The only thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on is their fear of a third party.
“Death threats come into the office on a regular basis,” Nancy Jacobson told the Jewish Journal.
A decade ago, Jacobson, a former Democratic National Committee finance chair, founded No Labels alongside moderates from both parties. The first No Labels conference brought together Democrats and Republicans worried that partisanship was tearing apart the country.
Jacobson and former Senator Joseph Lieberman, the founding chairman of No Labels, are proud of initiatives like the Problem Solvers Caucus, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, which has broken through the gridlock on infrastructure and manufacturing bills. Under co-chair Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the most vocal pro-Israel member of the House, the Caucus worked to cut off cryptocurrency to Hamas and forced a vote to condemn BDS while sidelining extremist members of both parties who routinely oppose pro-Israel legislation.
“No Labels achieved some progress, particularly in Congress, to figure out how to break through the partisanship and get people in both parties working together again for the common good,” former Senator Lieberman reminisced. The organization’s congressional strategy encouraged “centrist Democrats and Republicans” to “come to the center and talk to each other civilly, respectfully about the problem they’re trying to solve and find ways to reach common ground.”
But the political polarization that spurred the creation of No Labels also threatens its existence.
Some critics argue that there is no more room for civil discourse and common ground; as the title of one editorial contends, “No Labels Seeks a Middle Ground That Doesn’t Exist Anymore.” Other Democrat and Republican voices accuse No Labels of secretly working for their opponents. In a hyper-partisan environment, even calls for moderation are seen as a threat.
Political polarization has made Democrats and Republicans more than parties. Belonging to one or the other has become a culture and an identity. Fewer than half of Americans would date someone from another party, a quarter of college students wouldn’t be friends with someone who voted for another party, and people even move to communities that match their politics.
The growing partisan divides that No Labels hoped to bridge are turning against it. Editorials in major papers have blasted the organization and its members as spoilers conspiring against the Democratic Party. And the former Republican strategists at the Lincoln Project hired a billboard truck to come to Jacobson’s neighborhood to accuse her and her husband, Mark Penn, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s former chief strategist who plays no role in No Labels, of secretly supporting Trump.
No Labels was born out of a rejection of the fever swamps of bitter partisanship — a time when Lincoln Project founder Rick Wilson had unleashed an ad tying former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga), a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Now with equal verve, the former Republican political strategist is smearing Bill and Hillary Clinton’s former chief strategist as a secret Trump supporter on behalf of Democratic Party special interests.
This was exactly the kind of dirty politics, rife with conspiracy theories, partisan smears and gleeful muck throwing, that No Labels had hoped to get beyond when it launched. But in a polarized nation where any disagreement is seen as a threat, that goal may be harder than ever to attain.
And yet in the middle of all the foment is what Jacobson calls a “common sense majority” looking for an alternative to a broken two-party system. A recent poll found that half the country would be willing to consider a third party candidate if the 2024 presidential election comes down to a repeat grudge match between Trump and Biden. And No Labels is considering the possibility of a unity ticket that would do for the White House what it has already achieved in Congress.
Democrats and Republicans are not taking it well.
“No Labels equals Trump,” claimed a pollster for former Democratic House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, who is building an organization to oppose the bipartisan organization. Karl Rove, the architect of Bush’s 2004 win, warned in an op-ed that “the No Labels 2024 election” is a “threat to Trump.”
No Labels leaders have made it clear that the organization does not intend to be a “spoiler” in the race and that it will not move forward if a unity ticket cannot win a presidential election, but what it seeks to do is restore centrist priorities to a political cycle driven by extremes.
“If we decide to run a third party unity ticket, we’ll have some priorities, enough votes to make those issues a priority,” former Senator Lieberman explained. He cited the example of Ross Perot, the most successful modern third party candidate, who pushed a balanced budget amendment so successfully that “Bill Clinton embraced it, and worked with Newt Gingrich to get it done.”
No Labels still aims to bring Democrats and Republicans together to solve problems. And it’s working. Just not as intended.
In North Carolina, Republicans and Democrats have teamed up to keep No Labels off the ballot.
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, who had seen voter suppression up close while working as an assistant to Martin Luther King Jr. and as head of the NAACP, and who now serves as the national co-chair of No Labels, expressed his concern. “I truly hope that the Board of Elections in my home state will refrain from engaging in any form of voter suppression.”
Similar efforts by Democrats in Arizona and Maine have raised questions of voter suppression by legal experts. Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows sent a warning letter to the thousands of state residents who registered with the No Labels Party and dispatched a “cease and desist” letter to the party. In Arizona, Democrats sued to keep No Labels off the ballot.
Former Senator Lieberman worries that the red lines of democracy are being crossed.
“They have a right to oppose what we’re doing, but to use partisan election officials to block us from being on the ballot, that’s unconstitutional,” he told the Jewish Journal.
Beyond the public battles, the No Labels stand for democracy has come with a personal cost.
Partisan opponents of No Labels have attacked Jacobson personally and dragged her husband, who is not involved in the organization in any way, into it. Staffers who have dedicated a lifetime to public service have been told that they’ll never work in politics again. Friendships have fallen apart and vendors have been warned that they need to choose between Democrats and democracy.
House and Senate chiefs of staff were briefed on the “threat” of No Labels, and elected officials have been urged to sign a letter which argues that, due to the “urgent and unique threat to democracy in the form of right-wing extremism,” there is no room for a third party.
Staffers, activists, donors, and even members of the No Labels Youth Congress, have been targeted with cancel culture campaigns demanding that they disavow the organization.
Third Way, a Democratic Party group which in the paranoid atmosphere of political extremism has also been accused of being a front for “GOP donors” and “right wing interests,” has charged No Labels with aiding Trump. Matt Bennett, a top Third Way leader whose claim to fame was arranging the infamous Dukakis tank photo, told his supporters in the video below that “there are plenty of things that you can do, everyone knows a lot of people and you can activate people in your world that can really have an impact on the No Labels staff and people around them, on their donors…and on the candidates that they’re going to try to recruit to run.”
At the heart of these battles is the question of what the purpose of politics really is.
Unlike Israel, Italy, or other countries with brawling multi-party political systems, the duopoly of the two parties has been boring but stable, with Democrats and Republicans trading power, insults, and congressional investigations in a mostly predictable rhythm since 1853.
The two-party system is historically unpopular and some say that the duopoly is clinging to power and fending off democratic efforts to open up elections. With two widely unpopular presidential candidates, Democrats and Republicans were hoping to run against each other with no third parties getting in the way of their purely negative campaigns of mutual destruction.
“In presidential elections, the two parties try to convince voters more to vote against the other campaign,” Lieberman told the Journal. “And so they really don’t focus on the affirmative and constructive programs.”
“You know, if we decide to offer our ballot line, it’s going to be affirmative, a positive ticket they can vote for, rather than one they fear.”
And that may be the one thing that both parties hate and fear even more than each other.
While No Labels leaders, members, and allies come from all religions and walks of life, the role that Jewish figures like Jacobson, Lieberman and Gottheimer play in the movement has attracted antisemitism from both sides. The organization has been accused of being a “trojan horse for Israel support” and some see the frequent accusations that it is backed by “plutocrats” and “wealthy special interests,” often Jewish, as representing coded antisemitism.
What impels some of the Jewish leaders associated with No Labels to break with the unsatisfying state of politics in the hope of building something better?
“I believe fiercely in tikkun olam (repairing the world). That is my guiding principle in the work I do. I have spent my entire professional life working daily to help repair the world,” Nancy Jacobson, who has guided No Labels all these years and now faces the ultimate challenge of her professional career, said.
“The richness of our tradition is really important,” Lieberman told the Journal, “but more important is taking those values and bringing them into the world and to try to improve the world, taking that into politics, that’s important to No Labels.”
The former senator, who spent his career in and out of office navigating the tensions of politics, stressed the “importance of civil debate that leads to compromise and a just result.”
“The best example of that is the Talmud that governs Jewish life and value, where did it come from, from centuries of discussion and debate: what does this section of the bible mean, how do we apply it? Those debates didn’t lead to hatred, as they do in our political system, they led to a sort of consensus. That to me is the bedrock purpose of No Labels, to return to our political system of civil debate, debate that is based on trust, in which we return to the compromise.”
“In my opinion the work that No Labels is doing is a reflection of the best of Jewish values and religious values in general,” he concluded.
The fate of No Labels may decide whether there is still room for the values of compromise, civil discourse and common ground in a country where we are encouraged to think of each other as enemies, to break up family meals with political arguments and to end friendships over Facebook fights, and whether there is any hope for democracy in a two-party system.
Jewish Journal staff contributed to the reporting of this article.