Cathy Young

No Labels, but still sworn enemies

By Cathy Young
December 29, 2010

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JUST IN time for the holidays, a new movement has arrived seeking to promote goodwill toward men (and women) across the political spectrum and to counter the nastiness and polarization that pervade our public discourse. Yet the group, called No Labels, has met with surprisingly nasty attacks from both left and right. Not only have its tactics been widely dismissed and ridiculed, but so have its noble goals. This reaction does not bode well for our civic culture.

Launched in New York earlier this month, No Labels is the brainchild of several top political strategists and speechwriters from the Republican and Democratic parties. Its declaration deplores “hyper-partisanship’’ and calls for approaching political debate “with civility and mutual respect.’’ Two co-founders, former Clinton Administration official William Galston and former Bush adviser David Frum, suggest in a Washington Post op-ed that “politicians, media personalities and opinion leaders who recklessly demonize their opponents should be on notice that they can no longer do so with impunity.’’ One example they cite is “labeling legitimate policy differences as ‘socialist’ or ‘racist.’ ’’

Inevitably, critics on the right see No Labels as a liberal plot to stifle robust conservative speech and force Republicans to compromise with Democrats rather than take advantage of the GOP’s recent electoral victories. At the same time, critics on the left denounce the group as a conservative Trojan horse designed to trick liberals into abandoning their principles.

Stanley Kurtz, a commentator for National Review, assails the attempt to make President Obama’s alleged socialist ideology a forbidden topic when it is, in his view, a perfectly legitimate subject of discussion. (It also happens to be the subject of Kurtz’s recent book, “Radical-in-Chief.’’) Yet the wanton use of the s-word on the right is an excellent example of using labels to attack rather than illuminate, if only because it conflates socialism of the Western European variety with totalitarian communism. Kurtz himself claims that Obama’s agenda for the United States is Swedish-style socialism, yet his book cover shows the president’s face inside a Soviet red star.

Meanwhile, Post columnist E.J. Dionne blasts No Labels for promoting a false equivalency by suggesting that ideological extremism and political hate speech is a problem on both sides rather than almost exclusively a right-wing blight. Quite a few conservatives, of course, will argue that it’s the left that’s unhinged and hateful.

Each side shows a remarkable capacity to see bad behavior only in the opposite camp. Right-wing bloggers clucked their tongues at an email list on which liberal journalists heaped abuse on conservatives and fantasized about a painful demise for talk show host Rush Limbaugh — yet dismiss as mere entertainment equally vile stuff dished out by Ann Coulter in print or Michael Savage on the radio. Liberals lament vicious rhetoric on the right but forget the bizarrely misogynistic tirades hurled at Sarah Palin in left-wing publications such as, or the smears of racism directed at opponents of racial preferences in higher education and public services.

There are reasons to question whether No Labels is a good remedy to the ills it identifies. For one, in today’s decentralized media environment, setting boundaries for acceptable discourse is (for better and worse) harder than ever. Good luck censuring Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore for demonizing opponents: they’ll cry all the way to the bank.

No Labels also tends to equate civility with centrism and bipartisanship. Yet it is no less important to be able to have strong disagreement, even conflict, without demonization. Perhaps “No Hate’’ would be a better slogan than “No Labels.’’

Yet, whatever its weaknesses, No Labels is at least trying to address a very real problem: the debasement of our political culture to something between a playground squabble and a war zone. Columnist George F. Will, who mocks the No Labelers as would-be “national scolds,’’ argues that democratic politics are driven by “intensely interested . . . partisans of various causes.’’ True; but No Labels co-founder John Avlon, a former speechwriter for Republican New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is also right to stress that “our domestic political opponents are not our sworn enemies.’’ If we cannot agree on at least this, we are on a dangerous path.

Cathy Young is a columnist for