Why No Labelism in America is a fail

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No Labels conference. (Azi Paybarah, via flickr)
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Even before Michael Bloomberg let the air out of the launch event for the "No Labels" campaign by dismissing the idea of running for president, the movement seemed set up for failure.

The group, headed by Republican strategist Mark McKinnon and Democratic fund-raiser Nancy Jacobson, hopes to bring civility and moderation to a political atmosphere that it regards as disfigured by "hyper-partisanship." Its founders insist that it will not support candidates for national office. But exactly what it will do is far from clear. Its “declaration” is comprised of little more than well-meaning pablum: "We are not labels, we are people," it begins, before adding "we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what's best for America." The fatuousness continues from there.

Yet such is the state of things that this event may come to be regarded as a high point of this election cycle in the push for an organized alternative to the way major-party politics functions in America.

It isn't like this everywhere. In other Western democracies, actual third parties have thrived for generations. Even those that have never broken through to challenge for the political leadership of their nations have often punched above their weight. Yet this pattern seems as foreign to U.S. culture as the metric system.

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Why do third parties—and nonpartisan movements of the kind No Labels aspires to be—fail so miserably to gain traction here?

The clichés of the No Labels declaration—to say nothing of the outsized level of excitement surrounding a perfectly nice, if vague, speech by Mayor Bloomberg at the Brooklyn Navy Yards last week—provide a clue.

In the U.S., it often seems as if the appetite for an extra-partisan movement is rooted in a nebulous discontent with the existing options rather than any enthusiasm for a cogent and rigorous ideological alternative. Third parties in other nations can certainly gain from this plague-on- both-houses attitude. Just look at the boomlet enjoyed by Britain’s Liberal Democrats during the general election campaign earlier this year. This mini-surge was sparked mainly by the capacity of their leader, Nick Clegg, to appear neither as sepulchral as Gordon Brown nor as oleaginous as David Cameron during the leaders’ televised debates.

But the mere fact that the LibDem leader was accorded equal footing in those debates was itself testament to his party’s ability, over a longer period, to carve out a distinctive ideological niche.

The classically liberal side of their heritage enabled them to credibly criticize the 1997-2010 Labor government's enthusiasm for nanny-statism. Their more recent roots in social democracy also led them to display a concern for the country's marginalized citizens that has provided them a clear contrast with Britain's Tories.

(The LibDems are now in coalition with those self-same Tories and, as the recent violence on the streets of London showed, that may not be working out so well. One of Clegg’s biggest challenges will be finding a way to calm the anxieties of colleagues who, viewing themselves as several notches farther to the left than their business-friendly leader, have been uneasy about the coalition arrangement from the outset.)

An even more successful third party, Germany's Free Democratic Party (FPD), has become a major (and apparently permanent) part of that nation's political furniture by carving out a niche between the center-right Christian Democrats and their counterparts on the left, the Social Democrats.

Serious third parties do not always have to hew to an ideology that is equidistant from their bigger rivals. Canada's New Democratic Party has captured significant numbers of seats, with only a few lapses, in every federal election for the past half-century. It stands to the left of both major players, the Liberals and the Conservatives.

The point is simple: a real third party has to stand for something. That “something” can be classic liberalism, or social democratic values, or green issues. It can be the interests of small farmers (Australia's National Party) or the unappealing passions of xenophobes and racists (France's National Front). But what such a party cannot do is exist merely to give voice to the kind of airy, ideology-free pronouncements about "a place where ideas are judged on their merits" (a direct quote from the No Labels declaration) that are currently the order of the day here.

Faced with such criticism, supporters of No Labels would no doubt reiterate that it does not seek to present itself as an embryonic third party. That’s all well and good.

But there is a simple and insurmountable problem with the kind of rhetoric favored by No Labels—and by de facto precursors like Unity 08, which flared briefly as the last presidential election season got underway. Such groups are predicated on the notion that there is some magical position, above and beyond the existing ideological spectrum, to be occupied by a new entity dedicated, in a way that neither major party is, to solving the nation's problems. But the moment one moves from aspirational words to policy specifics, the idea falls apart.

To be fair, one can certainly claim that there are ideological points on the spectrum that are insufficiently represented in American politics. There is at least a grain of truth, for instance, in the perennial leftist complaint that the U.S. has only a party of the right and a party of the center. But this kind of idea is quite different from the vacuous "why can’t we all just get along?" approach favored by No Labels.

When third parties have emerged in the U.S., they have far too often been mere vessels for the ambitions of one man. Teddy Roosevelt was the best-performing third-party candidate in any 20th century presidential election, taking over 27 percent of the vote in 1912. But the Progressive Party got its oxygen from him alone, and expired soon afterward.

Later, the States' Rights Democratic Party and the American Independent Party were umbilically tied to the presidential campaigns of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace respectively. They were consigned to the political wilderness shortly after the defeat of the former in 1948 and the latter twenty years later. Ross Perot had already mounted the more successful of his two presidential bids when he set up the Reform Party in the mid-1990s. It still exists, but it is a negligible force.

The failure of a credible third party to emerge in the U.S. could also be seen in a very different way—as a tribute, of a kind, to the capacity of the Democratic and Republican Parties to keep so many disparate people and interest groups within their ranks.

In France and Italy, parties have splintered and then splintered again to create a national landscape that, at least to American eyes, seems hopelessly diffuse.

In Britain, the old Liberal Party was only rescued from irrelevance when it was joined in an electoral alliance for much of the 1980s by the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP had broken away from the much bigger Labor Party having watched the latter's shift to the hard left with dismay.

(Labor ultimately responded to the threat posed by the Liberal-SDP Alliance by moving to the center under a succession of modernizing leaders—Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair. The electoral triumphs of "New Labor" under Blair led many observers to conclude that the SDP had ultimately saved the party it hoped to supplant.)

Looked at from a certain angle, the achievement of the Democratic Party in finding a way to keep, say, Ben Nelson and Dennis Kucinich within its ranks, is quite impressive. Whether the same can be said of the contemporary, and increasingly homogenous, Republican Party is a more debatable question. But Susan Collins, Jim DeMint and Ron Paul are, for the moment, still in the same party.

American parties are periodically seized by battles for their soul. It happened to the G.O.P. in 1976, with the Reagan-Ford struggle, and to the Dems in elections in 1968 (Humphrey-McCarthy) and 1980 (Carter-Kennedy). The crucial point: in none of these cases did substantial numbers from the vanquished faction leave the fold to set up their own party.

Those who long for the emergence of a serious alternative to the two major parties sometimes seem to be asking the wrong questions. Their complaints about the "two party system" often blame the two parties when the culpability really lies with the system.

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, provided a perfect example of this disconnect in an October article. Pondering the “level of disgust with Washington, D.C.”, Friedman predicted that “there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her.”

An effective formula, perhaps, for cracking the Times' most-emailed list. But the reality is that the obstacles to such a candidate enjoying electoral success are high, and the chances of that person making the difference Friedman and others hope to see are extremely low.

The winner-take-all element of U.S. elections makes it extraordinarily difficult for a third-party candidate to break the two-party stranglehold. The much more likely scenario is that such a candidate would be confined to the margins. His or her impact would most likely be limited to delivering a Nader-like boost to the major-party candidate farthest away on the ideological spectrum.

Even if we are to entertain the enormously unlikely prospect of a third-party eventually gaining representation in the Senate of, say, 10 or 15 seats, the realities of the filibuster and the presidential veto make it all but inconceivable that an era of crisp, efficient and amicable governance would suddenly be born.

To begin with, the advocates of an American third way often seem unsure of precisely what problem they are hoping to solve. The likes of Bloomberg and Friedman, for example, seem to have an agenda in mind that is remarkably similar to that of a civil-minded Democrat such as, well, Barack Obama.

Setting that aside, if the problem is the slow pace of progress in Washington, there is an obvious enough solution: end the filibuster. This arrangement would, notwithstanding the separation of powers, bring the U.S. more into line with first-past -the-post parliamentary democracies like Britain and Canada, where the party that wins each election has considerable freedom to shift the nation in whatever direction it likes.

If the problem is instead that there is too much power in the hands of the two big parties, then there is a simple enough solution for that as well: some form of proportional representation, as in most of Europe, which makes overall majorities in the legislature much harder to come by, and often hands the balance of power to smaller partners.

None of these solutions is remotely plausible. But, for now, they're no more fantastical than the idea of curing what ails Washington by moving some labels around.