Yesterday, the “No Labels” movement was launched and then roundly attacked from all sides. Its purpose: to call people back to core American beliefs and productive engagement in public life and politics. Their tagline: “Not Left. Not Right. Forward.” The knee-jerk attacks just go to prove the movement is sorely needed. Here's why. This year we'll be updating our 1991 Study, Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America, which was the first major report that showed Americans felt disconnected from politics and public life – pushed out, impotent. The report came as America was riding high after the Persian Gulf War and George H.W. Bush enjoyed over 80% approval ratings. Since then, I wrote Hope Unraveled, a book that traced people’s slow and deep retreat from the public square. In a sentence, Americans’ felt their reality was no longer reflected in public life and politics, and often was actively distorted for individuals’ own political gain.
Over 1,100 people attended the No Labels kick-off yesterday in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg led the way. He was joined by a cadre of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. No sooner than the event began, criticisms started to pile up. Some decried No Labels as a “giant, self-parodying prank,” others said, “No Labels = No Ideas,” while still others argued that politics without labels is, well… not politics.
It’s true that labels play an essential role in life as they help us make sense of the world. But they also add to people's dissonance when they become misleading, confusing and fool with people's very reality. That's where we are today. Politics and public life have become a shell game, a house of mirrors, even a freak show at times. As I see it, the benefit of No Labels is to:
1. Pry open a space in public life for more genuine public discourse and debate. Hyper-partisans have held the public square hostage for far too long, but it's not theirs to own and manipulate.
2. Hold ourselves accountable for articulating real points of view. Hyperbole, posturing, and double-talk have become the coin of the realm. That must change.
3. Be genuinely authentic. The notion of authenticity has become synonymous with attempts to curry favor with voters and demonstrate the extent to which someone is "liked." But authenticity in public life requires something fundamentally different: accurately reflecting people's lives and aspirations. It's about people, not ourselves.
4. Name the enemies of the public good, which include needless divisiveness, acrimony, and self-centeredness, among others – which riddle the political class and public itself. Naming an enemy is half the battle to addressing it; otherwise, it persists as an unchecked corrosive force.
5. Create strange bedfellows. It's not "compromise" we need in the country – merely to "split the difference" on issues, but to generate new ways of seeing and acting on challenges that transcend existing labels.
It's true the No Labels leadership is made up of many individuals who are part of the nation's political elite and who profess not to hold uniform positions on issues as a group. Fair enough. But I urge you to look again at the five points above. Do these points disqualify such people from pursuing such goals? Isn't the kind of criticism of the No Labels group the very cynicism that needs to be checked?
I wonder about any single individual – or single group – who believe they hold all the "answers" to our nation's challenges. Who suggest they have a lock on public wisdom. Who believe the only way to settle political differences is to score political points. Who look for political fights, rather than fight through all the noise to find solutions. Who insist on demagoguery when what we need are new patriots.
My decision to write about "No Labels" today is not to promote one group over another. Nor is it to be “Political.” Rather, it is to be on the side of the people I meet each and every day in communities across the country. People who do not live their lives polarized from one another, who do not see others as either Red or Blue, and who are deeply compassionate, and devoted to their country.
It is worth reminding ourselves from time to time that people want to come back into community and public life; to be part of something larger than themselves; to join together to make a difference in the lives of others. We are each called to step forward and turn outward toward one another. This is worth fighting for.