Mark McKinnon of No Labels

Columbia Political Review: The headline of the No Labels website reads: “We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, united in the belief that we don’t have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America”—can you explain what this means in practice and specifically how do you define what’s best for America? Doesn’t the answer to the question itself depend on ideological affiliation? Mark McKinnon (No Labels): What’s best for America is progress; paralysis is not good for the country. We represent Republicans, Democrats, Independents and we represent people who believe that hyper-partisanship has reached a point in our politics where it’s paralyzing the system. We represent people who believe that we need a voice that rewards good behavior rather than punishes good behavior which is very much the way the system works now. We support civil dialogue because we believe that when you actually talk to the other side and sit down with the other side, it’s a lot harder to demonize the other side. When this happens, you actually get together and find solutions.

Alliance of College Editors: But again, this has a lot to do with the last question asked. What do you do with those who prefer inaction to the kind of action that they view as dangerous and harmful to the country?

NL: Well that’s fine. There are plenty of people representing those people, but the people who want progress haven’t had a representative, and that’s what we are doing.

ACE: What does No Labels identify as the root cause of the dogmatic partisanship that it seeks to combat?

NL: I think it’s a variety of factors, but there’s no question that anyone who is a representative in Congress will tell you that things are much worse today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. There are a lot of different opinions about what the root causes are but I would suggest that most people would say that it includes gerrymandered redistricting. We just had a poll that suggests districts themselves have been drawn in such a way to create more partisan districts than in the past. Additionally, the evolution of cable television, talk radio, and Internet media is contributing.

ACE: What are the concrete gains that No Labels has made since its inception and what concrete gains do No Labels hope to achieve?

NL: We are excited about the progress we’ve made. We’ve only been in existence for a couple of months, and we’ve already had a launch where we had 1000 people from 50 different states who are now representing all congressional districts, and monitoring the behavior of their elected representatives. One of our co-founders generated the idea for the bipartisan seating at the [2011] State of the Union, which No Labels strongly endorsed and supported. Today in Washington, we had a press conference at the Capitol calling for everything to be on the table with everybody at the table as we address the budget issues. Additionally, MSNBC has agreed to sponsor a discussion dialogue between the Tea Party and MoveOn.

We have 1000 “generation” students across the country and we want to expand [this program] to at least 150 college campuses. One of the things we look to do next year is find six states with different primary races—three on the Democratic side and three on the Republican side—where we go in and bring 1000 people from outside the state into these states to support the No Labels approach. We’re an approach and an attitude. We’re not ideology. We just feel we are going to get better government if our leaders are working together and doing things in a bipartisan fashion. [MoveOn and the Tea Party] go into these offices and tell these legislators that “we will punish you if you cooperate with each other.” We want to be that counter weight that says “listen, there’s space to work with each other.”

Fordham Political Review: In that vein, can you talk about concrete steps that you are pursuing or hoping to see in terms of affecting elected officials? At the end of the day, they legislate and it’s up to them to be civil and work in a manner that is conducive to progress in your eyes. What do you want to see from our Congressmen, Senators, President and people in government?

NL: We want to see them demonstrate a willingness to work together, meet together, sponsor bills together. Among the concrete measures, we are monitoring the behavior of all the members, and we are throwing either what we call a “yellow flag” to punish bad behavior, or offering “high fives” to reward good behavior. For example, when Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) a week ago called members of the Republican Party “Nazis”, we threw a yellow flag, got our community behind it and notified the press. Later that afternoon, he apologized. I’m not suggesting that there is a direct cause and effect, but these are things that we feel are good and proper roles for No Labels. We monitor behavior and shout out examples of good and bad behavior when they happen.

One of the things we called for today was the Saxby Chambliss-Mark Warner gang of six that is working across the aisle in negotiations with all of our debt issues. We are supporting that and the members that work across the aisle. I was with the chief of staff of one of these Senators, and he showed me the emails that said, “Whatever you do, don’t be bipartisan.” So we’ll be opportunistic and, as these issues come up, we’ll be calling on No Labels members from around the country to support members in their specific districts on issues like this one. We have No Labels chapters all around the country that will be dealing with elected representatives on these issues.

ACE: Besides simply supporting good behavior, can you talk about some of the ways No Labels could affect elected representatives as they legislate in Washington, DC?

NL: We’ve been meeting regularly with chiefs of staff from the Senate and House to try to determine ways in which we can restore bipartisan lunches, retreats, and forums in which we can get more of the members together.

Penn Political Review: I’m going to read you a snippet from a comment that Rush Limbaugh made in December of 2010.

“What was No Labels’ label before they changed their names? Progressives, exactly right. When liberalism was rejected, liberals called themselves progressives, and now that progressives are being rejected, former liberals, former progressives, are now calling themselves the No Label group.”

How would you respond to people who claim that No Labels is a proxy for liberal ideology and movement?

NL: Well, I’m delighted that we got Rush Limbaugh’s attention. I [Mark McKinnon] am a Republican and a proud Republican, as are many of our members. But we are not about ideology, we are about working together. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have any interest in people working together so I’m not surprised that he would attack us.

Berkeley Political Review: Has the Tucson Shooting affected your movement? Do you think that it takes unfortunate tragedies like this to make Americans realize the importance of bipartisanship, even if the Tucson shooting wasn’t a partisan attack?

NL: It raised the [bipartisanship] issue like a ripple effect and the president talked about this. The shooting wasn’t sparked by our problems with civil discourse, but created an outcome to initiate more dialogue about it.

ACE: Where do you see No Labels in 10 years?

NL: In 10 years we hope to be an effective voice for millions of Americans who think that civil discourse leads to greater problem solving in our country.