Jonah Goldberg

Such fuzzy thinking is a symptom of the growing fetishization of the "center" as an ideologically distinct and superior location and "independents" as a philosophically coherent group. In reality, there is no single center in American politics, and there are many different kinds of independents. Indeed, "pure independents" -- i.e. voters with no allegiance to either party -- amount to barely 10 percent of the electorate and a mere third of the number of people who call themselves independents. And these purists don't even vote much. There are very conservative independents and there are very liberal independents, just as there are people who think all of their positions are centrist, even though they might seem absurdly right-wing to some or creepily left-wing to others. The confusion partly stems from the fact that Americans have a habit of equating the label "centrist" with "reasonable" and the label "independent" with "thoughtful" or "free thinking." (Yes, I'm afraid they're all labels.) Hence even folks who want to expel the U.N. or fund the Pentagon through bake sales tend to cast themselves as misunderstood centrists.

This highlights one of the great things about political parties and political labels. If I tell you I'm a conservative Republican, you'll have no idea what my views are on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or beef jerky, but you'll have a good idea of what I think about taxes and foreign policy. No, partisan labels aren't perfect; both parties have ample disagreements within their ranks on pretty much every issue. But they're better than nothing. They're clarifying, not confusing. In other words, labels aren't "meaningless" as so many self-described independents claim, but meaningful. If anything, what's meaningless is the claim that you don't believe in labels when obviously anybody who speaks intelligently about anything must use them.

What no-labelers really mean is that they don't like inconvenient disagreements that hinder their agenda. And that's what is so troubling, indeed so undemocratic, about this claptrap. When they claim we need to put aside labels to do what's right, what they are really saying is you need to put aside what you believe in and do what they say. When activists say we need to move past the partisan divide, what they mean is: Shut up and get with my program. Have you ever heard anyone say, "We need to get past all of this partisan squabbling and name-calling. That's why I'm going to abandon all my objections and agree with you"? I haven't.

No Labels says it's "about taking the politics out of problem-solving." It is amazing how cavalierly people say this sort of thing, as if this wasn't the rationale behind pretty much every dictatorship since the dawn of man. Nearly once a week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gives voice to his full-blown man-crush on China's one-party dictatorship because -- according to Friedman -- the Chinese, unlike us, can implement "optimal" policies without getting bogged down in such distractions as elections, the rule of law, human rights, etc.

Look: You can't take the politics out of problem-solving. Politics, even in China, is the art of problem-solving. People aiming to yank the politics out of government invariably end up removing the democracy instead.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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