Tuesday, December 21, 2010

No labels? No thank you

When I find myself agreeing with conservative pundit George Will, it might be time to walk away from the computer. What can I say? But we do seem to agree about one thing and that is that this new group of moderate conservatives, calling themselves "No Labels," who have come together to give us all a good tongue-lashing for our hyper-partisanship, is a goofy bunch. 

Here is the mission statement for the group:

No Labels is a 501(c)(4) social welfare advocacy organization created to provide a voice for America's vital center, where ideas are judged on their merits, a position which is underrepresented in our current politics. No Labels provides a forum and community for Americans of all political backgrounds interested in seeing the nation move not left, not right, but forward. No Labels encourages all public officials to prioritize the national interest over party interest, and to cease acting on behalf of narrow, if vocal, special interests on the far right or left. 

Here is what Mr. Will has to say about them: 

People have different political sensibilities; they cluster and the clusters are called parties. They have distinctive understandings of the meaning and relative importance of liberty, equality and other matters. Politics is given weight, and motion is imparted to democracy, by intensely interested factions composed of people who are partisans of various causes. 

Yup, there it is. I agree with George Will. That, all on its own, may be proof that left and right can work together. (Just kidding.) But Will's point is that these people have no understanding of what politics is and that the kind of agreement that they think exists at the vital centre of American life, isn't there – and that is not a bad thing. Political partisanship is what makes democracy work.

To add a bit more clarity, I draw your attention to a comment made by MSNBC political commentator Joe Scarborough, one of the principles of No Labels, who offers this:

We govern in the middle. We always have. With apologies to Arthur Schlesinger, there’s not a pendulum swing ideologically in America. America stays in the middle, and we saw it. When you go too far left, they slap you back and when Republicans go too far right, they slap you back as well, into the center. 

What Scarborough seems to be suggesting is that there is a true and identifiable "general will" of the American people that is politically centrist and that Democrats and Republicans would do well to focus their energies on keeping it happy. He also seems to suggest that this general will has a clear idea of what public policies it would support and those it would reject and politicians need only work together, as good technocrats, to give effect to its interests.

George Will, as a trained political philosopher, probably has a pretty good idea that Joe Scarborough is full of crap. Hence Will's comment that people have very different ideas about the meaning of some extremely important ideas like liberty, equality, justice, fairness, morality, etc., etc. Politics is, as he says, all about "intensely interested factions composed of people who are partisans of various causes."

If Scarborough and his "No Label" friends only mean to say that we should try harder to understand each other to see if we can reach a working and reasonable accommodation about things where absolute agreement is unlikely, then okay, fine. I don't think we need a new 501(c) (4) social welfare advocacy organization for that, but fine. Knock yourself out.

But if he thinks that those on the right and left are simply conspiring to thwart the clear will of the people for the sake of narrow partisan and illegitimate interests, he and his friends are not serious people.

Speaking only for myself, I am on the left and will never stop trying to convince people, through legal and generally civil means, that wealth and power is concentrated in America to an extent that makes real democracy difficult; that equality is impossible if the rules of the game are rigged; that liberty is empty if we don't share the resources needed to make our desires effective; and that justice has far too much to do with how much money you have in your pocket. 

This also means that I have a lot invested in challenging the status quo. And I doubt that the "No Labelers" would consider a challenge to the status quo, at least in any meaningful way, acceptable. My guess is that the status quo is what they mean by the "vital center," and making the machine function in a more amicable way is about as ambitious as they intend to get. 

What they also mean is that the vital center should be defined by the values that the "No Labelers" hold. It wouldn't be the first time that the particular values of those holding power in society were represented as the universal values of everybody. Whenever I hear someone trying to tell us what the American people, taken as a whole, believe, I know it's time to run for cover.

This is the oldest trick in the political play book. Everybody else is biased in their political views and values, but the views that I and my friends hold define the good itself. No thank you.

At a minimum, labels are, as Will notes, a shorthand for how people feel about some pretty important issues, for which there may be little basis for agreement. The "No Labels" movement, and every other "beyond left and right" movement wants to gloss over this important fact.

To repeat, politics is not a technical exercise among like minds to implement in policy the values that we obviously share. There is no such agreement. There is no "general will." Politics is the fight over whose values will prevail. Labels are simply a useful shorthand for telling us who our potential allies and opponents are. If we stopped using the ones currently in vogue, we would need to invent others to replace them.

Again, if this is all about the fact that we should have more respect for good process, that's fine. But please stop saying that moving beyond left and right is necessarily the same as moving forward. It isn't. It's just an argument for de-clawing political opposition and for embracing business as usual.

I'll bet partisans on the left and right can agree at least about that much. 

(Cross-posted to Lippmann's Ghost.)

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