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. Back in the 1950s, some Southern Democrats opposed racial integration, and some Republicans in the North favored a robust social safety net. Opposition to abortion was a bipartisan affair. There was a Christian right, but there was a Christian left as well. (The first Catholic president was a Democrat, after all.)
All of that changed in the '60s and '70s. Small-government libertarians aligned themselves with social conservatives under the Republican umbrella. Social liberals and economic interventionists joined the Democrats. In the 1980s, there was still enough overlap between the parties to beget phrases like "Reagan Democrats." But every year the parties drift further apart. In a conversation with NPR about "No Labels," Charlie Crist trotted out the old saw about Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill. Those men "probably didn't agree on a whole lot of things ... yet were able to get along and at the end of the day, go out and have a cold one and understand that it's important for them to be civil." Sure. But by today's partisan standards, O'Neill and Reagan had a lot in common. What stops Barack Obama and John Boehner from taking smoking breaks together isn't that they're jerks. It's that they don't agree on as much.
That's just Washington, says No Labels. "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.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of No Labels is to show why labels exist in the first place. They're so busy talking about what they're not—not Republican, not Independent, not conservative, not liberal—you never get a handle on what they are. Labels are a useful shortcut for voters who want to know what a group is all about. The lack of a positive mission beyond bipartisanship and civility (which both Republicans and Democrats also call for) makes it hard to know what they really want.
There's nothing wrong with calling for reason and civility. Jon Stewart did just that at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, with eloquence if not tangible success. The difference is that Stewart explicitly removed himself from the political sphere. (Critics got angry that he didn't call for young people to vote.) But both the Stewart rally and No Labels have the same flaw: They promote "civility" in media and politics, respectively, when in fact the problem is structural. Fox News gets all huffy over TSA body scanners because of ratings; Republicans fulminate about Democrats trying to pull the plug on grandma for electoral reasons. Fixing the problem isn't a matter of everyone being nicer. It means changing the systemic incentives, whether they're Nielsen ratings or approval numbers. And it's hard to do that without labels.