12.16.10

My War With Rush Limbaugh

Limbaugh is taking nasty shots at me and my new "No Labels" group, and Keith Olbermann named us a “world’s worst”—examples of the all-or-nothing politics tearing the country apart.

According to Rush Limbaugh, I’m a hard-core liberal, no different than Michael Moore who paid the bail for “the serial rapist Julian Assange.” Also, I’m not willing to admit who the terrorists are, and I’m helping to kill Christmas.

It’s all because I co-founded a new group that launched this week called No Labels. We’re Republicans, Democrats and Independents—dedicated to confronting the culture of hyper-partisanship that is distorting our debates and stopping our nation from solving the serious challenges we face.

This idea is threatening to professional polarizers like El Rushbo—which is why he devoted an hour of his show this week to attacking us. In particular, he took personal aim at co-founders Mark McKinnon (a Republican Bush/McCain adviser and fellow Daily Beast columnist), Kiki McLean (a Texas Democrat and Clinton administration alum) and myself. In the process, he again proved the need for No Labels.

Rush’s core concern seems to be that there is no such thing as the center or independent voters. He believes that America is divided between the far-right and the far-left, and he likes to offer only that false choice because he believes it’s a fight he can win. But an emphasis on swing voters or independents—the largest and fastest-growing segment of the electorate—makes the math more complicated. It screws an inflexible ideologue up.

“If we do this right, we can discredit this whole mind-set of the ‘moderate center’ being the defining group in American politics,” said Rush. “Because this No Labels group is going to end up illustrating what a fraudulent idea that whole concept of, ‘There are people who decide issue by issue. On the left they like certain things, on the right they like certain things.’”

So Rush believes that there are no principled Americans who decide what they believe on different policies issue-by-issue. For someone who talks about freedom a lot, he doesn’t have much faith in free will or free-thinking. He doesn’t believe that Americans—especially independent voters—can consider themselves fiscally conservative but socially liberal. You either walk in lockstep as a social conservative and fiscal conservative or you are a ‘hard-core liberal’—libertarians, apparently, need not apply.

It is an illustration of one of the lies of modern American politics—that people who surrender their individuality to an ideology and vote the party line are somehow "courageous." That’s not courage, it's conformity.

For someone who talks about freedom a lot, Limbaugh doesn’t have much faith in free will or free-thinking.

But this all-or-nothing mindset is what allows Rush to look at the range of people who spoke at the No Labels launch and dismiss them all. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is "an überliberal" as presumably is the self-described libertarian-conservative congressman turned cable host Joe Scarborough, Bush-era Comptroller General David Walker, Reagan administration alumni David Gergen, Congressman Mike Castle and keynote speaker David Brooks who cut his teeth at William F. Buckley’s National Review before joining The New York Times. Rush also took time to dismiss other bipartisan initiatives to achieve fiscal responsibility like the Concord Coalition (co-founded by Granite State Republican Warren Rudman) and Nixon Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson’s legion efforts to educate Americans about the crippling impact of the deficit and the debt.

Says Mark McKinnon: “Rush thrives on hyper-partisanship. He's against everything we stand for. He doesn't want us to get along. He doesn't want Republicans talking to Democrats. It's a zero sum game for Rush. It's all about winning for Republicans and losing for Democrats. Rush said he wants the President of United States to fail. Forget about the good of the country, it would be good for Republicans. No Labels could not disagree more. We hope that any president succeeds, Republican or Democrat. Because progress for the country is more important that points for a political party."

Criticizing Limbaugh is not the same thing as demonizing him. We can recognize that he is a talented broadcaster, a popular political entertainer for folks on the far-right. He also helped create a big part of the problem in our politics today. He uses conflict, tension, fear and resentment to drum up his ratings, appealing to a narrow but intense (and aging) niche audience by using the old trick of dividing Americans into "us" vs. "them," perpetuating the polarization he profits from. That’s why it’s a little absurd to hear Limbaugh point out disapprovingly that my book Wingnuts itself uses a label to describe the use of fear and hate by hyper-partisans. Its funny how quickly people who throw around labels for a living ("feminazi," for example) cry foul when a term like Wingnut is directed at them. But bullies are always shocked when you punch back.

While Limbaugh was busy arguing that No Labels is just a shadow organization for progressives, on the left, the netroots were describing us as just the opposite—a shadow organization of Republicans. Huffington Post contributor Robert David Steele went the DINO-hunting "corporatist" route sometimes directed at No Labels allies, like centrist Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh and Joe Manchin, describing how “No Labels ‘Non-Party’ Equals ‘Four More Years’ for Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, Grand Theft USA”. Daily Kos offered a series of similar takes.

Keith Olbermann named No Labels one of the "worst persons in the world" last night (a badge of honor he gave to me earlier this year). He called us “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and “a bunch of fraudulent conservative Democrats pretending to be moderates and a bunch of fraudulent Republicans pretending to be independents.” Again, there’s the impulse to divide and deny the legitimacy of anyone who doesn’t conform to a hyper-partisan view of politics.

Likewise, Ed Schultz did a segment attacking No Labels as "fence riders.” When he brought Kiki McLean on, she explained No Labels’ belief that “if we start the day by calling each other liars, if we start the day by calling each other baby killers, murderers, racists, we don't get to the topic of substance.” Schultz called on liberal commentator Lionel Media to rebut, saying, “Right now this a rancorous [time], this is an uncivil world that we live in…if I went to John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi and said, now, listen, I want you two to find one we agree on that we can start. They'd say, ‘Nothing.’ OK. There we go.”

Or there we don’t go, as the case might be—demonization leads to distrust and gridlock. It’s a vision of democracy as an all-or-nothing ideological blood-sport between enemies instead of a constructive conversation between fellow citizens who recognize, as Thomas Jefferson once said, that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” We can solve problems without surrendering our principles by identifying the common ground that exists and then building on it.

There is no partisan template to understand a movement that attracts both the bassist of Nirvana and the editor of the conservative Dartmouth Review. Liberals try to call us conservative and conservatives try to call us liberal, but the labels don’t fit. And that’s the point.

But in the all-or-nothing world of hyper-partisans even trying to transcend political labels is a traitorous act. That’s why Limbaugh tried to lump No Labels in with Michael Moore and Julian Assange in his opening monologue this Wednesday. Wearing his polarizing political entertainer hat, he questioned whether we were part of the PC police who want to remove mention of the word "Christmas" from the public square. Most offensive to me, he said, “The No Labels mind-set leads to not being willing to admit who the terrorists are.”

For what it's worth, Mr. Limbaugh, I witnessed the attacks of 9/11 from three blocks away and as a speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani I spent months writing eulogies for the firefighters and police officers who were murdered by the radical Islamist terrorists who took down the Towers. More recently, you quoted my story about the Park 51 Islamic Center Developers applying for $5 million in dedicated 9/11 funds for cultural redevelopment. Suggesting that a call for common ground between fellow American citizens is somehow equivalent to appeasement or amnesia when it comes to terrorists is unforgiveable.

One of the core purposes of No Labels is to remind Americans that our domestic political opponents are not our sworn enemies. Neither President Bush nor President Obama ever deserves to be compared to tyrants or terrorists—and if you only object to the president of your party being compared to Hitler, you’re part of the problem. I hope that No Labels can help rekindle some of the spirit of national unity we found and then quickly squandered after 9/11 —because we can’t wait for a terrorist attack or natural disaster to remember that there is more that unites us than divides us as Americans.

The bottom line is that less than one week since its launch, No Labels has spurred the start of a national conversation. And if both Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann have taken time to attack us, it's a sign that we're doing something right and fighting the good fight.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.