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.


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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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