No Labels, No Point

By Sean Carroll | December 13, 2010 11:07 am

Michael Bloomberg and a posse of self-styled centrists have proclaimed a new movement that will save America from the tyranny of partisan gridlock: No Labels.

Maybe I’ve been radicalized by reading blogs for too long, but this is one of the dumbest ideas of all time. It doesn’t even have novelty to recommend it; an organization like this pops up every few years. (Remember Unity08?)

Sure, putting aside our differences and working together for the common good sounds like a lofty goal. Fine. But how is it actually supposed to work? Efforts like this are based on a fundamental unfixable mistake: the idea that what matters about politics is process, not issues. The idea that it doesn’t really matter what we do, only that we do it in a civil and constructive matter. The idea, in other words, that substance doesn’t really matter.

Here is an early post from the No Labels blog:

Lately, I find myself fielding variations of this question: “so what position will No Labels take on (insert issue)? The honest answer is I don’t know and to answer with exactness is premature. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of issues of importance out there. From the start, we’ve known that we want better approaches in the areas of the deficit, economic growth and education just to name a few examples.

Right. “Better approaches.” Why didn’t anyone think about this earlier. My predictions: they will come out firmly in favor of a lower deficit, more economic growth, and improved education. My heart beats faster just thinking about it.

Politics has a bad reputation. People don’t like it. You see family members saying silly things and then getting overly emotional about their commitments. There is an appealing fantasy that we could just learn to work together and get along, and then all of our problems would be solves.

But at the end of the day, the marginal rate of the top tax bracket has to be a certain number. There is or is not a public option for health insurance. We do or do not invade Iraq. People disagree about these issues. And politics is the way we make decisions in the face of those disagreements. Pretending otherwise is not principled, it’s wankery.

Politics might be distasteful, but it’s necessary, and taking it seriously is a virtue. Pretending to float above it all is not.

  • Bobito

    Many are wondering if Bloomberg will make a presidential run in 2012. But most assume he will have to run as an independent because the base of both parties will reject him (how sad is it that the word “both” encompasses all our choices in america…).

    If anyone has the money to create a new party, it’s Bloomberg! And if this leads to a viable third party in this country, a centrist one at that, it’s all for the better!

    Of course, the Rep and Dem machines will squash it. But how great would it be to have another option to keep the left and right in check. God knows the media isn’t doing it’s job at that.

  • Chris Lindsay

    There hasn’t been an idea this bad by a New Yorker since the “nametag” idea that came from Lloyd Braun, an advisor in David Dinkins’ administration.

    Cost him the election.

  • Charlie

    One of the best defenses of dictatorship I have ever read.

  • Bigby

    I sympathise about wanting a third party. Or more. After all, other democracies around the world have large numbers of political parties. Israel has, I think, around 30. Now I think having “only” two parties is the best defense we have. Why? Because it forces compromise. Did you know that Arafat was the elected leader of the Palestinian people and he got there with THREE PERCENT of the vote. 97% of the Palestinian people couldn’t stand him. On one of his trips outside the city the people threw rocks at him. Two parties forces a situation where something approximating a majority (election 2000 notwithstanding) elects an official. Yeah, there’s a lot of partisan bickering. Think they have less partisan bickering in a country with 30 political parties?
    People tend to believe what they believe. And they tend to feel pretty strongly about it. Having two parties “forces” most folks to pick a side and put up with the shortcomings.

  • Non-Believer

    I agree with Sean. They do seem to have lost themselves in pleasing ideas without practical reality.
    I think we (the population) need to step away from not thinking. Lack of thinking allows the politicians to focus on using simplistic and often misleading statements. It also makes people think that all issues must be agreed upon within one party. This is also something the politicians take advantage of.
    No Labels seems to blame the politicians for creating this bipartisanship. While I’m not saying they walk around clean, they are only acting in an environment created by our own desire for simplicity and certainty. By our desire not to have to think.

    I doubt anyone will fix that. Its probably part of our lizard brain and takes an active effort to overcome. This means most people won’t.

  • Maldoror

    I suspect part of this comes out of the toxic political climate that besieges the US for several decades now (and it only seems to be getting worse).

  • Robert David STEELE Vivas

    Thanks for not requiring registration. I am glad to see this posting, and am cross-posting it to Phi Beta Iota. I nailed these guys the minute I saw the names and the money, you can see my November post at The Huffington Post at the below URL, and then my later slam on for giving up its integrity in one night at the second URL.

    No Labels “Non-Party” Equals “Four More Years” for Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, Grand Theft USA Sells Out–No Labels + Americans Elect + CUIP =Trifecta of Electoral Fraud

    Have started a No Labels “Running Update” at

  • Sili

    Arnold Zwicky has taught me the mantra “labels are not definitions”. In this case it would appear that the label doesn’t even hint at the definition.

  • Bobito

    @4 “Because it forces compromise” Unfortunately, our compromises seem to be taking the worst from both sides rather than the best these days… 😉

    The reason I brought up the presidential run is exactly to the point that there is no label. The fact they don’t have a position is what lead me to believe this may be Bloomberg’s plan. Generally, people that are running for POTUS get really quiet about contentious issues until the race picks up steam.. Serious contenders, at this stage of the game, are merely working on image. They don’t want to alienate anyone before the race even begins.

  • Sam Gralla

    Good point!

  • Terry

    I find the lack of more available choices of political parties in America disturbing. In essence, we have five or six political movements that have all become rapped up inside these larger political coalitions.

  • spyder

    No Labels sounds like an objectivist libertarian’s dream.

  • Yvette

    I always thought that the “can’t we all just get along and do the right thing?” crowd is usually trumpeting the “can’t we all just do what I know is right?” line more than anything else. Most people are in favor of compromise until they actually have to do it.

  • Valatan

    For people wanting third parties so desperately:

    Are you ok with all of the major decisions in the government, up to and including which party controls the speakers’ gavel, being decided by backroom deals? Because one only needs to look at the semi-dirty coalition rumblings we’ve had recently in Canada and England recently to see the pitfalls one could have THERE. Not to mention the French Fourth Republic and postwar Italy. Votes in a list system pretty much just determine which parties have the best bargaining position when they show up to pick a prime minister.

    More parties = more choice at the ballot box, less connexion between your vote and who actually governs.

  • Brian Too

    Any political party suffers from one serious flaw (OK there are lots of flaws but I’m only going to talk about the one). They are expected to have positions on every matter conceivable. Their members are typically expected to support all party positions and this is doubly true of the party executive.

    Since this is a difficult thing to achieve the decision making process within the party is a central thing to party ideology. There are real consequences to both the process and the party position that results.

    The result of this is a certain kind of cognitive dissonance. Party members and the executive frequently do not support the party position on all issues. If the gap between party ideology and personal belief grows too strong, the member can drift away, become a fierce critic, or gain a reputation as a “maverick”.

    How many parties perfectly capture your personal philosophy? More parties help but do not comprehensively solve the problem.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Well, I gotta say Dr. Carroll, I agreed with every single word you just said.

  • Toiski

    “More parties = more choice at the ballot box, less connexion between your vote and who actually governs.”
    In a 2-party system, only the votes of the winning party matter. No minority can get accurate representation. If 45% of people think that something shoudl be done, it will not get done in a 2-party system, whereas in a multiple-party system, the prties supporting it could compromise with others to get it done, provided that they support something that another group of at least 5% wants done. I find that very much more desirable than your system. Of course the multi-party system can be abused, but looking from the outside in, it seems to me that the 2-party sustem cannot be anything but abused.

  • Ian Preston

    Politics is about resolving conflicts of opinion and conflicts of interest. The pretence that everything can be reduced to the former, so that better politics becomes a matter of better “problem solving”, is attractive primarily to those who’d prefer the latter didn’t exist, in particular to those whose public-spiritedness is tempered by reluctance to see their advantages under the current political settlement too heavily questioned.

  • Solution

    I think we need to form a commitee to solve these problems…

  • Bobito

    @15: “More parties help but do not comprehensively solve the problem.

    I think the only comprehensive solution would be to march all the “professional politicians” out of DC and into Virginia like they did with the DC hookers a few years back.


  • Scott B

    By itself, politics matter. At least in the US, if your toward the center of the political spectrum here, you opinion matters little though. You have two political parties that dominate everything with standpoints on policies lean towards the extremes of the political spectrum on each side while the majority of people support some mix of ideas between the two parties. Primaries allow the extremes to typically control who each party offer up for general election.

    Given this reality, I can’t complain about something like No Labels. Even if it’s pointless in the end. The belief that people should drop party labels, run for office based on what they believe rather than a party platform, and the people should vote the same way is something I can applaud. That’s how a representative system is supposed to work. It’s pointless though because as people group together under a common ideology, they gain power. Individuals have no chance to compete unless they form their own groups and even if you somehow reset everything, political parties would form again.

  • psmith

    Civilised searching for better solutions is a noble idea that depends on a highly intelligent electorate with high levels of consensus and good will, a condition that has never applied anywhere in human history.

  • TimG

    Well said, Sean. People on the left or the right get a bad rap for being “too partisan”, but at least they have real opinions on the issues, rather than a wishy-washy “can’t we all just get along?” sentiment. If you want to build a centrist coalition, great, find some issues that moderate Democrats and Republicans can agree on. If you don’t know where you stand on the issues, guess what, you don’t have a political movement, you just have a bunch of self-congratulatory rhetoric.

  • goldy

    I agree with Sean that the source of the tensions in our political sphere arise partly from the fact that the nation faces real issues and we disagree on how to address them. However, no one on this page seems to have listened to no labels people speak about what they intend to do. The idea is to engage with your representatives at the local, state and national level and to engage with people who are or are thinking about running for office. The no labels part is really about engaging no matter if they are in your party or if they agree with you on the issues. Since politics is a necessity, the more we are engaged in the process, the more we will be able to live with the results. One thing I have learned in this process is how complicated the issues really are once you get past the 24-hour news echo chamber sound bites. Learn what is really at stake and then voice your opinion directly to your representatives.

  • Eugene

    Sounds like Bloomberg/Stewart 2016 NoLabels party presidential bid!

  • Cynthia

    As Barry Ritholtz, the author of “Bailout Nation” and the founder of the popular econ-blog “The Big Picture,” aptly points out (see link below), the battle lines are no longer drawn between Right and Left; they are now being drawn between You and Corporations. The goal of our corporations is to keep the Right and Left fighting amongst each other so that our corporate elites, including Michael Bloomberg, are free and clear to walk away with even more wealth and power for themselves.

    So if there is any place where Michael Bloomberg and other corporate elites are located on the political spectrum, it is in the Middle. And because corporate elitists across all sectors of the economy are masters at manipulating us plebs, then it is the Manipulative Middle, not the Extreme Right or Extreme Left, that is the enemy of the people. Unless you didn’t already know by now, the Manipulative Middle is not only occupied by the corporate likes of Michael Bloomberg, but also by most, if not all, of our political leaders from both sides of the aisle, including all of our neocon/neolib spin doctors from K Street, and all of our banksters and war profiteers from Wall Street and the Pentagon.

  • Valatan


    It used to be routine to have a ton of cross-party negotiation in bipartisan US government. The Civil Rights Act are one clear canonical example where regional splits swamped the signal from any partisan divide. But in coalition-based parliamentary government, the minority is even weaker than it is in the US system–an opposition party’s main role is to make the PM look stupid during Question time.

    And, if no single party gets a majority of seats, all power, including who the executive is, is alloted in backroom deals between party leaders. It’s a tradeoff between choice at the ballot box and control over the outcome.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    “Efforts like this are based on a fundamental unfixable mistake: the idea that what matters about politics is process, not issues.”

    The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Of course the issues matter, but disputes about issues can’t be resolved without some sort of viable process. If you’ve got a process that guarantees a null zone of possible agreement on all issues, then nothing is going to get done, ever. That’s pretty much where we are today, which is great when nothing needs a political resolution, but not so good when inaction no longer promotes the common weal.

    Now, I agree that some fatuous, Rodney King-like whine isn’t really going to do much, but you’ve cast the problem in such a way as to guarantee a null ZOPA forever. There **isn’t** just one number for the top marginal rate–there’s a range, from which one number has to be negotiated. The public option is only one of a range of solutions to health insurance. On invading Iraq, you’re right–but that’s why we have a constitutionally-mandated executive.

    And the problem isn’t just that the Right and the Left say nasty things about each other in public. The problem is that they don’t talk at all, even in private. If there are party dynamics that are preventing that, they need to be fixed. On the other hand, if it’s just that everybody’s fallen into bad habits–which is what I suspect–then they need to get over themselves.

  • John Ramsden

    They sound like a precise rerun of the Liberal Democrat party in the UK, whose true stance, despite all their sanctimonious waffle, is solely about “exploiting a gap in the voter market” rather than any genuine convictions or nobly non-partisan aims.

    The Lib Dems constantly trim their sails according to what they perceive will be slightly more popular policies, but have always seemed to have no coherent set of policies besides promising anything they think will get them into office (as today’s students are finding out in relation to student loans).

    Many Lib Dems seem to relish all the “politicking”, regardless of their success at the ballot box, and one sometimes wonders if they don’t really prefer sniping from the sidelines and all the procedure more than actually winning seats! But on the rare occasions they do scent victory, they are notoriously sneaky and dirty fighters behind the scenes.

    The Lib Dems do have one unshakeably firm policy though – They are obsessed to the point of madness with proportional representation (as opposed to the UK’s current First Past the Post system). But again, this is only to further their aim of attaining office in larger numbers and staying there.

    In short, that is what to expect from this No Labels mob.

  • Matt B.

    No Labels would only work in a voting system that allows more than one party to endorse a candidate. I forget what that’s called.

    @17. Toiski, we need multi-vote districts, where each district has, say 5 votes in the legislature, and those votes are given proprotionately to the candidates. It’s like proportional representation, but it goes by individuals instead of parties, and keeps local geography important.

  • Anchor

    Sean, it’s high time that anyone said anything on the subject as clearly and succinctly as you have in the last three paragraphs of your post.

    I’m just trying to figure out how the clarity can be neglected for so long and that it apparently needs to be triggered by the likes of Bloomberg in the first place.

    Never mind: anything that provides the necessary charge separation to provoke the lightning is okay in my book….

    Those words should be enshrined in every quotation archive…under a heading of ‘common sense’ and ‘ethics’ as well as ‘politics’.

    “Politics has a bad reputation. People don’t like it. You see family members saying silly things and then getting overly emotional about their commitments. There is an appealing fantasy that we could just learn to work together and get along, and then all of our problems would be solve[d].

    “But at the end of the day, the marginal rate of the top tax bracket has to be a certain number. There is or is not a public option for health insurance. We do or do not invade Iraq. People disagree about these issues. And politics is the way we make decisions in the face of those disagreements. Pretending otherwise is not principled, it’s wankery.

    “Politics might be distasteful, but it’s necessary, and taking it seriously is a virtue. Pretending to float above it all is not.”

    That is superb….because it is absolutely correct.

  • Anchor

    John Ramsden (#29) in a nutshell: libs, libs, libs – all ills can be attributed to libs (or any other fashionable boogeyman-type) – end of story.

    And not a shred of explanation exactly, precisely, W-H-Y.

    Most of us are on to you though, so don’t bother to overdo what you already find so easily overdone. (sniff…hmmm, yep, it’s way past digestible by now, unless you like the common flavor of burnt soot).

    The rest of us rather like to wallow within some semblance of dynamic organic freedom exposed to any chemical challenges without ever needing – EVER – to arrive at an idiotic stability in the form of soot.

  • Cody

    I want to advocate a scientific approach to policy.

    Instead of allowing our politicians to assert “plan A is the best solution to problem A” I’d like to see, “we’ve agreed plans A, B, C and D are the most promising, so we’re going to implement each one in a scaled down trial to better understand the strengths, weakness, and unforeseen consequences of each plan. Afterward we can return and determine the best mix of these plans to achieve the results we desire.”

    Of course the main flaw with this is that we can’t even agree on what outcome is most desirable! (You’d figure that’d be a no-brainer in some cases—as we’ve seen with evolution, even the most well established facts can be debated.) A lot of the debate stems from the anti-intellectual attitudes so popular in our country, and the attitude that our voices are (or should be) all equal, rather than weighted by expertise. (I think this will resolve itself in the next 40 years as China soars past us—they seem to hold intelligence & education in high esteem.)

    It bothers me that we argue over the same left and right positions on economics, education, international policy, healthcare, arms control, etc., and very few of us are happy with the results of any of those systems. So let’s get experimenting already!

  • MPS

    Also, there’s no unity or coherence among “no labels.”

    I think one of the reasons that the Republicans pose as such stronger political front that Democrats (in terms of achieving policy objectives) is because what they support is largely maintaining and enhancing the existing hierarchies of wealth, power, and prestige, while Democrats are against that, however there are far fewer ways to be in favor of it than there are of being against it.

    So, for example, Republicans don’t split over, say, health care reform: they’re against it and there’s only one way to be against it so they all pretty much vote that way. However, once you decide you want reform, there are many ways to go about reforming the system, and thus Democrats split preferences among these ways and correspondingly lose political power.

    But, the Democrats are at least somewhat united, insofar as they tend to have a certain direction they would like to push the existing hierarchies. A “no label” platform — if truly independent of such ideologies — would likewise be truly powerless against these political fronts. It’s unfortunate, but I think that’s the way things are.

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  • TWC

    Sean’s comments are the best I have heard about the “no labels” movement. A related phenomenon seems to be the reluctance to admit to any historical or philosophical antecedents for a given set of policy prescriptions. The “no labels” movement wants to present itself as some form of debased pragmatism only responding to clear and unambiguous national problems. Like it or not, in their crude way, labels do tie proposals and platforms to related international and historical political movements. This is good, if you are one who believes that ideas matter. It would be great if people could be explicit about the assumptions they bring to making a political decision. Those would be some really interesting arguments.

  • coolstar

    @Valatan and Bigby Well said: “More parties = more choice at the ballot box, less connexion between your vote and who actually governs.” I can’t say it any better than that. Look around the industrialized world, and I’ll take a two party sytem any time. Most Americans would actually riot in the streets, with good reason, if you tried to force the Irish, U.K., or Australian systems on them, to name a few.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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