In Praise of Labels

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 22, 2010

So, I have been perusing the website for No Labels. Despite the fact that it is called “No Labels,” we are assured on the homepage “that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America.” I guess that this means the group ought to have been called “Temporarily Bereft of Labels,” but apparently, this name didn’t fly in Marketing meetings. The declaration for the group tells us that “[w]e are not labels – we are people,” a statement about as banal as “water is wet,” and with significantly less meaning to it. And the “About Us” page tells us that No Labels seeks to appeal to “the vital center” of the country, which seems to imply that the group isn’t particularly interested in what partisans of either side think.

My snark notwithstanding, I am perfectly willing to assume that the people behind No Labels are good, honest, decent, patriotic, and possessed of the very best intentions possible. I am also prepared to believe that what this country really needs is not “No Labels,” but rather “More Labels.” Here’s why:

1. Labels are very informative. Political labels, party identifiers, and ideological/philosophical markers help signal to others where a particular person, or group of people, is/are coming from when debating a particular issue, or advancing a particular policy. It’s well and good to say that the labels of a person or group advancing a certain idea do not matter; that what matters is whether the idea is a good one standing on its own. To be sure, we need to determine whether an idea can stand on its own, and we need to make that determination independent of the identity of the person or people advancing that idea. But the analysis doesn’t stop there. Part and parcel of finding out whether an idea is good and worthy is determining whether that idea might just happen to serve the parochial interests of the person or people advancing it, and whether it is fatally flawed if it does. It’s difficult to make that determination if we are asked not to consider the identity, political orientations, philosophical beliefs, and potential self-interest of the person or people advancing the idea in question.

2. Labels don’t prevent the embrace of good ideas. Nothing whatsoever prevents us from adopting a good Republican idea, or a good Democratic idea. If you are the kind of person who engages in a knee-jerk rejection of a particular policy simply because that policy was proposed by a person or people on the other side of the partisan divide, you shouldn’t be in the policy-making business in the first place. If, on the other hand, you are willing to believe that the other side can come up with a good idea every once in a while, then labels should not–and likely will not–prevent you from giving those ideas due consideration, and a fair hearing.

3. Labels are adopted out of genuine conviction. I know that there are people involved in public policy who adopt a political label purely out of political convenience (see, e.g., Specter, Arlen), but the vast majority of labeled partisans come by their labels because they truly believe in the values that people who have adopted their labels believe in. Most Democrats are Democrats because they believe in the philosophy of the Democratic party, and believe that the Democrats’ philosophy will serve the nation best. Same for Republicans. Same for Libertarians. And so on. For labeled partisans, their values are a source of pride, a guide to how they debate the issues of the day, a lodestar that assists them in the formulation and implementation of policy, and a catalyst for civic engagement in general.

Asking people who come by their labels out of genuine conviction to put them aside, and to adopt instead a guise of disinterested, non-partisan concern for the country sounds uplifting and noble, but in fact, labeled partisans come by their interest and involvement in public affairs in large part because of their identification with a certain labeled political group, its guiding philosophy, and the political operation designed and implemented by that group in order to encourage and ensure significant amounts of political participation and civic involvement by its members. Republicans get Republicans to be involved in public affairs, and to vote on Election Day. Democrats do the same thing for Democrats. Try to sideline that support and encouragement structure for labeled partisans, and the consequence will be diminished political involvement. Writing for myself, I think that patriotism should be sufficient to get people to vote on Election Day, and to keep them involved and interested in public affairs all of the other days of the year. But the fact of the matter is that Uncle Sam doesn’t call people and remind them to get out and vote. He doesn’t drive people bereft of transportation to the polls. He doesn’t encourage you to contact your elected representatives. Labeled, partisan groups play a significantly stronger role in encouraging people to engage in those activities, and in doing so, they help drive civic participation and involvement. To be sure, they do this for their own selfish purposes–they want to win elections, and drive the policy debate–but if we consider civic participation a noble goal, we ought to acknowledge that mainstream labeled partisan organizations confer a genuine benefit on the country through their activities, and that they are patriots (if accidental patriots) in doing so.

None of this, by the way, is to say that people don’t involve themselves in public affairs on their own initiative. One has to be at least a bit of a self-starter if one is going to thrust oneself into the arena in some form. But labeled partisan organizations certainly help the process along, and without them, we will see much more of the political apathy that we are so fond of complaining about. No Labels does not propose to get rid of labeled partisan organizations, but it keeps telling them, and their members, to “put [the labels] aside.” But if we put the labels aside, aren’t we also going to put aside the vehicles for civic participation that labeled partisan organizations have designed and cultivated? And how will that not negatively impact levels of civic participation down the line?

4. No Labels reads conservatives out of its movement. I am willing to believe that the founders of No Labels didn’t intend this, but consider Conquest’s Second Law of Politics:

Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.

Assuming that this is true, why would the No Labels leadership team expect any cooperation from conservatives in cultivating the No Labels brand, organization, or mission? The whole point of No Labels–it is inherent in the name of the group–is to be non-partisan, non-ideological, and not associated with any particular political movement; recall that it wants to appeal to “the vital center” (whatever that is), and that it wants us to “put aside” our labels because it believes that in doing so, we will serve America best. But by refusing to identify itself in terms of any particular political philosophy, No Labels only serves to fuel conservative concerns (not unjustifiable concerns, one might add), that it will eventually lurch to the Left, per Conquest’s Second Law, and leave conservatives high and dry in the process.

No Labels might respond by saying that Conquest’s Second Law does not necessarily hold. Okay, but that proposition isn’t going to be firmly established anytime soon, which means that conservatives will remain suspicious of No Labels’ ability to be the political game-changer that it aims to be. No Labels might respond by saying “to Hell with the conservatives.” Fine. But note that this is a center-right country, and that conservatives, and the Republican party just won the 2010 midterms in smashing style. If No Labels is really out to unite the country behind a common purpose, can it really afford to do so without the help of the center-right?

5. Partisanship is not the culprit for our woes, and whining about partisanship is misguided. Seriously. Partisanship used to be a whole lot worse in the past, and America became a great nation regardless. I know I have linked to this before, but it really is worth reminding ourselves how bad the campaign commercials would have been if TV were around when America was a youngling nation:

It’s really easy to do what No Labels is doing; fixating on partisanship, declaring that it has never been so god-awful in our nation’s history, and pronouncing it the cause of many–if not all–of our ills. But the charge is bogus, something that the founders of No Labels would know, if they knew any history.

No Labels is an appealing idea in theory. But this blog post only scratches the surface in detailing all of the reasons why it won’t work in practice. Want to be of service to the country? One great way in which you can do so is to recognize and realize your convictions, and to act on them. If that entails adopting a mainstream political label, so be it. Not only will the United States survive your partisanship, she will thrive in spite–or perhaps because–of it.

Previous post:

Next post: