The unseriousness of "No Labels"

A bunch of conservative moderates demand that Americans shut up and civilly do what they want them to do

Published December 14, 2010 1:30PM (EST)

The anti-partisanship nonprofit political organization No Labels kicked off its nationwide campaign for civility yesterday with panel discussions featuring MSNBC pundit Joe Scarborough and a theme song composed and performed by R&B superstar and conflict diamond profiteer Akon. (You are invited to use the song to create a music video, if you're a complete weirdo.)

Early reviews are mixed. Specifically, partisans from both sides of the aisle mocked the entire enterprise relentlessly, while the brain-dead nonpartisan press mostly just repeated No Labels' claims to be representing "the center" or whatever it actually claims to represent. The "radical middle," said David Gergen (of course). Or, as Morning Joe himself said: "It has nothing to with politics, it has nothing to with ideology, it has everything to do with civility."

Sadly, civility doesn't have much of a constituency.

As independence mascot Michael Bloomberg himself acknowledged at yesterday's event, the only thing standing in the way of the No Labels campaign for nonpartisan cooperation and civility is democracy. When he tried to push for nonpartisan elections in New York, both parties came together to attack his plan, in the sort of display of true bipartisanship that people always say they wish we had more of until it happens.

Honestly, Bloomberg sounds pretty defeatist about the whole enterprise:

"It's not clear that the average person feels themselves disenfranchised or wants a lot of the things we are advocating," Bloomberg said. "In the end when you have an independent candidate it is the two major parties that get most of the votes."

Of course, getting the most votes was something a number of panel participants -- hello, Charlie Crist! -- have had trouble with.

No Labels is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that refuses to divulge its donors, but a couple of crazy-rich people have been mentioned, and considering that it's led by longtime Democratic fundraiser Nancy Jacobson and former Bush media guru Mark McKinnon, one can safely assume that the funders behind the organization are the usual gang of terribly wealthy coastal elites from the "Georgetown cocktail parties" and "Upper West Side penthouses" that everyone likes to complain about.

(Oddly, this slick and professional organization blatantly ripped off its logo, apparently without permission.)

Rich self-declared independents, we have been trained to believe, have no ideology. But the ones who support Mayor Bloomberg and fund centrist organizations like this tend to be conservative Democrats -- or, more accurately, Calvin Coolidge Republicans. Coolidge was the original reasonable moderate! Silent Cal supported an invisible regulatory state and anti-lynching laws. (Only one of those priorities survived filibusters, of course -- a tax cut for the rich has always been easier to get through Congress than protections for a minority group.) And his pro-business policies led to so much growth, for everyone, until ... they didn't, not long after his powerful commerce secretary succeeded him as president.

Much as New Yorkers decided that the richest man in town must also be the city's wisest leader, the Republicans of the 1920s had financial titan Andrew Mellon running the Treasury Department -- the guy knew money, right?

The idle rich can be excused for fantasizing that they're smarter than everyone else. When times are good they can sometimes even convince voters. But times are not good right now, except for the insanely wealthy, and I can't imagine that much of the nation will be receptive to either the ripped-from-the-Democratic Leadership Council platform of No Labels or its calls for everyone to just shut the hell up and do what the Serious Centrists want. ("Compromise Begins with Extension of Bush Era Tax Cuts," according to the No Labels blog.)

Evan Bayh is the perfect embodiment of the fetishization of bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship. In his time in the Senate, he never stood up for anything, right or wrong. Looking back on his tenure, he recalls periods of awful nationwide crises with great fondness.

Bayh, a former Indiana governor who retired from the Senate after two terms, said he had seen the Senate behave in a bipartisan fashion only a handful of times, such as after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"It may take that kind of exogenous event, that kind of forcing event, to make it happen" again, Bayh said.

Only when America faces an existential threat can both parties put aside their differences and ... do horrible, horrible things like pass the USA Patriot Act, decide to topple the government of Iraq, and use billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out the institutions that caused the worst global financial meltdown in generations, thus consolidating even more money and power into even fewer and more systemically connected mega-banks.

The existence of No Labels' Issues page aside, anyone listening to the round-table discussions yesterday would've come away with an impression of a group that had no ideas for how to accomplish anything beyond begging everyone to sit down in a room and play nice. Joe Scarborough seemed to be there on behalf of an organization dedicated to ensuring that people are civil to Joe Scarborough. He had some harsh words for bloggers -- Cheetos-eating bloggers, in their underwear, in basements -- who, we were told, are always attacking Joe Scarborough, because he loves civility so much.

Scarborough and Bayh are self-righteous and sanctimonious enough to make the most dedicated centrist long for the company of Barney Frank and Jim DeMint. But what's truly depressing is that there exist technocratic centrists who could use the No Labels money to fight for actual policy ideas (besides the usual proposed gutting of entitlements under the guise of "reform") instead of fighting for Joe Scarborough's right to never have to be criticized by liberals.

There are a million nonpartisan good-government reforms -- specific ideas, not vague platitudes -- that could use as much money and attention as this silly project. The No Labels "Election Reform" section, for example, is heavy on sturm und drang about redistricting, but it never mentions instant-runoff voting, or the National Popular Vote compact, or universal voter registration. Everyone complains about gerrymandering; why not try to convince people to expand the size of the House of Representatives? Why not fight to reform drug laws and free nonviolent offenders from prison?

It's fun to dream of a bunch of millionaires getting together to push for Senate procedural reform -- or maybe even the abolition of the Senate itself! -- instead of yet another gang of moderates dedicated to crowing about the deficit.

But if the No Labels crowd wanted to actually make headway in solving the problems that they claim partisanship is exacerbating, they'd have to pick solutions to problems facing America today, and then they'd fight and campaign for those solutions -- and when you begin fighting for what you believe in, it can be hard to remain "civil."

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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