Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 14, 2010

Americans: Labeling Since the 1780s

In New York City yesterday, there was a meeting for a newish political group calling itself No Labels. Headed up by center-right Democrats and center-right Republicans and self-proclaimed independents, their stated goal is to find common ground on issues they see consumed by hyper-partisanship. They want things to happpen! Now!

We’ve heard this before. And I fear that – even in my own work – it’s possible that historians of our era stress the top-down hand-wringing about partisanship at the expense of a bottom-up explanation for their utility.

Of course political parties are controversial development in the early republic. They’re apparently controversial today. But it’s apparent in the 1780s that state legislatures, as institutions, found it difficult to function without organized coalitions, as did Congress in the 1790s. A key difference between Britain and the U.S. was that in the latter, out-of-doors partisan organizing followed from wider (white male) voter eligibility rules. Politics could become more democratic since partisans could recruit and support lesser-known candidates to stand for elections, letting representation drift away from the established brand names of a handful of prominent families. That’s why we see startlingly high turnover in the House of Representatives and stunning vulgarity among the rough yeomanry who populate legislative chambers.

Because many historians, I suspect, value their political independence and would rather focus on specific policy issues relating to preservation or education or civil rights, partisan commitments don’t necessarily come naturally. And they defy deep context – using a shorthand to link a constellation of issues and views to one party’s label. Sometimes these can be just wrong; other times, the distinctions among parties can’t be exaggerated.

I think this a moment when historians should speak up to defend partisanship. It’s tempting to listen to established politicians (and people who can’t win a primary) rail against the nastiness of political campaigns, but I confess I don’t understand the recent vitriol directed at people who passionately care about certain issues or who are committed to advancing them through party discipline. I, for one, care a lot more about particular issues than I do the fate of a party. That’s why I’m a professor and not party official.

But if I was a candidate, I’d want very much to be able to rely on a network of voters who shared my priorities, who knew something about organizing and electioneering and fundraising, and could make it easier for me to run for office without having to first be rich or famous. And I wish – very much – that there was a price to be paid by people like newly-elected West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who’s decided that his legislative mission is to protect “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” even though he can’t quite explain why he supports it, and doesn’t seem to even understand the issue itself.

The ‘No Labels’ campaign seems misguided and ahistorical to me. One of their stated goals is to “establish a Political Action Committee that can operate in the 2012 primary races of members who get challenged by the ideological extremes of either party.” In this case, partisanship itself is something they want to see eliminated. No wonder Manchin, along with Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, were headliners at yesterday’s event.

What is their alternative? A pluralism that isn’t too pluralistic? A set of leaders who think they’re above building broad governing coalitions? Or that understanding and coherently explaining their contrarian positions would be beneath them?

Unclear.

What we are told, in the most condescending terms, is that people unwilling to compromise longstanding political commitments aren’t welcome at the table. Or their issues aren’t welcome. So we can’t talk about repealing DADT because it’s too controversial.

It reminds me of the Gag Rule. Which worked oh so well. Because if we can’t agree about it, it must not be worth discussing.

And it’s a reminder that legislators who call themselves “independent” don’t just mean that they’re independent of party leaders – they want to be independent from voters too.

Think about it this way: Joe Lieberman, darling of the ‘No Labels’ crowd, was the Democratic nominee for vice-president ten years ago. Then he endorsed the policies of a Republican winner* and consequently lost his party’s primary. Lieberman then worked against Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and was even dressed down on the Senate floor by Obama himself after Lieberman – repeatedly – left Jewish audiences with the impression that Obama was a Muslim.

Yet for all this, Lieberman continues to enjoy privileges of committee leadership that are denied to more loyal – and reliable – members of the Senate’s majority party. And today, a thousand people got an earful of Joe Lieberman (CT-Lieberman) recalling his narrative of victimhood and the nastiness of partisanship.

It seems to me that this is a moment when the grassroots of a political organization clearly have reprimanded a member of their team for bad behavior – by booting him from the team. If they had continued to support him, what would that eventually mean for a legislative caucus? Think of how disruptive it would be to have freelancers peacocking around the floor of the Senate, with no shorthand to figure out who might be more likely to support things like a national bank, the American System, or a bill to aid 9/11 first responders?

It makes me wish Gordon Wood had been invited to talk to them about the differences between the U.S. Senate and the House of Lords.

P.S. Also funny: apparently the group’s logo – a zoological abomination – was ripped off from a lesser-known graphic artist. Probably because intellectual property is the exclusive purview of extremists.

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