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