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To Defeat Authoritarianism, We Need Partisan Centrism
The No Labels presidential bid takes resources and support away from moderates who need them to create real change within their parties, not away from them.
THE GREATEST FRIEND OF THE FAR LEFT and authoritarian right alike is the anti-partisan centrist. Strong centrist factions within each party are what make bipartisanship, moderation, and compromise possible. But that’s not what the anti-partisan centrist group No Labels is about. The attempt by No Labels to mount an independent presidential bid could—among other things—do significant damage to the prospects of inter-party cooperation going forward.
Surveying the political landscape today, it seems fairly obvious what role centrist politicians and organizations ought to play. Risking it all to blow up the system is something we might naturally expect of a far-left organization like “Our Revolution” or within the MAGA movement. But the center is supposed to be democratic stability itself. We expect it to hold—or to at least try to.
No Labels appears to be uninterested in trying. The group has been explicit about its strategy, a $70 million “insurance policy” in case Trump receives the Republican nod again and the Democrats renominate Biden; the latter possibility would constitute a “moral failure,” according to the group’s director. The money is being used to cover the many costs of securing ballot access for an independent presidential ticket in all fifty states. Critics correctly point out the No Labels plan would help re-elect Donald Trump. That’s true—and it’s also the prognosis for the larger disease No Labels represents: the delusional anti-partisan variant of centrism whose flare-ups chronically weaken the moderate wing of the Democratic party.
No Labels was founded by an alum of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and the group has tried to claim the mantle of that successful moderate faction of the Clinton era. But the DLC’s rightful heir is the leading moderate think tank, Third Way. While Third Way has built up the moderate flank of the Democratic party and pushed back against far-left extremes, No Labels’s blind anti-partisanship has often worked with the authoritarian right (see Fox News touting No Labels’s opposition to the House January 6th Committee) and even, to a degree, the far left (which benefits when No Labels overhypes extremist power within the Democratic party).
Instead of building up moderate factions within the parties—which is a centrist strategy that carries a strong recommendation from political scientists—anti-partisans like No Labels suck up resources and attention to ensure that neither party actually builds the type of partisan moderate infrastructure that could produce bipartisanship and sideline extremists. They want that infrastructure to be their own, under their control.
There may have been some merit to the organization’s approach in the mid-2010s, when No Labels launched the Problem Solvers Caucus, an initiative broadly intended to foster compromise between moderates in both parties for whom there otherwise wasn’t much political space to work together. But when it comes to solving specific problems like, say, upholding our democracy or investigating January 6th, No Labels evolved in the wrong direction. The group labeled Donald Trump an official Problem Solver, leveled tendentious critiques against the January 6th Committee, and did not make election denialism a litmus test for support. Paradoxically, in its bid for neutrality on these issues, the organization started to lean in a partisan direction.
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With its latest evolution toward an independent presidential bid, No Labels has reached the logical conclusion of its approach, and is now acting to reduce the power of moderates within the parties. For a decade, No Labels has weakened the moderates’ position by building their own networks of donors and political leaders that could otherwise have strengthened moderate factions (and they did in the 1980s and 1990s for Democrats).
Now, No Labels is not just luring away moderate donors or politicians—they are coming for the moderate voter, too.
The cost is now clear. We need to build up the moderate wing of the Democratic party. Both demographics and recent history show that it is the main vehicle for building centrist power.
The Demographic Math of a Moderate Majority
First, the numbers. Gallup shows America to be a durably center-right country, with 25 percent of Americans identifying as liberal, 37 percent as moderate, and 36 percent as conservative. Those proportions have held fairly steady over the past thirty years.
To win power, Democrats must dominate among moderates. They have no other path to national victory. This is what makes it the natural home of a centrist faction: Democrats must appeal to moderates to survive. Republicans have less of a built-in need for moderate support to win, and can politically get away with treating them as a secondary concern (up to a point).
Do a thought experiment: If all Americans in Gallup’s poll were to be divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans—with all self-identified liberals moved to the Democratic camp, all conservatives to the Republicans, and moderates split up to fill the remaining space in each—Democrats would be evenly split between liberals and moderates while almost three-quarters of Republicans would be conservative.
While not all Americans are partisans, this thought experiment does track with the ideological share of voters in each party. A Gallup survey from January 2023 finds 46 percent of Democrats are moderate (36 percent) or conservative (10 percent). Among Republicans, 72 percent identify as conservative.
The demographic math aligns with recent history. In Democratic primaries from the presidency on down the ballot, moderates win. In GOP primaries, moderates lose. Just look at the myth of Peter Meijer. In an interview with David Axelrod, Meijer (currently mulling a Senate bid in Michigan) flip-flopped on Trump’s fitness for office and refused to say whether he would vote for him in 2024. As I wrote a year ago, Meijer’s magical thinking “is built upon a myth: the idea that defeating Trumpism requires honorable leaders who act dishonorably most of the time, but reactivate their principled superpowers when democracy needs saving.”
No Labels has courted other so-called moderates in the GOP, including Jon Huntsman and Larry Hogan, for their third-party gambit in a desperate attempt to avoid throwing in with one party, even temporarily. Luckily, courageous Republicans stepped in (and over them): In 2020, principled conservatives crossed partisan and ideological lines to endorse Joe Biden. The most robust analysis of the electorate, by the Democratic data firm Catalist, estimated that 11 percent of historically Republican voters switched to Biden.
The same happened in 2022, as Never Trump Republicans again stood up and courageously encouraged their peers to vote for mainstream Democrats in some of the most competitive races in the country. In many contests, these center-right crossover voters made the difference.
These courageous, patriotic Republicans leapfrogged many of their nonpartisan counterparts in the middle, whose commitment to avoiding factional entanglements prevented them from joining others on the rational pathway to defeating authoritarianism.
Political donors and activists often view their investment of time and money as akin to a typical financial investment: You can only lose what you put in. But if the Trump era has taught us anything, it is that there is always more to lose.
Trump, the only official No Labels Problem Solver to be president, understands the game. As he put it at CPAC in March: “This is the final battle. They know it, I know it, everybody knows it. This is it—either they win or we win, and if they win, we no longer have a country.” Either the authoritarians win or democrats win. If Trump can understand that, why can’t the anti-partisan center?
Centrists need to hear Trump’s warning and grasp its implications. Drop out of the game, or throw in with the partisan centrist insurgents to build an actual moderate power base that wins. The only alternative to building up the centrist wing of the Democratic party is that No Labels puts Trump back in the White House.