Politics & Policy

What Problem-Solving Progressives Don’t Get

(Mark Wilson/Getty)
The nation’s problem isn’t gridlock—it’s Washington.

‘No Labels” seems like a dodge to me. Or at least it used to.

I’m referring not so much to the No Labels group as to its idée fixe. The group was established in 2010 by an array of moderate Republicans and what we used to think of as “New Democrats.” Describing itself as a “movement” — the better to suggest a grassroots surge rather than a Beltway-insider gambit — No Labels devotes itself to making Washington “work”: to transcending partisan and ideological branding, to finding the common ground needed to solve the nation’s problems.

But what if Washington is the nation’s problem? Not the much-touted dysfunction of our central government but the very conceit that the problems of 320 million people are suitable to being solved by a Beltway political elite whose lives are increasingly remote from those of the people they nominally represent?

To say that “no labels” is a dodge is to use too loaded a word. No Labels members are deeply concerned about our country, particularly our security. Their desire to fix what ails us is genuine. To my mind, though, they are hearkening to a time more fondly imagined than actually lived — a time when political adversaries put their differences aside and addressed challenges cooperatively. Presuming their good faith, as I do, it is better to say the project is ill-conceived.

Our political divide is about principles, not labels. Labels have always been given to sets of principles, but principles and politics have never been mutually exclusive. The practice of politics in a constitutional democracy is, after all, the repetition of a calculation about principle: Knowing that everyone does not agree with me but that I have opportunities to convince them over time, how much can I afford to compromise today such that my principles can advance in the short run and prevail in the long run?

Still, the No Labels people do have a point when they argue that labels hinder effective governance. I don’t think, though, that this is because the labels make us intransigent. It is because the labels make ever less sense. Their main effect today is to obscure the real scrimmage line in our politics.

I am not just referring to the oft-observed truism that what we commonly call “liberal” is, in fact, the antithesis of liberal in the classic sense — the real liberals being those who defend the Constitution’s guarantees of individual liberty and state sovereignty against centralized government’s overbearing proclivities, namely “conservatives” and “libertarians” (at least those libertarians who actually believe in limited government — i.e., those for whom healthy skepticism about government has not devolved into implacable hostility towards government even in its essential functions).

A fascinating op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week, entitled, “The Progressive Case for Fracking” (here, but behind the subscription wall). The author, James Bloodworth, is a self-described progressive and the editor of a blog called Left Foot Forward. The piece was compelling, except . . . after reading it, I was sure that I must be a progressive, too.

Mr. Bloodworth’s point was that, by logic, progressives should support the “hydraulic-fracking revolution” forged by American shale producers. Why? Because it has resulted in a steep decline in energy prices and enhanced the prospects for American energy independence, which have roiled dictatorships in Tehran, Moscow, Caracas, and Riyadh. Thus, the “emaciation of civil liberty,” cast by Bloodworth as the bane of progressive existence, could finally be overcome by “a price war with some of the world’s vilest regimes.”

Given that the Left’s passions are stoked by narratives, the truth of which is beside the point, I doubt an argument employing logic will make much headway, even if offered by another progressive. But Bloodworth’s argument rests on amnesia: One must forget a history — much of it recent — of progressives coddling autocrats, turning a deaf ear to civil-rights advocates, and rationalizing the vileness of dictatorial regimes as a regrettable but understandable reaction to something (or is it everything?) that America has done.

The most notable thing about Bloodworth’s piece, though, is why it had to be written. While it’s not at all clear that progressives oppose tyranny, their opposition to fracking is unstinting, as is their opposition to all carbon-based energy production. This hostility is based on a narrative about saving the planet; the last thing it will permit is celebration of collapsing prices that encourage more energy consumption — not unless progressives are suddenly going to start being a lot more progressive than liberals are liberal.

This matters because progressives run Washington. The energy revolution has happened in spite of the federal government. It is driven by liberty: private property, far removed from the Beltway, exploited by private entrepreneurial initiative. Once again, the issue is not whether Democrats or Republicans in Washington have better ideas about regulation. It is about the widening disconnect between an entrenched, meddlesome, bipartisan ruling elite and a people for whom the concept of self-government does not entail being ruled.

What doesn’t work in Washington is . . . Washington — its officeholders-for-life, its strangling bureaucratic sprawl, its incestuous network of staffers and lobbyists, its naked cronyism, and its invested media.

The gridlock bewailed by Beltway insiders is actually a sign of political health, not dysfunction. Our constitutional system is designed to limit the central government’s influence — not because we don’t have serious problems but because those problems are best addressed locally, where their causes are intimately understood and their impacts acutely felt. However much good-government types despise gridlock, it does not signify an inability to solve problems but the reality that, for most problems, the solution is elsewhere to be found.

The Constitution’s impediments against federal intrusion and radical change have been greatly eroded, but they still work. They frustrate not only radicals who want change and good-government types who want solutions, but liberty lovers who want the Constitution’s impediments more rigorously enforced. Naturally, that breeds rancor and label-laden name-calling. But that’s nothing new and, historically, we’ve had far worse. 

Political labels do not paralyze us. The worst thing about the traditional labels — Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative — is their tendency to obfuscate rather than illuminate the real fault line. When I encounter politicians these days, I’m less interested in whether they style themselves as “constitutional conservatives” or “pragmatic progressives”; I want to know: Do you want to make Washington work or work against what Washington has become?


— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.


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