On Second Thought, Maybe I’ll Take a Label After All

As a regular viewer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” I’ve become quite familiar with former George W. Bush advisor Mark McKinnon.  In the years since Bush left the White House, McKinnon, in addition to being a frequent Morning Joe panelist, has turned his attention to a new political forum called “No Labels” (not to be confused with any of several Naomi Klein projects).  No Labels describes itself as “a movement of Democrats, Republicans and everything in between dedicated to the politics of problem-solving.  We stand united behind a simple proposition: we want our government to stop fighting and start fixing.”  As such, in addition to the Republican McKinnon (as well as former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman), the organization includes Democratic figures, such as Senator Joe Manchin and fundraiser Nancy Jacobson, among its key players.

On the surface, a group like No Labels sounds very appealing.  The government fixing stuff instead of fighting?  Who could be against that?  In practice, however, No Labels has had a difficult time gaining traction and attention and has faced criticism and snark from both the left and the right.  I see the struggles of No Labels as indicative of a broader tendency toward distinctiveness over inclusivity in organizations.

Here’s what I mean.  If one seeks to be welcoming and to eschew litmus tests for identification with an organization or subculture, one is eventually confronted with the relative hollowness of inclusivity as a rallying point.  Inclusivity can get feet in the door, but in the long run it offers little to induce anyone to stick around.  Virtually any attempt to infuse an inclusive subculture or organization with an identity beyond inclusivity risks alienating some members who oppose the new identity, while those who support it are drawn even deeper into the fold.  Before long, the boundaries of insiders and outsiders grow sharper and inclusivity is lost.  Meanwhile, a subculture or organization that attempts to avoid such a fate might eventually fade through its inability to provide a more compelling attraction than inclusivity.

This is certainly not to say that inclusivity is a “bad thing.”  In a general sense, open doors and tolerance are quite obviously forces for acceptance and against bigotry and discrimination.  Ultimately, however, we are confronted with the sticky question of the extent to which we must “tolerate the intolerant.”  If we are honest with ourselves, we must conclude that, at least for most of us, our vision of the ideal society has little place for certain activities and attitudes – prejudice, exploitation, and harassment being typical examples of that which would be excluded.  Unless someone is able to induce the entire world to adopt his or her exact set of viewpoints and tastes, differentiation will exist, and individuals and groups will seek representation of the particular viewpoints and tastes that they value at the expense of others.  This phenomenon is reflected in the smallest musical subculture and in the broadest worldwide political movement.  And it’s a perennial thorn in the sides of groups like No Labels.

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4 thoughts on “On Second Thought, Maybe I’ll Take a Label After All

  1. I think I learned about this group from Diane Rehm at some point. I remember thinking that for No Label to really be successful they would need to distance themselves from either party and the best way to do that is with a 3rd party. But that would really doom them to failure in our political climate…I wonder if there is a middle ground between all-inclusive and thus powerless/meaningless organizations and full blown political parties with their inherent divisiveness?

  2. I would say that the main issue is that organization does not have a clearly defined purpose and makes the anassumption that we can all agree on what ‘fixing the government’ means in practice. But the measures of effiency are not necessarily easy to agree on.

  3. Yeah, I am beginning the think that it is for the best that government fails to act. There is all kinds of legislation I don’t want them to find a way to agree on! But at the same time we need a budget so they gotta put ideology aside at some point…

  4. I think this is a really interesting post with some similarities to our earlier discussion this year on guns laws and social movement mobilization. There seems to be a tension here between what we would ideally like to see happen in the world and the reality of how the world works.

    We hope for a society in which elected officials see each other more as teammates than enemies. We would like people to value inclusivity. And yet, we recognize that this approach often does not gather supporters. Being distinct is a better way to foster followers. Similarly, we don’t want politicians to be unsensitive to tragedy, but recognize the role of emotions in social movement.

    What do we do? Do we push for our ideals, knowing that this approach might fail? Or do we accept the ways of the world, however disappointed we might be with them, and do the best we can in a given social reality?

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