The Centrist Demons Are at It Again

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If you opened a copy of Wednesday’s New York Times, you were treated to this full-page ad on page A5:

What is SAM? What does this group want to accomplish? It’s not clear from the ad, or from the accompanying website, where SAM’s three-step plan to build a platform ends with “create an active feedback loop.” But digging a bit deeper, you start to notice a theme.


First, there is a blurry video of David Brooks talking about tribalism.


Next, there’s a healthy dose of both sidesism. “For too long, voices on the far right and far left have dominated the political conversation in the United States,” the group says. And in its mission statement: “SAM is building a new political party for a new majority—those feeling abandoned by the Republican and Democratic parties, and looking for a better, more inclusive path forward.”

But it’s not until you take a look at SAM’s “Principles” page that you get a real sense of what it believes. SAM wants to “embrace America’s entrepreneurial spirit,” by “embracing the efficiency of free markets as the foundational backbone of liberty and American prosperity” and “[harnessing] the power of technological innovation to modernize government and deliver practical and targeted solutions to our common needs.” It also wants to “Achieve peace through strength and principle,” and to “advance American leadership and security and support human rights and democracy around the world.”


SAM, it turns out, is this year’s model of the ever-elusive Centrist Third Party.

“We felt the need for a party and political process that better represents American citizens, that provides pragmatic answers to real problems, and that puts the people first. Americans deserve much better options in its choices of political candidates – from the Oval Office to city hall,” SAM chairman James Waters said in a statement about the Times ad. (Waters, according to his bio, worked for noted centrist George W. Bush and currently works for private equity firm and “premier international merchant bank” Compass Partners.)


Added SAM CEO—yes, a CEO—Sarah Lenti: “We’re encouraged by a new majority of Americans: public surveys show that 64% of Americans disapprove of both major political parties. Further, 71% of millennials are looking for a credible, third option in American politics.” Millennials are roughly split over whether they want a socialist society or a capitalist one, so, not quite sure this is what they had in mind. (Lenti, according to her bio, also did a stint in the Bush administration and was the “lead researcher” for one of Mitt Romney’s campaign books. The full list of “contributors” to SAM is here. It’s about what you would expect.)

SAM, which was officially formed in 2016, is not the first group (Organization? Party?) to try this. Americans Elect spent $35 million dollars on absolutely nothing in 2012. The Centrist Party is still trying to get off the ground. No Labels is still around and fully convinced that American politics is ready for the Joe Lieberman Disruption. And in the two-party system itself, dwindling Democratic and Republican groups like the Blue Dog Coalition and Main Street Partnership long for the days of yore when you could do bipartisan deals that your district hated without getting primaried.


All of these groups operate under the impression that there is a gigantic silent majority that wants change, but only a little bit of it, because a lot of people self-identify as moderates and independents. What this ignores is that there’s a ton of evidence to suggest that most of these people aren’t actually in the center. The biggest evidence for this is that so-called moderates have been rendered almost completely irrelevant in recent national elections.

Furthermore, what these groups ignore is the fact that we already have a centrist party: the Democrats. The base of the Democratic Party might have shifted to the left and brought the party leadership along with it on some social issues, but the Democrats are still a fundamentally capitalist party that, more often than not, votes for war. There’s simply not much variation between what the average Congressional Democrat believes and the political vision put forward by the Sammies, which is what I’m calling them now.


The Democrats are, for all intents and purposes, a big tent that now encompasses everything from the center-right to the social democratic left. If there was ever a need for a third party, it’d be an unabashedly pro-labor and anti-war party, because these are positions that a lot of Americans hold which are actually underrepresented in government. But even this hypothetical party—like SAM—would run into the same kind of structural obstacles that have blocked essentially every attempt to build a nationally competitive third party.

The Sammies are right in their assessment that shit is broken. Where they go wrong is their prescription of a second, somehow more ineffective Democratic Party.