No Labels Comes to Washington

For its panel on “mak[ing] Congress work” this morning, No Labels—a group that bills itself as “a voice” for the “silent majority”—assembled a group of current and former lawmakers to solve the problems of partisanship and polarization. Among the members present were Senators Joe Lieberman, Joe Manchin, Bill Nelson, and Dean Heller; Congressman Jim Cooper; former Senator Evan Bayh; former Congressman Micky Edwards; and David Walker, the former comptroller general. There was a standard issue list of bipartisan reforms: an end to negative campaigning against fellow members, filibuster reform, pay for performance, and nonpartisan primaries.

If these sound unremarkable, it’s because they are. Even if the large crowd (it filled a chamber in one of the House office buildings) was enthusiastic, there’s something banal about an event where politicians speak in gauzy platitudes—“Back in the day, friendship mattered more than party, and common purpose mattered more than ideology,” Evan Bayh said in his presentation—and praise bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake. The proposals had little to do with the underlying issues, anyway. Congressional polarization occurs because of the geographic distribution of voters (Republicans tend to live near Republicans, Democrats near Democrats). Filibuster reform would make for more effective governance, but it wouldn’t reduce partisanship; indeed, it works by accommodating partisanship. 

But even if you put that aside, it’s hard to get past the big problem with this event. No Labels and other groups pushing for bipartisanship aren’t actually anti-partisan. If you read over the guest list for today’s No Labels event, you’d notice that the participants are squarely on the right of the political spectrum. Joe Manchin and Joe Lieberman are well positioned on the center-right of American politics, and their agenda reflects this.

Deficit reduction, for example, isn’t a cross-partisan priority, and it’s an ideological choice to privilege reducing the deficit over issues like unemployment. What No Labels fails to understand is that Americans are divided themselves and that division is a legitimate part of our political conversation. There’s nothing wrong with a system where two parties present opposing views. We just need a process to accommodate it.

The other problem is illustrated by the actual demographics of No Labels, its founders, and its supporters in Congress. Today’s panel was uniformly white, male, and middle-aged. Likewise, the founders of No Labels are mostly white and mostly middle-aged. And they were all pining for an age of bipartisanship where the vast majority of lawmakers were white, and their “compromises” ignored the interests of women, people of color, and other minorities. The truth is that there is nothing admirable about compromise for the sake of compromise, and if highly ideological parties are the cost of a world in which women and nonwhites have a greater say in government, then that—for me—is a fair trade.