Thomas Jefferson did a lot of writing on both the wisdom and folly of the party system in the newly-born American nation. In a letter to John Taylor, he had this to say about the wisdom of political parties:
“In every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissensions and discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time.”
In a letter to Francis Hopkinson, he had this to say about the folly of political parties:
“I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”
Most are hard-pressed to argue that Jefferson was anything less than a genius when it came to analysis of human nature as it relates to government and politics. And yet, on the topic of political parties, he was clearly torn. So, if someone as astute as Jefferson could simultaneously defend and decry the notion of political parties, the new group No Labels should perhaps rethink exactly what it is they’re trying to do.
Launched Monday at New York’s Columbia University, the group includes “centrist” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “independents” like recently ousted Florida Governor and party-hopper Charlie Crist and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, and “right” Republicans like Reps. Mike Castle, Del., and Bob Inglis, S.C., who were forcibly retired by their districts. The stated goal of this group is to start from the middle of the road and restore civility and compromise in political discourse. The moniker “No Labels” is supposed to be evocative of getting the work done across party lines and, most importantly, not allowing those party lines to be the most important deciding factor in policy decision-making.
Forgetting for a moment the inherent contradiction in labeling a group with a name like “No Labels,” the organization, while noble in effort, is already flawed in premise. And, from a logical standpoint, the whole shebang is flawed as a result.
Most of the criticism thus far has stemmed from the fact that the group is seeking to respond to increasing hyper-partisanship in the American political system. But hasn’t the tea party already filed some of that partisanship down? While it is popular to paint the tea party as a Republican group, the truth is that the tea party is in fact a conservative group, one which is seeking to redefine the political right with clearly defined fiscal priorities, such as passing a Balanced Budget Amendment, cutting spending and reducing the size and scope of government. People are looking for the opportunity to redefine, re-label and re-brand candidates as conservatives; they aren’t rejecting all labels, just the liberal label evocative of a big government.
What No Labels appears to actually be attempting to do (whether or not it’s self-aware enough to realize it) is capitalize and organize a group that seeks to do what the tea party has already done: address issues and legislation from the perspective of their practical consequences rather than their partisan origin. Where it differs is that, rather than an organic, bottom-up, grassroots effort motivated by passion and not a little bit of fear, it is slick, top-down, and steeped in money, power and influence. Also, unlike the tea party, it’s probably doomed to fail.
Again, the idea of reaching across the aisle is, as Jefferson noted, something that those who prefer to think for themselves should endeavor to do. However, if the effort is motivated by something vague (like the new group’s agenda) or less honorable than a free man’s need for intellectual liberation, it becomes something of a cheap facsimile … and purely political.
Chuck Warren is a board member of Pass the Balanced Budget Amendment PasstheBBA.com