Opinion

OPINION | GREG HARTON: In a world of labels, some are helpful and others aren’t, but there’s no getting away from them

There's no way we'll ever live in a world with no labels, as some long for.

In politics, there's an ongoing debate over a group called "No Labels." This organization formed in 2010 with a goal of finding common ground its advocates believed Democrats and Republicans had failed to do.

No Labels is itself becoming a label. It was founded as a nonprofit organization under federal tax rules, not as a political party. But it's evolved to the point that it's pitching the idea of running a presidential ticket this year if the contest becomes a Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch, which most Americans say they don't want. And yet it appears that's the 2024 General Election showdown the nation is headed for.

Neither of those choices is appealing. In that situation, many voters will default to picking who they least dislike, not someone whose leadership excites them.

I'll label that "sad."

As a nonprofit, No Labels gets to hide the identity of its big donors, unlike registered political parties. Democrat-aligned groups recently filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission to force No Labels to be treated as a political party. That would put donor limits in place and reveal the major backers of the group.

Some Democrats fear a No Labels presidential contender's actual effect, to put a label on it, would be as a spoiler. He or she would, they theorize, siphon voters away from Joe Biden, potentially handing the presidency to the Republican nominee, who appears so far to be one Donald J. Trump.

What a crazy political world. If there's support for a more centrist presidential candidate, the country may end up returning an old, marginally Republican man who'd rather be a dictator to the presidency. Without a more centrist choice, the country may end up returning to the Oval Office an old Democrat who's current leadership isn't knocking anyone's socks off.

Label that a rock and a hard place.

Speaking of labels, I've read some of the feedback from a few Republican-leaning readers deriding the use of "far right" or "hard right" in stories about the federal budget battle. The detractors say the same kind of labeling isn't used for Democrats.

This involves nuance, to which a lot of Americans have developed immunity.

The key to understanding use of those terms in congressional reporting right now is recognizing where the fight is. It is, first and foremost, within the Republican Party in Congress. In that context, the skirmishes are happening among factions of Republicans. It's impossible to report on factions within a single group without using qualifying terms that, as accurately as possible, describe where they are on the political spectrum.

Members of Congress divide themselves up, too. It's not just "the media." They form groups like the Freedom Caucus, whose members self-identify as the more conservative faction among Republicans. But newspapers aren't going to only use the self-serving label chosen by those caucus members. If one accepts there's a political spectrum, and that Republicans fall on the right (as opposed to left) side of it, then people who self-identify among the most conservative can fairly be called "far right" or "hard right" in the context of the budget battles.

Is it a term of perfection? No label is, but labels help us clarify the political battlefield.

Suggesting such terms haven't been used on Democrats is bogus. Terms like left-wing, centrists and conservative (within a liberal context) are used when it matters, which is usually when Democrats are in power and thus the cracks in their unity become more significant. When Republicans are in the majority, it's hard to argue the most liberal among Democrats (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) wield much power, so they don't get mentioned or labeled very often.

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