A group called “No Labels” is getting an awful lot of buzz these days, despite the fact that it has raised only $1 million. (Though it sounds more impressive if you say it like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies: One. Million. Dollars.) The professed idea behind No Labels is that its members don’t believe in labels, by which they mean names such as Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. Some black-hearted cynics see No Labels as a Trojan horse for a presidential bid by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who finds the two-party system an unfortunate obstacle to his ambitions.
No Labels denies this. According to its website, No Labels is a centrist, middle-of-the-road group whose motto (at least its members believe in mottos!) appears to be “Put the Labels Aside. Do What’s Best for America.” It goes on: “We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America.”
#ad#Elsewhere, it likens itself to the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which it hilariously describes as an area designed by North and South Koreans alike for “cool heads” to craft “elegant solutions.” No Labels wants to be a “Depoliticized Zone” that serves a similar purpose. Never mind that the real Korean DMZ is one of the most heavily mined and dangerous places in the world, where nothing fruitful has happened for half a century.
But bad metaphors are the least of its problems. These no-labelers start from the premise that if you want what’s best for the country, you must declare independence from your political party, because Democrats and Republicans alike are either politically brainwashed dupes or are less than fully patriotic.
Such fuzzy thinking is a symptom of the growing fetishization of the “center” as an ideologically distinct and superior location and “independents” as a philosophically coherent group. In reality, there is no single center in American politics, and there are many different kinds of independents. Indeed, “pure independents” — i.e. voters with no allegiance to either party — amount to barely 10 percent of the electorate and a mere third of the number of people who call themselves independents. And these purists don’t even vote much. There are very conservative independents and there are very liberal independents, just as there are people who think all of their positions are centrist, even though they might seem absurdly right-wing to some or creepily left-wing to others. The confusion partly stems from the fact that Americans have a habit of equating the label “centrist” with “reasonable” and the label “independent” with “thoughtful” or “free thinking.” (Yes, I’m afraid they’re all labels.) Hence even folks who want to expel the U.N. or fund the Pentagon through bake sales tend to cast themselves as misunderstood centrists.
This highlights one of the great things about political parties and political labels. If I tell you I’m a conservative Republican, you’ll have no idea what my views are on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or beef jerky, but you’ll have a good idea of what I think about taxes and foreign policy. No, partisan labels aren’t perfect; both parties have ample disagreements within their ranks on pretty much every issue. But they’re better than nothing. They’re clarifying, not confusing. In other words, labels aren’t “meaningless” as so many self-described independents claim, but meaningful. If anything, what’s meaningless is the claim that you don’t believe in labels when obviously anybody who speaks intelligently about anything must use them.
What no-labelers really mean is that they don’t like inconvenient disagreements that hinder their agenda. And that’s what is so troubling, indeed so undemocratic, about this claptrap. When they claim we need to put aside labels to do what’s right, what they are really saying is you need to put aside what you believe in and do what they say. When activists say we need to move past the partisan divide, what they mean is: Shut up and get with my program. Have you ever heard anyone say, “We need to get past all of this partisan squabbling and name-calling. That’s why I’m going to abandon all my objections and agree with you”? I haven’t.
No Labels says it’s “about taking the politics out of problem-solving.” It is amazing how cavalierly people say this sort of thing, as if it weren’t the rationale behind pretty much every dictatorship since the dawn of man. Nearly once a week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gives voice to his full-blown man-crush on China’s one-party dictatorship because — according to Friedman — the Chinese, unlike us, can implement “optimal” policies without getting bogged down in such distractions as elections, the rule of law, human rights, etc.
Look: You can’t take the politics out of problem-solving. Politics, even in China, is the art of problem-solving. People aiming to yank the politics out of government invariably end up removing the democracy instead.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.