In yet another effort to remain relevant to our political discourse, David Frum is partnering with William Galston to launch a new project that is sure to to revolutionize politics in much the same way the New Majority Frum Forum has. It’s called “No Labels,” and I’ll let Frum describe it:
On Dec. 13, more than 1,000 citizens from the 50 states will convene in New York to change the odds. They are founding a movement – No Labels. Among them will be Democrats, Republicans and independents who are proud of their political affiliations and have no intention of abandoning them. A single concern brings them together: the hyper-polarization of our politics that thwarts an adult conversation about our common future. A single goal unites them: to expand the space within which citizens and elected officials can conduct that conversation without fear of social or political retribution.
Their movement rests on the belief that the real American majority wishes to reassert control over a political system mired in brain-dead partisanship. Those traveling to New York are going at their own expense. No Labels is gaining a thousand fans on Facebook each day. Citizens across the country are asking how they can get involved.
Frum is discouraged by our current political discourse and wants to turn things around:
Our political system does not work if politicians treat the process as a war in which the overriding goal is to thwart the adversary. At a time of national economic emergency, when Americans are clamoring for positive action, our government is routinely paralyzed by petty politics. Through the summer, as the economy teetered between recovery and stagnation, the Federal Reserve lacked a quorum because a single Republican senator took it upon himself to block Obama’s appointments. Republicans were only doing unto the Democrats as the Democrats had done unto them: In January 2008, as the country geared up for an epoch-making election, the Federal Election Commission lacked a quorum because one Democrat had put holds on President George W. Bush’s nominees.
Nor does the political system work if politicians treat members of the other party as enemies to be destroyed. Labeling legitimate policy differences as “socialist” or “racist” undermines democratic discourse.
Frum is understandably concerned. For example, can you imagine what would have happened to the progress of this Nation had there been in its young history a nasty presidential election in which one of the candidates was described as a “toothless” monarchist, or the other as a dangerous atheist upon whose election female chastity would be regularly violated?
Oh, about that. (And yes, every quote from that video was actually said at some point during the 1800 presidential campaign.)
But surely we got past that nasty old election and grew as a country. I means it’s not as though an entire political party was formed simply out of opposition to a president of the United States, a man whose critics described as a dangerous tyrant.
Errr, never mind.
Surely, though, we can all look fondly upon an era of great compromise and bi-partisanship. I am of course talking about the age of the Great Compromise of 185o, followed up by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Look at all the good will that followed on the footsteps of warm and fuzzy compromise. Just ignore things like one Senator caning another Senator on the floor of the Senate, “bleeding Kansas,” and that minor conflict between 1861-1865 that resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 young men.
The fact of the matter is that “bitter partisanship” is a fact of American life. We can wax poetic all we like about some bygone era of lover-dovey bi-partisanship, but the reality is that this is just a myth. And the one political party that did try a “can’t we all just get along approach?” Yeah, it kind of died. (Interesting, isn’t it, that it was much more successful as a party when it took a less gentle tone?)
As absurd as this project is, it’s also a bit obnoxious. As Stanley Kurtz ponders, who exactly is David Frum to sit in judgment of what constitutes appropriate political discourse? Kurtz writes:
On its face, a principled opposition to political labeling is both incoherent and illiberal. Labels can surely be misused. Yet political discourse itself would be impossible without the basic terms through which we name and recognize our own political beliefs and those of others. Abused as they may often be, we can’t even think without labels — which is to say, without categories. Galston and Frum label their own opponents when they decry them for “brain-dead partisanship.” Apparently, Frum consigned my book to that category without even reading it. Who was the brain-dead partisan there? Galston and Frum don’t actually mean “no labels.” What they really mean is, “no labels of which we disapprove.” Their new group might more aptly be named “Shut Up.”
It is not the job of those who cherish liberty of thought and discussion to ban claims of Obama’s socialism or of Tea Party racism, but to subject all of these assertions to the scrutiny of serious debate. While many or most accusations of Tea Party racism are baseless, legitimate complaints are possible and cannot be ruled out in advance. If Tea Party critics have serious evidence of racism, let them present it. If their evidence is tissue-paper thin (as most of it has been), that weakness can be (and has been) exposed.
One can almost picture a 19th century David Frum decrying a certain political speech that engaged in some wild conspiracy talk and discussed the inevitable conflict that would occur if we continued down the path of compromise on the slavery issue. Such bitter partisanship would have no doubt run afoul of the standards of the “No Labels” set.
But hey, he’s got a thousand people showing up to a conference in a city where that many people live in an average apartment building. The winds of change sure are a blowin’.
I probably must add that no, this is not a clarion call for complete hysteria when it comes to political rhetoric. I’m not saying that we should feel free to abandon reason. But I find Frum’s endeavor both naive and a little presumptuous – not quite fascist (I’ll save that term for strikeouts).