Why did the launch of “No Labels” – a new “movement” to become MoveOn.org 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."