The launch of No Labels (Not Left, Not Right, Forward) is a welcome existential insistence: moderates, centrists, and civil civilians exist (in large numbers) and wish to be recognized. Sincere partisans on the left and right have long held that moderates don’t really exist; they just take longer to make up their minds. Or, as a right-wing friend of mine characterizes them, “some say this and some say that, and I tend to agree.”
As an occasionally strident moderate, insisting upon moderation in all things, including moderation, I naturally welcome the emergence of a voice for moderates, an organized group to which I cannot belong because I generally eschew belonging, being relentlessly moderate.
That is the paradox of No Labels. It targets people who, by nature, use or condemn labels depending on their mood. Independents? Hello. They can’t even join one of the two overwhelmingly dominant political parties in America. Why? Because members of both parties do stupid, arrogant and venal things, and the calculation in any given election is which party has done fewer stupid, arrogant and venal things (meaning, generally, the party out of power).
That vast in-between isn’t necessarily more civil — quite the contrary — they have enough bile to spread across both parties, and everything in between. What they’d really like to see is, first, less corruption, second, less misinformation, and third, more honor.
The political sensibility, the type that gravitates to Washington, DC, militates against honor, because honor presupposes sacrifice of personal advantage. And the political sensibility virtually never sacrifices personal advantage, unless the appearance of sacrifice yields personal advantage. The political sensibility likewise militates against eschewing corruption and misinformation because, once in the political venue witnessing how the players use corruption and misinformation to become better and better players, they see their choice as becoming better and better players, or not.
So if No Labels purports to speak to me, or my ilk, then tell me you will be aggressive about corruption, misinformation, and honor. Tell me you’re serious about the cesspool. And there’s a nasty label, and the reason you won’t get lots of people like me unless you’re willing to call a spade a spade.
Now I could well be wrong. (It’s the moderate gene.) Maybe the task really is to get screamers on the ideological poles to quit screaming. Maybe the modest and admirable task of No Labels is simply to restore civility, to provide a template for liberals and conservatives to discover how much they have in common. Much applause. Been there, done that. Yes, we all have huge amounts in common, and that lowers the temperature — but I’ve yet to see a liberal or a conservative change a belief or a notion once the temperature gets comfy.
Instead, those targeting the middle (and everything outside) should call on us to examine our political selves. The effort to understand one’s political self has never garnered much attention. For the multitudes focused on self-awareness, and variations of self-appreciation, the political dimension is assessed, if at all, uncritically, and generally as a buttress to some aspect of self-esteem (I care about people, I am a patriot, etc.). Actually to examine one’s political self, and to try to discern what parts are acquired with an effort at rigorous objective thought and exchange, what parts are self-esteem anchors, what parts are comforting because of our associations, what parts become locked in because of our public personas, and what parts might simply be irrational suspicions of the Other — well, this is an undertaking that our culture does not encourage.
No Labels would be a force for enormous good if it encouraged examination of our political selves. That may or may not lead to the numbers No Labels understandably seeks. I hope they get those numbers. They’re a net force for good regardless. But for now, dwelling in the reviled center, I still have some labels I’m not ashamed to use.
Kendrick Macdowell is a writer and attorney living in Washington, D.C.