The No Labels Party Can’t Give Up on the Conservative Dream of Post-Partisanship

Joe Lieberman wants a “commonsense, moderate, independent” politics in America, to be advanced by his group No Labels. It’s a bankrupt “post-partisan” vision that has no solutions to any of the multiple dire threats facing Americans.

Former senator Joe Lieberman speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York, on February 6, 2019. (Christopher Goodney / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Even in today’s chaotic and unpredictable political environment, some things are as constant as the North Star. So it was probably inevitable that the group No Labels, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group that is an official political party in three states, would advance the periodically floated idea of an independent third-party presidential campaign ahead of 2024. Much as water is wet and the sky is blue, America has long housed a strand of elite reaction that simply cannot abandon the fever dream of “transcending” the partisan divide by finally eradicating politics altogether.

Last weekend, the Washington Post reported that No Labels initiated a $70 million campaign to get on the presidential ballot line in all fifty states — something it calls an “insurance policy” against both Democrats and Republicans should either nominate a candidate it deems “unacceptable.” What the organization will actually do remains an open question.

Speaking to the Post, former senator Joe Lieberman, a cochair of the group, coyly suggested No Labels might attempt to get both the GOP and Democratic candidates to commit to its “common-sense, moderate, independent platform,” though the group hasn’t ruled out backing its own ticket at the presidential level. Sen. Joe Manchin and former Maryland governor Larry Hogan, among others, are apparently both warm to the idea.

No Labels’ effort belongs to a lineage of elite thinking that proposes to break the deadlock of American politics by consolidating all of its worst features. On paper at least, the group — founded in late 2010 with a stated mission to “advocate and educate for greater bipartisan cooperation throughout all levels of government” — embraces the exhausted premise that the country’s problems can be traced to the rancor and incivility yielded by its current two-party system. In this view, political division is less the product of democratic contestation and disagreement than something artificially imposed by partisan competition. With that impediment removed, new vistas of cooperation supposedly await.

As the Intercept’s Clio Chang noted in 2018, No Labels is one among several prominent organizations that leverages anodyne centrist messaging to promote what is, for all intents and purposes, a conservative policy agenda. What’s more, as Chang put it, “The sensible solutions so often proposed by No Labels and its ilk have an uncanny likelihood of benefiting one particular element of our nation’s political economy: the superrich, or more precisely, the finance industry.”

That alignment, of course, is not incidental. When No Labels launched some thirteen years ago, it courted a rogue’s gallery of activist oligarchs and corporate barons who included David Koch, former AIG head Hank Greenberg, Peter Thiel, and Home Depot founder Ken Langone. During the 2018 election cycle, its network of affiliated super PACs raised more than $11 million from just over fifty individual donors on an average contribution of $124,000.

Strip away the artifice, in other words, and you find a bog standard dark-money operation whose actual mission is to slap post-partisan branding onto an agenda that would be perfectly at home in your average Chamber of Commerce or overpriced Wall Street luncheon.

Even if we disregard its base in organized wealth, the basic premise of the No Labels project collapses upon a moment’s scrutiny. It’s the height of delusion to suggest with a straight face that America’s two major parties are somehow insufficiently deferential to big business and still more delusional to represent this belief as an example of level-headed “moderation.” The GOP might bend toward the more extreme parts of its base, but the Democratic Party is reflexively hostile to its left, and its leaders have long been eager to tout their efforts at reaching across the aisle. If the No Labels ethos was already ridiculous in 2010, there’s a further layer of absurdity to the organization rallying behind the same notions in 2023 when Joe Biden — ever the consummate champion of bipartisanship — is already president.

It’s certainly true that vast numbers of Americans feel unrepresented by the status quo and would theoretically welcome the emergence of a third party or formation that breaks from the traditional Democrat/Republican mold. But today, as in 2010, it’s preposterous for people like Manchin and Lieberman to suggest it would ever take the form envisioned by No Labels or its donors. On plenty of major issues, from Medicare for All to free public college to a federal jobs program — all of which boast significant or even majority support from both Democratic and Republican voters — the actual middle of the road is often sharply to the left of where both party establishments have intransigently dug in their heels. If people aren’t particularly enthralled at the prospect of a second contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, they’re hardly clamoring for a Wall Street–friendly alternative either.

While some on the Democratic side in particular seem worried, there’s good reason to believe that a No Labels–backed 2024 ticket would enjoy little success even if it managed to generate a significant war chest. Third-party tickets have had decidedly poor showings for most of American history. Moreover, as the recent campaign of Michael Bloomberg — incidentally an early supporter of No Labels and fellow traveler — vividly attests, there are limits to what money can buy when no one actually wants the product on offer. A well-funded independent campaign with some novel ideas might be able to pull a few million votes. A bunch of hedge funds and private equity moguls in a trench coat, by contrast, will be deeply unappealing to everyone outside a handful of gilded area codes.

As Frank Rich wrote shortly after No Labels launched in 2010, “This is exactly the kind of revolving-door synergy between corporate power and governance that turns off Americans left, right and, yes, center. . . . What America needs is not another political organization with a toothless agenda and less-than-transparent finances.”