Recycling gets a bad name because too many well-intentioned people think it involves taking leftover crap nobody wanted in the first place, cutting it into smaller portions, and repackaging it with a stridently ‘better for you, nicer for THE PLANET’ marketing campaign. And there are always grifters looking to use these nice folks’ good intentions for their own ends. This is as true for political movements as it is for motheaten, outdated sweaters or your grandma’s refrigerator casseroles. Witness the new “No Labels” campaign, as described by Slate‘s Christopher Beam:
… A group of political and media A-listers descended on Columbia University Monday morning for the group’s big launch event, which co-founder Mark McKinnon dubbed in his introductory remarks “our little Woodstock of democracy.” No Label seeks to be the voice of reason in an increasingly hyper-partisan environment—a counterweight to interest groups at either end of the political spectrum. Instead of rewarding candidates who spew partisan talking points, No Label says it will raise money for moderate candidates who embrace what co-founder Jon Cowan calls the “three C’s”: co-sponsors, common ground, and civility.
The guest list at Monday’s confab said as much about the group as its slogan. Attendees were a mix of media commentators (David Brooks, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski), recent political losers (former Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist), politicians who aren’t seeking re-election (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh), and moderates who have special permission to buck their party (incoming West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman). In other words, a bunch of people with nothing at stake…
No Labels sounds noble in theory. But the group misunderstands what bipartisanship is. It’s not two parties deciding to be nice to each other. It’s a moment when their self-interests happen to align—moments that are increasingly rare. Washington does not have a “civility problem.” It has a polarization problem. Politicians aren’t any meaner now than they were 30 years ago. It’s just that over the last few decades, the two parties have become more ideologically coherent…
“The rest of the country is not hyperpartisan,” McKinnon told the Washington Post. “They say: ‘There’s MoveOn on the left, the tea party on the right and nothing in the middle for me.’ We’re trying to become a microphone for those voices, to create a system that rewards and gives a shout-out for good behavior.” One audience member echoed this point on Monday, arguing that “independents don’t care about labels.” Wrong. Independents pretend not to care about labels. In fact, the vast majority of so-called independents lean toward one party or another. The number of true independents who switch from party to party is 5 percent to 10 percent of the electorate.
That would be “one of the group’s founders, Republican consultant Mark McKinnon“, for those keeping score at home:
…It will form a political action committee to help defend moderate candidates of both parties against attack from the far right and the far left, said John Avlon, a founding member and one-time speechwriter for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani ( R )…
Although No Labels bills itself as a citizens’ movement, its leaders are veterans of campaign politics. McKinnon was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush ( R ) and to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential bid. Another co-founder, Nancy Jacobson, is a prominent Democratic fundraiser who worked on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns and whose husband, Mark Penn, was the chief strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. The group’s other founders include Catherine “Kiki” McLean, a longtime Democratic operative and Clinton veteran; William A. Galston, a top Clinton domestic policy aide; and David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter…
Republicans and ex-Clintonistas, spanning the political gamut from far-right to center-right! Hey, no point bothering with ‘unserious’, non-Right points of view, if your whole purpose is to encourage that all-American chimera known as “Centrism”. McKinnon & Mark Penn, together again — and if either one takes you by the hand, be sure to count your fingers afterwards.
There have been any number of high-minded, low-souled third party “civility” movements in American political history — Matt DeLong tallies a few recent examples — but I believe No Labels harks back to the poisoned wellspring, the Goo-Goos of the original Gilded Age:
The goo-goos, or good government guys, were political groups founded in an era when urban municipal governments in the United States were dominated by machine politics. Goo-goos supported candidates who would fight for political reform. The term was first used in the 1890s by their detractors.
In New York, the exclusive City Club was the domain of “goo-goos,” who sponsored “Good Government Clubs” in every assembly district. Their efforts led to the election of a reform mayor in 1894, a setback for the political machine known as Tammany Hall.
Members of several political reform movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were often labeled as goo-goos, including the Mugwumps and the Progressives.
Ah, Tammany Hall, shorthand for political corruption, “the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in controlling New York City politics and helping immigrants, most notably the Irish, rise up in American politics from the 1790s to the 1960s.” What decent individual would not draw back from any association with a monster like Boss Tweed? And yet that horrendous “political machine”, and its myriad imitators in other cities, were born from the honest struggle of the new, urban working class, former farm laborers and immigrants, to wrest their share of the American Dream from the tiny cadre of well-educated, property-owning “gentlemen” who wanted to reconstitute the nation as an oligarchy in all but name after the Civil War. “Machine” politicians, ward heelers, were low men with dirty hands and mockable accents, and their all-or-nothing contests against the fine gentlemen who chose Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison as their presidential representatives were regarded by all Very Serious People as part bad joke and part lethal threat to democracy. Ward heelers urged their ragged, semi-literate urban constituents to vote, brokered deals between factions (Irish cops, Jewish peddlers, Italian small shopkeepers), provided tally sheets of candidates who could be trusted to vote in favor of more spending on public services. Their vulgar bean-counting, their willingness to trade votes for small concrete favors, their advocacy of small-d democratic pleasures like Sunday shopping and cheap beer — anathema!
Of course, politics is forever a matter of counting votes and trading favors, but decent people of a certain class preferred their solons to disguise the crude realities behind a facade of fine oratory and Civic Virtue. And the well-fed, well-heeled professional grifters and swindlers who answered to Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan were happy to encourage the Midwestern nativists and streetcar suburbanites in their
fantasy conviction that “Good Government” should be restricted to those who attended the proper churches, graduated from the right schools, and held the proper (very conservative) opinions about teetotalism, immigration, the proper role of women, and the extension of the voting franchise. Sound familiar?
“No Labels” is nothing we haven’t heard before. So perhaps it’s only fitting that “the advertising agency veteran whose firm designed the graphic for the fledgling centrist political organization No Labels acknowledged Tuesday morning that his design was taken whole cloth from the logo of another political group“. (Think of it as repurposing, not plagiarism!)
And if its new theme song is a celebration of political ignorance (“… you may not understand this whole process and how things go… “) Auto-tuned to the point that it sounds like the bastard offspring of a speech synthesizer and a drum pad, well… truth in marketing, at least.