’t agree with you on everything. (This approach works in a good marriage as well.)

Over on the left-leaning Salon, Alex Pareene dismissed No Labels' organizers as “the idle rich” who are “fantasizing that they’re smarter than everyone else.” Really? It’s smug and elitist to ask that people find ways to work together despite the fact that the leaders of the two political parties do not want bipartisan cooperation because it could hurt their chances of gaining political power? Asking for folks to stop acting like mindless, lockstep political automatons is a fantasy and smacks of sanctimony?

The right-leaning National Review likened No Labels to “a giant, self-parodying prank.” Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh also attacked No Labels by calling the notion of organizing around the “moderate center” as “fraudulent.”

I could list pundit after pundit – who makes his or her living off of stoking the embers on the conservative or liberal ends of politics – who has similarly attacked the No Labels people as wimps for not firmly planting their political flag in red territory or blue territory because, to these pundits’ way of thinking, you’ve got to be in one side OR the other or else you’re a spaghetti-spined idiot . . . never mind the fact that, according to the Gallup organization, as of their December 10 poll, 34 percent of the American electorate define themselves as Independents, as compared to 33 percent who identify themselves as Republicans and 32 percent as Democrats. Apparently the American public is comprised of fence-sitting, fraudulent “magical thinking” morons too. (The Gallup data says 48 percent of those polled “leaned Republican” while 44 percent “leaned Democrat.”)

What puzzles me is this: It’d be much easier to just accept the political institutions as they are, to just fall in line in one of two major political parties and do what the leaders tell you to do. (Failure to tow the party line could result in leaders taking away your office or funding for your staff, eliminating projects in your district, threatening to run other people against you in a primary, etc.) How hard is it to just say, “That’s my party’s agenda and I’m following it . . . This is what the party leaders want, so I’m sticking with my party,” as opposed to evaluating an issue on a case-by-case basis, having a spine, making your own evaluation and deciding what's not only is best for your constituents, but for the nation as a whole, putting your country AHEAD of your political party? To run for office without the support of the Democratic or Republican parties, to vote independently of what your political party leaders want, is clearly the more difficult road to travel.

The more these folks protest and name call, the more I think No Ideas is onto something, perhaps something big.

Image credit: No Labels.

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