Last week, the distinguished liberal thinker and activist William Galston, along with an equally distinguished conservative counterpart, David Frum, announced in the Washington Post the forthcoming founding of a new organization called “No Labels.” The stated aim of No Labels is to combat the “hyper-polarization” of American political debate by “calling out” politicians, media personalities, and opinion leaders who “recklessly demonize” opponents. Unfortunately, their announcement gives us reason to fear that No Labels will only increase the level of political acrimony by attempting to constrain debate, thereby exacerbating the very polarization the group claims it seeks to combat.
No Labels aims to “expand the space” of public debate in America by reducing the fear of “social or political retribution.” But this expansion is, by the two men’s own account, really a contraction. That is, Galston and Frum intend to moderate public debate by “establishing lines that no one should cross,” as they put it. Specifically, they seek to police the use of labels like “racist” and “socialist,” which they believe are used recklessly in a way that undermines democratic discussion of “legitimate policy differences.”
What this represents, in part, is an attempt to delegitimize and silence the substantial number of Americans who believe, with good reason, that President Obama’s policies are socialist in both effect and intent. Far from reducing the fear of “social and political retribution” in public debate, Galston and Frum mean to engineer an increase in such retribution, and to direct it to their own ends. In a democracy, we ought to be at pains to avoid preemptively drawing bright lines against any substantive point of view. Arguments instead ought to be tested and winnowed in the marketplace of ideas, with citizens judging political advocates on how well they support their own assertions and how effectively (and how fairly) they address counter-arguments.
What exactly do Galston and Frum mean when they say they intend to “call out” those who use labels like “racist” and “socialist” in public debate? I think I can answer that question, since a series of attacks engineered by Frum on my then-unpublished book, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, appears to have been a dress rehearsal of sorts for the operation of No Labels.
On July 27, 2010, I announced the forthcoming publication of my book at National Review Online’s blog, the Corner. The announcement made it clear that my book was the result of more than two years of empirical and historical research into Barack Obama’s political past, and would marshal “a wide array of never-before-seen evidence to establish that the president of the United States is indeed a socialist.” Frum, however, didn’t wait to consider my evidence or argument, or even bother to read my book. Instead, he invited a self-described Democratic activist who writes under the pseudonym “Eugene Victor Debs” to attack the very idea of my book — before either had read it.
I would probably not have responded to an anonymous attack on an unpublished book were it not for the fact that I knew and respected Frum, who warned me in advance that Debs’s piece was coming and invited me to respond. I did reply to Debs, after which, to my surprise, the attacks kept coming, both from Debs and from Frum himself . In my responses to Frum and Debs, I finally began to speak more frankly about my dismay and puzzlement at their persistent attacks on a raft of new evidence that I had not yet even had a chance to present to the public. Oddly, since the actual publication of Radical-in-Chief, there has been not a word about the book from either Frum or Debs.
The announcement of the No Labels project by Galston and Frum makes perfect sense of all this. Given Frum’s response to the mere title and description of my book, it’s clear that the purpose of No Labels is not to engage those who call Obama socialist in a serious intellectual exchange, but rather to put their arguments beyond the pale of acceptable public debate. Far from being a recipe for moderation, Galston and Frum have hit on a surefire way to excite the very polarization they claim to oppose.