America's political history is littered with the remains of movements trying to change the nature of the country's two-party, winner-take-all system. Some of the most recent and most well-known challengers of the status quo were probably the Libertarian Party, the Green Party and the Reform Party.
While they all managed to create some media buzz, and the Reform Party with its candidate Ross Perot and the Green Party with Ralph Nader may even claim to have tipped two presidential elections, their success was short-lived. Even with a record 19 percent in the 1992 presidential election (the best for a third party candidate in the past 100 years), Ross Perot never had a real shot of getting elected. Four years later in his final run he was marginalized and came in only at 8 percent.
For movements trying to break the two-party stranglehold on US politics after a brief peak there always came the never-ending trough. Enter the No Labels movement.
“We want to build a counterweight to the extreme voices that are dominating the American political scene right now, the far left and the far right,” says Nancy Jacobson, founder of No Labels and a prominent former fundraiser for the Democrats such as Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Jacobson emphasizes repeatedly that No Labels, which she founded in December 2010, is no party and won't ever become one. Instead, the group wants to promote a bipartisan approach to politics in what it describes as a hyper-partisan landscape.
According to No Labels, politicians don't even need to give up their party affiliation, just when decision time rolls around, they should put aside their partisan hat and instead focus on finding the best solution for the country.
Room for compromise
“The right and the left tell politicians you are punished if you compromise,” argues Jacobson. “We want to create the space that allows people to meet each other and get to the table together.”
According to Jacobson, the group so far has grown to 150,000 members with hundreds more joining every day. With 40 percent of Americans who claim no party affiliation or call themselves Independents, and an even larger percentage of Americans who are dissatisfied with Congress and both parties, experts agree that there is a large untapped pool of constituents for a new political force.
“I think that they actually have a shot at generating people,” says Wendy Schiller, associate professor and public policy expert at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
William F. Connelly, professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia agrees: “No Labels begins with some heavy hitters such as Tom Davis and Mickey Edwards. So it must be taken seriously.”
In less than a year, the new group has already managed to get organized in all 435 congressional districts and as Connelly noted, its roster includes some political heavyweights.
But since No Label explicitly denies wanting to become a political party, how exactly does the group plan to exert influence? Or could it be that the movement views itself as more of a preacher than a practitioner, calling for more civility and bipartisanship in politics without really getting its hands dirty?
“It's meatier than a civility project, this is not what we are,” says Jacobson. “But you are right it's confusing. There is no shortage of think tanks in Washington that have great ideas on exactly how to solve the problem and you can know exactly where they stand. Where we stand is, we are always looking for the bipartisan solution.”
As an example of their work, Jacobson points to the group's support for the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of Senators that proposed a solution for the US debt crisis and their support for the bipartisan Congressional super committee tasked with eking out an additional $1.5 trillion in debt cuts over the next 10 years.
“The only venue for influence that this group has is really on a specific bill or a specific proposal,” argues Schiller. That means No Labels could essentially can become a bipartisan version of Moveon.org, the Democratic grassroots mobilizing organization, adds Schiller. Probably the best way to describe No Labels then is a lobbyist group for bipartisanship.
It won't have its own candidates or platform, but can generate public opinion on specific issues and make their constituents' voice heard in Congress and the White House via the media, particular using the Internet, e-mail and Twitter as mobilizing platforms. Against the trend Christoph Haas, a US public policy expert at Freiburg's Albert-Ludwigs-University, doubts whether that approach can work.
The problem that the No Labels movement has is that they fight a long-lasting trend. And that trend is party polarization which goes back probably to the 1970s and 1980s and was even strengthened in the 1990s. That's a long-lasting trend where the parties and there members have become more homogeneous, and farther away from each other than they have been.”
While Wendy Schiller is not as pessimistic about No Label's chances, she believes that the group's lack of a strong figurehead could hamper its success. “Everybody likes a charismatic leader and the question is who is the leader, who is running No Labels,” asks Schiller. Since No Labels is no party, measuring its success can be tricky.
One way is by its sheer number of members and whether its bipartisan voice will be strongly heard or will simply remain background chatter in the upcoming political battles.
But the best metric for success for the bipartisan lobbyists is probably whether both Barack Obama and the Republican nominee for president will show up at the group's presidential convention planned for the next summer, because they simply cannot afford to miss it.
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