No Labels? No Movement.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - 12:00 AM

Why did the launch of “No Labels” – a new “movement” to become for the political middle – receive such extraordinary attention on Monday? Unlike MoveOn, which earned its attention by giving millions of regular Americans an opportunity to express their frustration with the start of the Iraq War in 2003, No Labels doesn’t have a committed membership. Unlike the Tea Party – another analogue that was invoked during the day-long kick-off – No Labels hasn’t seen its followers organize around town hall meetings across the country.

Instead, No Labels seems to have become an instantly faddish phenomenon due to its high-profile attendees – and the love affair a certain set of elites has with claiming the middle of the road.

Despite the movement’s name, there were plenty of labels to go-around: “independent,” “centrist,” “moderate,” “post-partisan,” “trans-partisan” were a few of the self-declared non-label labels.

The biggest problem isn’t the hypocrisy of labeling yourself “No Labels,” (and ending up with No Logo as a result of a plagiarism claim). The bigger obstacle is the premature presumption of labeling yourself a movement – and the fallacy at the heart of this wrong-headed endeavor.

A movement doesn’t begin because a cast of elites says it does. It requires passionate individuals joining together to take action for a shared purpose. It’s widespread and organic and sometimes messy. It’s not pre-scheduled, market-tested and released with a glossy brochure and shiny website.

Maybe “No Labels” will become a movement. But it isn’t one just because it has labeled itself such – as Unity ’08, Hot Soup and the Reform Party all learned.

I, for one, can’t imagine it becoming a movement because other than “civil discourse,” it isn’t clear what those people who shared the stage shared as their values. Movements need to be driven by ideals. While it may be important to have a better process in Washington, and to be able to think beyond party stances, those are means, not ends. If “No Labels” is only about means, then it will end up meaning nothing…and that will be the end of it.

There are plenty of problems in politics, but we don’t need a new group that stands for nothing to show our parties how to stand and fight for our values. We need politicians who are willing to declare themselves committed to their ideals: like Bernie Sanders, a true independent, who broke with Democratic leadership to filibuster a corrupt and ineffective tax compromise.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a speaker of the conference, later in the day voted against the tax deal, which was an obvious and insulting trade between the leaders of two parties. Where was the rest of the No Labels leadership in speaking up on that issue? There was No Outcry.

Let’s cheer on independent-minded action – but not by signing on for No Views. We need political leaders who voice and act upon their convictions more than ever.

And one more note to the No Labels set about their effort to set up 150 campus chapters. Bad news: young people like labels. It’s why our Facebook pages are littered with cultural signifiers, why our laptops are adorned with stickers, why our membership in real and virtual associations is rising. The irony is that if you do succeed in getting “No Labels” to take off among a younger set, it’s because you’ve convinced them it’s a cool label. Good luck with that…once you find yourself a new logo.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."


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Comments [16]

lastmanonthewall from Southwest Ohio

Well, I learned a valuable lesson today. Any time I read a piece written by Justin Krebs, I'd better have paper towels close at hand. When he called Bernie Sanders a "true independent", I spit coffee all over my computer monitor.

Sep. 03 2011 04:24 PM

Kyle Shank, you are either a troll or a moron, if you think that a person must fully embrace either the Democratic or Republican platform to be considered "courageous." In today's political climate, real courage means breaking binary allegiances.

Apr. 29 2011 02:08 PM

I think that Justin Krebs needs to really do his homework. If he actually looked into No Labels without any bias, he might have seen that there are a great deal of people, young and old alike, that believe in this message. The college campuses are already starting to wake up and realize that The No Labels movement is trying to change the country for the better. There can no longer be any polarization in our government if we want to reduce our deficit and improve the quality of life of every American. No Labels is about bringing everyone back to the table and having a real conversation about what this country needs, not what either party thinks we need. It's about the country as a whole, not about right and left. Right and left have gotten us nowhere, it's time to rethink the message that us as Americans give to the people that we put in office. We must also rethink the people that we put into office. Let's take care of our jobless and homeless. They don't have a side.

Mar. 24 2011 09:39 AM
K Johnson from OR

before you say No Labels is some kind of elitist movement perhaps you should do some research at the pew center and see exactly how the american population views itself politically.

The red/blue divide is a mythology. Both Democrats and Republicans use it to amazing effectiveness to rally the 20% base on each side and raise funds by playing emotional politics.

Like Obama said - The NYT and WSJ do not pentrate everywhere.

Jan. 08 2011 10:36 AM

An old Texas saying concerning those who will not take a stand or responsibility for what they believe in is "there is nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos."

Jan. 05 2011 11:37 AM
Oldpuppymax from Kentucky

Isn't it a coincidence that "No Labels" suddenly appeared, begging for bipartisanship and an end to political bickering and posturing AFTER democrats suffered their most devastating nationwide defeat since the 1930s! It would seem that its "non-partisan", "centrist", "open-minded" founders had no problem with the radical left running the house, senate and White House, legislating contrary to the will and best interests of the American people and ramming grossly unpopular legislation down the throats of the public. The agenda and hypocrisy of this group is breathtaking. But then the arrogance which drives this sort always gains traction from the belief that voters are just too stupid to read between the lines.

Dec. 16 2010 05:06 PM
Josh Wojcik

While I'm not sure I agree with every argument made by Mr. Krebs, the post is wonderfully thought-provoking. Recently, an independent "movement" in Maine caused the progressives of the state to split the vote - which allowed a (relatively) fringe Republican candidate to win the Governor's race.

I will also say that I find it depressing when anonymous individuals use public forums like this to vent personal grudges.

Dec. 16 2010 03:16 PM
NYer from NYC

Over on Manhattan's West Side (where he used to live) Krebs is a joke. He's one of those fake progressive/liberals that suck-up to people like Bloomberg and other corrupt politicians, most of whom are Democrats. No I'm not a Republican. I can just see a fake no matter what party they claim. All Krebs does is get drunk.

Dec. 16 2010 10:57 AM
Steve_I_Am from Colorado

In a world where today's President stands to "the Right" of President Eisenhower, "bipartisanship" means a compromise between the "near right" and the "far right." We don't need another group of wealthy centerists pushing for that kind of "compromise." What we, in the middle-class, need is a fighter like Bernie Sanders advocating for US!

Dec. 15 2010 07:02 PM
Hullabaloo from LES

I think the fascination with bipartisanship is driven largely by political pundits in D.C. who believe that their genial cocktail parties should be the model for national discourse.

Most people do not know the details of politics. All they see is that the country is screwed up, they are more insecure than ever, and the people they supposed to entrust to fix things aren't doing it. When people ostensibly demand bipartisanship it's because they assume that politicians are not acting in good faith and that if they would only stop all the posturing they might actually get something done.

Results are what matters, not process. Voters just think that the reason that nothing gets done is because bipartisanship is required to pass stuff. If the majority party could get something done without bipartisan votes there is absolutely no reason for them not to do it. Action is what people want.

Unfortunately, I suspect the reason the Democrats are so insistent on perpetuating the bipartisanship trope is because they lack the courage of their convictions and want to be able to share the blame if their worldview doesn't work.

Dec. 15 2010 01:25 PM
David Levy from Chicago, IL

I totally agree with Justin. The distinction between "means" and "ends" is spot on. We all want civil discourse and compromise when there is greater value in that deal vs no deal at all. But there are times when we need our party members to stand up for our rights and our better interests. I'm glad he mentioned Bernie Sanders, because there was someone who does not have a label (or labeled independent) and stood up for what he (and I) believe are right.

Dec. 15 2010 01:06 PM
Matt from Chapel Hill

Mr. Krebs has long, luxurious hair.

Dec. 15 2010 10:56 AM
MR from Manhattan

At least Jon Stewart's rally had clever signs and some great musical acts. We do need civil discourse but there is only one side that needs to become more civil. The GOP has so completely jumped the shark of civility, morality, hypocrisy, bigotry, and basic sanity. Let's stop pretending both sides are equally guilty.

Dec. 15 2010 09:42 AM

Amen. It seems like these same "serious" people are the ones who got us into Iraq and insisted there was no housing bubble. Hard to believe they still expect people to believe they're the ones we should trust to solve society's problems.

Dec. 15 2010 09:42 AM
MFS from Brooklyn

Mr. Krebs has it right- people want politicians to be honest and not vote for bills because a contributor wants them to or their party leader wants them to vote a certain way rather than being concerned about partisan affiliation. The results of the past election show this- politicians who were elected and reelected were more extreme than before on both sides- conservative Democrats who voted against the health care bill were the biggest losers of the 2010 elections.

Politicians like Joe Lieberman (whose electoral base almost exclusively now consists of partisan Republican and whose vote for this tax deal I cannot square with his previous progressive stands on economics) are more concerned about cutting deals than making the right deal. You'll never get a genuine movement behind you that's about trusting leaders to cut "good" bipartisan deals.

Dec. 15 2010 08:02 AM
Kyle Shank from MA

Maybe there is a big market for those who want recognition and don't have the courage to stand for anything. If so, No Labels is a perfect fit.

Dec. 15 2010 07:54 AM

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