No Labels, and the Ideology of Post-Ideology

Why you should reach for your wallet whenever people near power claim to be post-political problem solvers


No Labels, that new Frumtastic assortment of purportedly post-ideological problem-solving political centrists who, like the imperious New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, just want to get stuff done, dammit, has been uniting all corners of the political spectrum in spontaneous derision. Some weekend hits from George Will:

Although the people promising to make No Labels into a national scold are dissatisfied with the tone of politics, they are pleased as punch with themselves. If self-approval were butter, they could spread it across America, if it were bread. […]

Often in the year before the year before the year divisible by four, a few political people theatrically recoil from partisanship. Recently, this ritual has involved speculation about whether New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg might squander a few of his billions to improve America by failing to be elected president.

And Frank Rich:

In its patronizing desire to instruct us on what is wrong with our politics, No Labels ends up being a damning indictment of just how alarmingly out of touch the mainstream political-media elite remains with the grievances that have driven Americans to cynicism and despair in the 21st century's Gilded Age. […]

The notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild America is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation.

Such criticism, of course, only proves they're onto something….

I find two interesting takeaways from the reaction to this latest not-very-interesting non-movement. First, the basic derision—and not just from Team Red/Team Blue partisans—suggests that maybe Americans are becoming increasingly sophisticated about their own political coloration (even while, perhaps paradoxically and perhaps not, defecting more and more from the two main political tribes), and as a result, are buying less and less of the long-peddled lie that civil, bipartisan, problem-solving political centrism is magically devoid of ideology. To pervert Frankie Goes to Hollywood, when two tribes go to peace, a point is all that you can score: against the PATRIOT Act, TARP, open-ended 9/14 authorizations, and the neverending War on Drugs.   

The ideology of the do-something center, permanently encoded as it is in the DNA of political lifers and View-From-Nowhere media institutions, is arguably the single most powerful ideological strain in today's body politic. This is in part because it sells itself as being beyond ideology—hence, more attractive to those who nurture a rational disgust for politicians—and then so readily adheres to the program of whoever is wielding power. Pragmatic problem-solving means almost never considering the possible benefits of getting the government out of the way of a given issue, since that would A) be yuckily ideological, and B) require walking away from the world's largest problem-solving tool. And it means never having to say you're sorry about unintended consequences, regulatory capture, or the broken eggs of individual injustice. After all, by the time those flaws make front-page news, there's always a new problem requiring urgent intervention.

And if said problem is big enough, some of these very same post-partisans—sorry, Citizen Leaders—will come right out and say that it doesn't even matter what the government does, so long as it does something, and big. Why, here's the imperial Mr. Bloomberg himself, in September 2008, as the country's do-something class was busy soiling itself over the financial crisis: "Nobody knows exactly what they should do, but anything is better than nothing." From where I sit, that's as ideological as it gets.

What's unintentionally funny about the "civility" crowd is that they sing an altogether different tune when a national crisis temporarily puts the wind in their sails; then it's all about routing what few heretics remain in the public square. Thus it is that in 2010 we are receiving lectures on political manners from the Bush-enabling No Labels Founding Leader David Frum, who in April 2003 was railing against anti-war conservatives as "unpatriotic," self-hating Americans who "have turned their backs on their country," thus forcing (and yes, he used that verb) the rest of us to "turn our backs on them." As Jesse Walker observed in his classic October 2009 piece on "The Paranoid Center,"

The most formidable eliminationists have always been in the American center, not on the margins. They aim to preserve or extend the existing social order, not to subvert it. And they have the most guns. […]

It's comforting to imagine that violence and paranoia belong only to the far left and right, and that we can protect ourselves from their effects by quarantining the extremists and vigilantly expelling anyone who seems to be bringing their ideas into the mainstream. But the center has its own varieties of violence and paranoia. And it's far more dangerous than anyone on the fringe, even the armed fringe, will ever be.

This column started out as a happy observation of a welcome public trend rather than a glum roundup of the usual libertoid complaints, so I'd like to end on the cheerier note. We live in an era of niches upon niches, of Long Tail economics and infinite varieties/combinations of personal identities. It stands to reason that this is just as true, if not more so, when it comes to politics and ideology. As a country and civilization, we are evolving from the mythical "no-label" universality of mass, atomized culture, to a more robust and fluid collection of association-forming individuals with labels as promiscuous and variegated as tags on a blog post. Everybody is coming from somewhere, carrying some baggage, and we are right to reach for our skepticism (and our wallets!) when a group of people in or adjacent to power claim to be descending upon us with an ideological slate as clean as a baby's mind.

Barack Obama and John McCain both ran for president as post-ideological pragmatists. So did, in their own ways, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It remains an attractive pose, and will always draw cheers from the indefatigable problem-solvers drawn to power like cowbirds to cattle. But though the results of pragmatic bipartisanship may feel bigger and more burdensome than ever—a federal government 60 percent more expensive than it was a decade ago, a fiscal status quo that even the statists in charge describe as "unsustainable"—the oxymorons behind it cannot long survive the age of transparency and speciation. "No labels" is less the herald of a new era of category-free politics and ideology-free interventionism than it is the last loud gasp of a slowly dying beast.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine, and, along with Reason.com/ReasonTV Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie, author of the forthcoming The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (Public Affairs).