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

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 everyday,” writes Manchin, whose appearance at a No Labels town hall in New Hampshire came amid speculation that he might make a third-party presidential run under its 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 critique of the Supreme Court or whatever it is that Senator Manchin has in mind. Stranger still is that Manchin 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.

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