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What I Saw at the ‘No Labels’ Launch, Part 2

December 20, 2010

So far, the No Labels launch was successfully disarming the cynic in me. I was looking at a bright constellation of political and media luminaries, not all of whom agreed on the issues, agreeing that we need to respect those who don’t agree with us on the issues. 

These latter-day sages were essentially warning us that if we continue to put partisanship above principles, we’re as doomed as the Phoenicians and Babylonians. In  today’s hyperpolarized climate, the No Labels mission is virtually revolutionary.  Couple it with the youthful idealism rippling across the auditorium, and you have a movement to be reckoned with.

Two more No Labels founding leaders, Jon Cowan and Lisa Borders, now took the stage to coach us on “How to Build and Grow the Movement.” According to these seasoned activists, the three keys to the success of No Labels are “organization, participation and donation.” (I was afraid they might bring up that last item.)

Cowan and Borders talked about the need for us to start local No Labels chapters, invite prospective members into our homes and hold town halls in our Congressional districts. We’d establish watchdog committees for each of the 435 members of Congress to make sure they didn’t slip into easy partisanship. We’d rate our individual representatives according to their penchant for putting aside labels. (Of course, the guilty parties would themselves be labeled as hyperpartisan.)

The ultimate goal of all this grassroots watchdogging was to hold our elected representatives accountable to their constituents. That’s admirable. But we’d be grading them only on their freedom from rigid partisanship. (I’d like to grade them on their freedom from influential lobbyists as well, but at least this is a start.)

I was starting to wonder if I had the requisite energy, temperament and zeal to be a true political activist. Activism is a socially acceptable form of fanaticism, after all — even in pursuit of a worthy cause. Chances are that my contribution to the movement would take the form of words.  After all, words were good enough for Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine, who memorably threw their support behind another worthy cause.

Just before the rally broke for lunch, we heard the spanking-new No Labels anthem — handiwork of a singer/songwriter known as Akon.  (The program emblazoned his name in all-caps style, making me wonder if AKON was an acronym. It’s not.) Mr. Akon was supposed to make a personal appearance but apparently pre-recorded his latest composition for our listening pleasure.

I had never heard of Akon (I’ve been mostly indifferent to and/or repelled by current popular music since the Beatles broke up) but he’s reputed to be a high-wattage rapper-entrepreneur. The more-or-less tuneless anthem, delivered in a voice that was engineered to sound half-human and half-robotic, contained lines like the following:

There’s a fight then a race, who’s gonna win / Put your differences aside man if you can / ‘Cause there’s way too many people sufferin’

The anthem might come in handy as No Labels launches its drive to recruit college students to its ranks. But at least for the moment, Francis Scott Key has nothing to worry about.

We filed out into the reception hall, grabbed our lunches, schmoozed with our fellow No-Labelers and met some rising political stars — including those who toil behind the scenes to make the world safe for moderation and nonpartisanship. Not much of a networker myself, I hung out with my allies from CenterMovement.org (I serve on the board of that worthy organization) and heard about the key players lurking around the premises.

Back to the auditorium for the afternoon sessions… It was easier to find a seat now, because more seats were vacant. The morning’s crackling energy level had subsided. We settled in for a panel discussion on election reform in America, hosted by MSNBC personality Dylan Ratigan.

A critical issue — too many good moderates have been elbowed out of their own parties by rabid extremists… too many long-entrenched politicoes use gerrymandering and other unsavory methods to consolidate their power. But despite the presence of Mayor Bloomberg, Florida Governor Charlie Crist and outgoing Congressman/Tea Party victim Mike Castle of Delaware, the discussion never seemed to gain altitude. Maybe we were already starting to fade.

Our post-luncheon lassitude ended abruptly when Newark Mayor Cory Booker took the podium as one of six “short takes” on the issues. I had read about his popularity, as well as his ambitious program for revitalizing his beleaguered city, but I had never seen him in action. You have to see him in action, because he’s an action figure come to life.

Animated, funny, passionate, electrifying and even lovable in the time-honored mayoral tradition of New York’s Fiorello LaGuardia, the shiny-domed, still-youthful Booker declared that “our enemy is our inability to come together.” He told us how easy it would be to keep guns out of the hands of criminals — if only we’d actually agree to do it.

Echoing the No Labels mission, he observed that “no political party has a monopoly on great ideas.” He spoke movingly of our national motto, E pluribus unum, and its real-life meaning in a diverse and often fractious nation. We need to be one for the benefit of our children, he concluded to a rousing ovation.

More “short takes” followed: Rob McCord, Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, called for “uncommon sense.” Former Trenton, NJ, Mayor Douglas Pamer hopped aboard the No Labels express and told us that we need to “get into people’s heads” at a grassroots level if we want the movement to succeed. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’ll be on the menu,” he quipped.

Former U.S. Comptroller David Walker wrapped up this portion of the program with a stern, almost apocalyptic warning about a debt-ravaged America poised for a fall. “Our political system is broken,” he noted with concern. We’ve strayed from our founding principles. Half of our staggering debt is owned by foreign powers, and we have to change course before we “go over a cliff.”

No Labels co-founder Kiki McLean delivered the day’s concluding remarks, following Walker’s jeremiad with a more upbeat message about the spirit of bipartisan cooperation. She invoked the example of Senator Everett Dirksen, fondly remembered by political observers of a certain vintage. Dirksen, a Republican, routinely cooperated with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson to push much-needed social legislation through Congress. To Dirksen, “doing the right thing” mattered more than partisan politics. So it is with the founders of No Labels. I wished the movement well and headed back outside into the chilly December dusk.

In the days since the No Labels launch, vocal skeptics (including both Rush Limbaugh on the right and Keith Olbermann on the left) have been roundly skewering No Labels, questioning its hidden agenda and covert political leanings. But of course, the whole point of No Labels is that we shouldn’t lean at all when we’re attempting to solve problems. We can lean in private, but we all need to straighten up in public and work together for the common good. And besides, any group that can incite the animosity of both Limbaugh and Olbermann has to be doing something right.

Despite my personal disinclination toward activism, the No Labels message is one that I can endorse from the bottom of my embattled moderate heart. Granted, we shouldn’t abandon our own political principles for the sake of bipartisan cooperation, but we have to start respecting the political principles of others or we’re doomed to continual infighting, discord and eventual decline.

American ideologues tend to believe that their ideas are holy writ. They spew outrage when we take issue with their politics.  We’re branded as heretics.

Yet we have every right to take issue with agendas that cater to special interests, especially at this critical crossroads in our history. An economically compromised America — an America in danger of losing its stature in the world — simply cannot afford to place partisanship above the general good of the nation. End of sermon.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2010 1:29 pm

    American politics has always been a dirty sport. The Sedition act of 1798 ably demonstrates that our founders were capable of disregarding the constitution they wrote as well as any modern politician. Jefferson and Adam’s previously close friends ran against each other in 1800, Jefferson hired John Callendar to slander Adam’s in the papers, Callendar later turned on Jefferson. Despicable epitaphs question far more about each candidates birth than its location, Many other prominent Americans – such as Martha Washington joined in the fray. Religion has been an important factor in virtually every American election. The Adam’s Jefferson election is not particularly unique.

    You declaim ideology. Ideology is values. You want the good of the nation placed above partisanship, and then get angry when people like Limbaugh and Olberman question your agenda. What is “The good of the nation” ? I can think of no problem that we face that is not intimately intertwined in values. Pres. Obama’ and democratic leaders advanced an agenda based on an ideology. The opposition is to that ideology. The debate is about ideology. With little exception the money and special interests in politics reflect specific ideologies.
    Occasional compromise is essential in a pluralistic society, but compromise is not in and off itself a virtue, nor a road to the truth. I have more respect for Limbaugh and Olberman – they are standing up for what they believe.

    Both the left and the right (accepting the fallacy that everything is bipolar for the moment) decry, pork, earmarks, wasteful corporate subsidies, special interests, lobbiests, monied interests, government corruption. Yet these all exist and thrive because this is they are the means of political compromise.

    If you want to help improve this nations problems rather than trying to seduce more people onto the fence, listen to Olberman, Limbaugh, Ried, Obama, Fox, ….. search things out and try to figure out what you really believe about the issues and then act and vote on that. Empower whichever view on whatever issue to stand firm, because when you demand that they set aside partisanship and seek compromise all the things you despise are the sweeteners, and lubricants that allow us and our leaders to sacrifice some part of our values.

    As to “secret agenda’s” there are numerous hints in your own posts that tepidly identify the no labellers with an ideology – beyond why can’t we all just get along. One important facet of the public debate that we are having is whether and to what extent it is the role of government to help those who are suffering. And beyond that whether the government social safety net does not actually make things worse.

    If your objective is helping those who are suffering, then I will laud your motives, but you can not answer questions regarding the role of government without at-least implicitly accepting an ideology. When you ask government to help Roosevelt’s “forgotten man” you necessarily do so at cost to Sumner’s “forgotten man”

    Personally, I think the “No Labels” movement is a meaningless tangent. I am surprised that the press has paid any attention to it at all.

    • December 21, 2010 2:52 am

      Ah, yes.

      “Everybody has a religion.” “You must be this, or you must be that.” “Fence sitter.”

      Dave Lynch: “Ideology is values.”

      But what Dave Lynch fails to realize is that a lack of ideology is NOT a lack of values. An intelligent, reasonable person can find fault in all the major political philosophies…so much fault, in fact, that reconciling with them is impossible. If you order spaghetti at a restaurant, but request holding the tomato sauce, are you still really eating spaghetti? Why, then, order the spaghetti in the first place, you ask? Well, perhaps you like the noodles. Or maybe it’s the garlic bread that comes with it. But without the traditional sauce, is it really spaghetti? More importantly, does it matter?

      Gay Christians. Jewish atheists. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Are the people who take these labels deluded? By Dave Lynch’s definition, they are. If you’re a Christian, then you follow the tenets of that religion (ideology), supposedly. But if you also practice homosexuality, a practice that religion condemns, are you a Christian?

      I ask these questions because ideology hasn’t been accurately defined here. “Values” are only one facet. Which gets to the heart of Mr. Bayan’s point: what good are values when those particular values might not even be your own, when you might only be adopting them out of moral apathy and convenience?

      I concur with David Lynch’s statement, “Occasional compromise is essential in a pluralistic society, but compromise is not in and off itself a virtue, nor a road to the truth,” as I’ve posted before. But I’d disagree that compromise should only be occasional. Far more often than not, moderation is what benefits a society. But moderation is not only keeping your opponents in check, it’s also keeping YOURSELF in check. This means questioning yourself. Rigorously. If at least a few of the questions your opponent asks aren’t nagging at you for some time after the debate (provided your opponent matched your polemic skill), then were you really listening?

      I’ve known far too many people of older generations who once THOUGHT they belonged to a certain ideology, decades ago, but have seen their personal values, which haven’t changed, come more in line with the opposite—at least as that opposite ideology is defined today. So if ideologies can be that amorphous, what exactly are we valuing? If I feel that insurance companies shouldn’t be able to turn away potential clients based on pre-existing conditions, but that every American shouldn’t be FORCED to buy health insurance, am I a liberal, or a conservative? Same question for upholding the 2nd Amendment, but prohibiting ridiculously augmented assault weapons. Supporting gay marriage, but it should be legislated through democratic voting, and not through the courts. Dave Lynch may pop up with an answer, but I can think of many who’d contest his answer, no matter what it is.

      Admittedly, my initial reaction to “No Labels” is that it IS rather specious. But unreasonably suspicious reaction from “respectable” ideologues gives me pause. If it’s of no consequence, why the enmity? I’ve heard both sides accuse No Labelers of being “fronts for the other side.” Doesn’t this tell us something?

  2. Priscilla permalink
    December 22, 2010 8:01 am

    Frank Rich of the NYT ( who I cannot stand because of his hyperpartisanism), once wrote this:

    “In America, we have a two-party system,” a Republican congressional staffer is supposed to have told a visiting group of Russian legislators some years ago.
    “There is the stupid party. And there is the evil party. I am proud to be a member of the stupid party.”
    He added: “Periodically, the two parties get together and do something that is both stupid and evil. This is called—bipartisanship.”

    Conservatives and Republicans often claim that the Democrats’ idea of bipartisanship is Republicans agreeing to do what Democrats want. Democrats often claim that Republicans who disagree with their policies are merely being the “party of no.” There is a great deal of truth to both statements, but they are sadly oversimplified and have become fallback canards of the press.

    I found it interesting that, in the “60 Minutes” profile of John Boehner, he described the late Ted Kennedy as “one of his closest friends in Congress” and a great Senator who got things done because he was always willing to listen to and reach consensus with the GOP. This would seem to go against the conventional view of Kennedy as the “liberal lion” of the Senate….but, I think that you can be a very passionate partisan spokesman for your position, while remaining open to the opposing point of view.

    This doesn’t happen when we demonize the opposition and consider them the enemy…..my main problem with No Labels is that, to a certain degree, it seeks to demonize both sides. I know that that is not, in fact, what the group’s purpose is, but I think it might be more successful if it chose a less smug name for itself …..The New Moderates, maybe??

    • December 22, 2010 5:16 pm

      Excellent and cool-headed reply, Priscilla. The world needs more conservatives like you.

  3. valdobiade permalink
    December 22, 2010 7:12 pm

    Actually both replies, sicklygreyfoot and Priscilla’s were very interesting.

    I think that “No Label” movement made some conservatives “uneasy”, for it may unify some forces to a goal that cannot be “controlled” by them. You know, the conservatives have a clear label for what they want to conserve.
    Also, “No Republican, No Democrat”, “no right, no left” – just “forward”. Well, too many totalitarian regimes have or had a statue of their leaders with an arm raised. Want to guess what that means? “Forward”
    What if there will be indeed a unification under “No Label” that may hijacked by some totalitarian mentality?

  4. December 23, 2010 2:51 pm

    Sorry, folks, I’m all caught up in Christmas preparation… but I promise I’ll comment when I can catch a breather. Meanwhile, “talk amongst yourselves.”

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