My friend COMMENTARY contributor David Frum (who has a piece in our upcoming January issue) is a writer both tough and fearless in his judgments. It’s one of the many reasons he’s always worth reading, disagree or no: he does not prevaricate or trim his sails. He says what he says. He is a believer in intellectual honesty, and his brief against the right over the past two years is that it is in danger of sacrificing that honesty in pursuit of a populist politics he thinks is both wrongheaded and self-defeating.
He says so in unvarnished prose and takes no prisoners, going after Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and others with a clear-eyed ferocity — just as he did at the onset of the Iraq war in a National Review piece that effectively wrote paleoconservative critics of the war out of the movement: “They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.”
It is a matter of no small intellectual interest that David has now decided to embrace the concept that American politics should move beyond ideological camps. He joined the distinguished liberal political scientist William Galston in an op-ed piece describing and advocating a new movement called “No Labels” that is to be brought into existence next week with Michael Bloomberg and Joe Scarborough as its major lead figures. They write:
Our political system does not work if politicians treat the process as a war in which the overriding goal is to thwart the adversary. … 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.
Over the next 12 months, No Labels plans to organize citizens’ groups in every state and congressional district. Among other activities, these citizens will carefully monitor the conduct of their elected representatives. They will highlight those officials who reach across the aisle to help solve the country’s problems and criticize those who do not. They will call out politicians whose rhetoric exacerbates those problems, and they will establish lines that no one should cross. Politicians, media personalities and opinion leaders who recklessly demonize their opponents should be on notice that they can no longer do so with impunity.
In the name of broadening the political discussion, a group called No Labels will come into being with the purpose of … labeling. If you “recklessly demonize” your “opponents,” you will “no longer” be able to “do so with impunity.” They will “establish bright lines no one should cross.” In other words, cross the line and we will label you a “reckless demonizer.” Dare to call Barack Obama a socialist and stand accused of exacerbating problems rather than solving them.
Nobody should be for reckless demonization, but one man’s reckless demonization is another man’s truth-telling, as the design of No Labels itself would seem to suggest. Does the No Labels style mean that, should you find Rush Limbaugh abhorrent, it is therefore acceptable to discuss his views in relation to his past prescription-drug addiction? Or Glenn Beck’s alcoholism? That would seem to be the idea, and you can see how the incivility required by the No Labels concept deconstructs it like a Rube Goldberg machine.
The drawing of bright lines is something David Frum does surpassingly well. But a group called No Labels would seem by definition to stand for the opposite — for an entirely freewheeling public conversation, which should be the opposite of a bright-line-drawing exercise. Instead, No Labels would appear to be a movement designed to give politicians space and room to hammer out compromises with each other in pursuit of the common good. That sounds nice, but it’s actually the abnegation of what a movement — an intellectual movement, a political movement, a partisan movement, or an ideological movement — actually is.
Movements arise because people believe in something in common, believe in it wholeheartedly, and want their ideas to prevail. They don’t believe in swapping out some of them for others in order to make nice to the other side. They want the other side to lose and their side to win because they believe their ideas are good and the other side’s ideas are bad.
That is why it is an oxymoron to talk about movements of the middle, or of the radical center, or whatever you want to call it, and why No Labels will never work. In the end, such movements are primarily defined by distaste. That is a powerful emotion. But in the end, distaste is primarily an aesthetic feeling, not a moral or political or ideological one. An aesthetic is not an organizing principle, because it is a principle of exclusion, not of inclusion — those bright lines are designed to keep things out, not bring them in.
David Frum, you stand accused of being an aesthete!