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What the Joe Manchin-No Labels Fantasy Gets Wrong About America

Red, white and blue signs reading “No Labels” in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Credit...Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

For as long as Americans have had partisan political competition, they have hated partisanship itself.

By his second term in office, in the mid-1790s, President George Washington faced organized political opponents in the form of Democratic-Republican societies that had spread throughout the country.

“There was the Society for the Preservation of Liberty in Virginia, the Sons of St. Tammany and the Democratic Society in New York, the Constitutional Society in Boston, the Society of Political Inquiries, the German Republican Society and the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and similar groups scattered in all the states,” the historian Susan Dunn notes in “Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism.”

In the wake of the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s, Washington blamed these societies for “encouraging dissension and fomenting disorder,” as Dunn puts it. He accused them of spreading their “nefarious doctrines with a view to poison and discontent the minds of the people.” Washington’s farewell plea to avoid faction — “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” — was in many respects a response to the spread of partisan feeling during the last years of his administration.

Speaking of which, Thomas Jefferson was an eager partisan. By 1797, he had emerged as the leader of the Democratic-Republican opposition to the Adams administration. In his own words, he hoped to “sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection for it.” And yet he also hoped, in his inaugural address, that Americans would put aside partisanship and unite as one: “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle,” Jefferson wrote. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

You can find this distaste for faction and longing for unity throughout American history, up to the present. Americans, including their political leadership, have a real and serious distaste for partisanship and political parties even as they are, and have been, as political and partisan a people as has ever existed.

I was reminded of all this while reading a recent opinion essay by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, in which he dreamed of a world without politics or partisanship — a world of “common sense solutions” and bipartisan camaraderie.

“What is clear to all those who wish to listen is that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in unity,” Manchin wrote in USA Today. “We are stronger as a nation when we embrace compromise, common sense and common ground.”

Manchin was writing in part to explain why he appeared last week at a town hall in New Hampshire sponsored by No Labels, a centrist political group that has railed against partisanship and extremism as a voice of the so-called radical center since 2010. “Both parties follow the mood of the moment,” declared Michael Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, during the group’s inaugural event in December of that year. “They incite anger instead of addressing it — for their own partisan interests.”

No Labels is still around, and its diagnosis of American politics still rests on the idea that the parties are too partisan — each captured by the most extreme members of its coalition. “These partisan extremes are in the business of feeding political division and dysfunction every day,” wrote Manchin, whose appearance at the town hall came amid speculation that he might make a third-party presidential run under the No Labels banner. “They attack our institutions, whether it is our Capitol, our elected leaders or our justice system, without caring about the lasting damage it does.”

There is something deeply strange, if not outright bizarre, about a narrative that puts the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol in the same category of political action as Black Lives Matter protests, the liberal criticism of the Supreme Court or whatever it is that Manchin has in mind. Stranger still is that he does this while calling, with all apparent sincerity, for more dialogue: “I believe there is a better way to govern and lead this nation forward that embraces respectful discourse, debate and discussion.”

We could spend the rest of our time here on the way that Manchin’s call for debate excludes tens of millions of Americans with passionate, informed but less popular views that offend the sensibilities of centrist politicians. Or we could focus on the fact that much of No Labels’ actual advocacy appears to be little more than a stalking horse for an unpopular agenda of benefit cuts and fiscal retrenchment.

For now, though, I want to highlight the fact that there’s no way to realize this long-running fantasy of politics without partisanship. Organized conflict is an unavoidable part of democratically structured political life for the simple reason that politics is about governing and governing is about choices.

For any given choice, there will be proponents and critics, supporters and opponents. Political participants will develop, in short order, different ideas about what is and what should be, and they will gather and work together to make their vision a reality. Soon enough, through no one’s precise design, you have political parties and partisanship. This, in essence, is what happened to the United States, which was founded in opposition to faction but developed, in less than a decade, a coherent system of organized political conflict.

That’s not to say our political system is perfect. Far from it. But if there is a solution, it will involve an effort to harness and structure our partisanship and polarization through responsive institutions, not pretending it away in favor of a manufactured and exclusionary unity.

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Posted on 25 Jul 2023 16:52 link