During Saturday’s historic Senate vote to finally repeal the discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, one Democratic Senator was notably absent – the newly elected Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia. Senator Manchin offered the lame excuse that he had a family holiday party that he could not miss. Previously, Senator Manchin had suggested that he theoretically supports repealing DADT, but felt that this was not the right time to do so, yet also said he would not be the 40th vote to keep the Republican filibuster going. In short, on the most important civil rights vote of our time, Senator Manchin could not take a stand and finally decided to just not show up to vote.
Senator Manchin’s lame performance is less surprising in light of an event in D.C. that he did manage to show up to earlier last week – the launching of a new organization called “No Labels.” No Labels is the latest incarnation of “centrist” political operatives pushing the idea that “hyper-partisanship is one of the greatest domestic challenges our nation faces” and urging us to put our partisan labels aside so that we can come together to solve the nation’s problems. At initial glance, this is an attractive concept that a lot of people who are fed up with “politics” appear to follow. Who doesn’t wish that we could all come together and agree on how to solve the issues our nation faces?
The problem is that this approach has little grounding in reality. And Senator Manchin’s no-show performance on the historic Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal is a perfect example of what is wrong with the “No Labels” concept. In particular, the problem is that many policy questions – such as whether to keep or repeal DADT - have a right answer and a wrong answer. Yet No Labels does not offer any answer, as Senator Manchin showed. In fact, the group admits as much, stating on their website that they are leaving social issues “to a separate debate.” But what good is an approach to politics and policy that cannot offer a position on critical issues of fairness and equality? No Labels might want to leave things like DADT repeal to a “separate debate” (perhaps occuring at Senator Manchin’s family holiday party?) but LGBT Americans in the military cannot afford to do so.
A second problem with No Labels is it is based on the faulty premise that ”labels” or partisanship do not mean anything important. But people adopt a label or a partisan persuasion for a reason - because they share certain values and beliefs that help shape the positions they take on policy issues. So, for example, people who believe in a largely unfettered free market tend to identify themselves as conservatives. Meanwhile, people who believe in using government to regulate the market, promote equal opportunity, or protect consumers tend to identify themselves as liberals. These labels have meaning and cannot be simply “set aside” in the political realm, as No Labels wishes.
Third, to the extent the correct answer on a policy question is somewhere in the middle between the liberal and conservative position, you reach that answer through vigorous debate between the various sides to determine what is right or what an appropriate compromise is. And where the best answer is more on the left or on the right, such vigorous debate will help illuminate that fact also by demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments on each side. But the No Labels’ centrism for the sake of centrism approach avoids the battle of ideas that helps lead to the truth and, instead, either seeks the middle ground as an end to itself, or cedes ground to whoever is most willing to aggressively fight for their position. So while compromise is an important and necessary tool in the world of policy and politics, you reach compromise after an aggressive debate, not as an end to itself.
Finally, many Americans are worried that the political system is dominated far too much by special interests. Yet a No Labels approach will only make that problem worse because, in the absence of strong partisan beliefs and policy positions to advocate for, elected officials are far more easily swayed by outside influences. For example, if you were elected on and strongly believe in a single payer health care system, you are far less likely to be swayed by campaign contributions from health care companies than if you were elected on a platform of No Labels.
Now, don’t get us wrong. Compromise is the lifeblood of politics and the way that things ultimately get done in many situations. Pragmatism grounded in firm beliefs, which is the approach that President Obama has largely taken to great success over the past two years, is often critical to moving progressive goals forward. And certainly if elected officials of different partisan persuasions happen to share common beliefs on a particular issue, they should work together.
But we also face critical issues that require strong action and real answers to fix. So, let’s stop pretending like our problems can be solved by dropping partisan labels and ideology. Instead, let’s have a healthy, vigorous, and respectful debate between competing ideas so that we can identify and fight for the best results. Otherwise, we all might as well just attend holiday parties with Senator Manchin, rather than taking a stand on the important issues of our day.
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