The Right, the Left, and Labels

John Podhoretz, Jonah, and others, have done a very good job highlighting the incoherence of the “No Labels” project—it’s basically a way to label as unconstructive people who disagree with the no labels crowd.  John Miller also brings up O’Sullivan’s First Law (“all organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing”) in this context.


The only thing I’d add to their perceptive points is that I think the distaste for parties and labels and the tendency of “unlabeled” organizations to veer left are very closely connected. Or put another way, a healthy respect for the persistent reality of substantive disagreement is actually an essential part of the conservative worldview, because it is a function of a belief in the permanent limits of human reason.


A few stray thoughts on that front, if you will pardon a detour into political philosophy on an otherwise interesting news day:


Our best guide here is Edmund Burke, who was not only the father of a great deal of what we now think of as conservatism, but also quite possibly the foremost theorist of partisanship in the Anglo-American tradition. In a series of pamphlets in the late 1760s and early 70s (and especially Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents, in 1770), Burke makes a positive case for partisanship as essential to the politics of any free society. Parties, Burke argues, are often mistaken for factions pursuing private interests (or we might say “special interests”) at the expense of the broader national interest. But in fact, he says, parties represent different views of the national interest—they stand not for what is best for different parts of the nation, but for different beliefs about what is best for the whole.


Politics is not a scientific exercise in which there is a single correct answer out there and the proper application of the proper method will get us to that answer in a demonstrable way. Rather, politics is our means of governing ourselves in an effort to best serve the interests, needs, and desires of the nation amidst great and permanent uncertainty. That uncertainty cannot be overcome entirely by human reason, and so our exercise of reason in politics has to be accompanied by an exercise of prudence, wisdom, and a sense of proportion. Such things are inherently controversial. Every individual’s knowledge is partial (and even the sum of all of our knowledge is partial), and every individual’s reason is limited. That is why individuals have to work together in politics, and parties exist to facilitate that working together.


Such cooperation is not facilitated by a single party of the whole because different people tend to possess or to emphasize different parts of the whole—different elements of the national interest, different elements of the human experience, different elements of our partial knowledge and reason. Human beings are not equipped by nature to know the whole, and so to understand in any direct and complete way what is best, and the theoretical methods of the enlightenment do not overcome this limitation, despite the claims of their partisans. We can know only parts, and different people are shaped by their life experience, or by study, or perhaps just persuaded by arguments, to emphasize different parts. Politics in a free society is a competition among the “partisans” of these different parts. Statesmen confront options for action, and what they choose to emphasize about human nature or politics or the circumstances of the situation—the parts of our knowledge they possess or deem most crucial—will shape the choices they make. Partisans make their case by offering reasons for emphasizing the parts of our partial knowledge they choose to emphasize, but these reasons will never be persuasive to everyone, because different people are shaped differently by their experiences and circumstances and are inclined to emphasize different parts. For this reason, Burke writes, “we know that parties must ever exist in a free country.”


Knowing this does not make the knower a non-partisan, or put him above the partisan fray. He still has his views, which he holds for serious reasons that he can articulate, and it is his obligation to participate avidly in the great partisan debates of the day. And such participation often requires aggressive and heated debate—pick almost any page of Burke at random and you will find lots of labeling of others, to put it mildly.


Burke took note of the fact that these differences of emphasis tend to coalesce into a discrete number of general views or sets of priorities, so that a free society will have just a few serious and large parties. People with a shared general sense of what matters most and what would best serve the national interest therefore have an obligation to work together in politics, because none of them should expect to be able to be effective alone. But the different parties should not expect to simply persuade each other and put an end to partisanship, because the different emphases that different people put on different portions of the whole are a permanent fact of social and political life—a product of permanently limited people living together in a complicated society.


Burke’s case for party was therefore very similar to his case for tradition: the limits of individual reason could be overcome in part by recourse to a pool of experience and wisdom, and the consequences of those limits can be mitigated some by a system of government full of checks and limits and brakes on hubris. It is a case rooted in the notion that human reason is limited, and always will be. The French enlightenment, and much of the progressive tradition in Western politics, is rooted in the opposite view—that the limitations of human reason and knowledge can be overcome, and are being overcome in our time by means of the rational application of scientific principles in politics. In this view, partisanship is merely an expression of barbarism, of the work yet left to do. The success of the progressive project would mean the ultimate overcoming of party politics, and indeed the replacement of politics itself by administration—or, as the “No Labels” website puts it, “taking the politics out of problem-solving.”


The view that politics can be taken out of problem-solving is itself a partisan view of the left, so it is not by coincidence that organizations devoted to that view tend over time to lean left. 


Now back to the lame duck Congress…

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs, a quarterly journal of essays on domestic policy and politics. He is also the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy ...

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