American politics is at an historic inflection point. We all know it. We all feel it. While the turbulent 1960s, with its spate of assassinations and unrest, shook our democracy and politics to the bone, those times did not cause large numbers of us to question the fitness of the two major parties to be the custodians of our democracy. Today is different. At SAM, the Serve America Movement, we believe that we are in the midst of what will be the most significant political realignment in this country since 1854, when the two then-dominant parties began to splinter and, less than six years later, had re-constituted themselves into the two parties that have since dominated our politics.
The Core Political Problem
In our view, the core problem with our politics today is how what can only be described as the “two-party monopoly” has corrupted our democratic system, encrusted the machinery of government for the principal purpose of strengthening the parties’ own dominant positions, and done everything in its power to stifle competition. The two major parties have effectively silenced the voice of the American majority.
These dynamics precede the Trump era; the self-interested extremism of both parties has been worsening for decades. Instead of governing in the best interest of the country, the two incumbent parties remain locked in “tribal” hyper-partisanship. Beholden to extremists in their respective parties and the power of special interests, legislators from both parties find partisan advantage in blocking legislative progress without regard to the actual needs of the nation as a whole or the common good.
The two-party monopoly has proven unwilling and unable to forthrightly address the massive technological and global shifts (and their economic consequences) of the post-Cold War era. Neither party and few, if any, politicians today address or even acknowledge some of the hardest questions we as a nation must ask and try to answer.
The two dominant parties insidiously collude to use their power to ensure that voters have few viable alternatives on election day. They abuse their legislative power to enact barriers and exempt themselves from troublesome rules. They consistently resist reforms designed to open up the system. The technical and arcane tools used to limit choices at the ballot box are deeply problematic to American democracy, and yet these tools are beyond the awareness of most citizens.
A once-functioning set of processes, traditions, and norms has given way to chaotic stasis; a stationary, rotating political slow-motion hurricane. The resulting distortion and disillusion has created disorder and disease in America’s political system. Surrounded by the dark clouds of what Michael Porter and Katherine Gehl, authors of a recent Harvard Business School study entitled Why Competition in the Politics Industry Is Failing America, dub a vast “political industrial complex” of donors, consultants, and interest groups, the two entrenched parties and their cohorts will remain locked in narrow hyper-partisanship—and America’s democracy will progressively deteriorate—unless and until the dominance of the two major parties is effectively challenged.
Who Is SAM?
SAM was founded in the aftermath of the 2016 election. In one sense, the bitterness and rancor of the 2016 presidential election was only the most recent reflection of an ongoing deterioration in our political culture. But the election itself was also an extraordinary political inflection point. In the main, voters held extremely negative views of both candidates. That fact, coupled with the polarizing races they ran, exacerbated disdain for the entire political system and have indelibly changed how Americans see one another. The tangible results of the toxic environment brought to the surface in the election include a widespread recognition that something is fundamentally wrong.
SAM is a coalition of patriotic but deeply concerned citizens from across the country and the political spectrum who cannot and will not stand by and simply watch what is happening to our country. With the Republican Party’s march toward anger, isolationism, and racially toned nationalism, and the Democrats’ reactive swerve toward an explicit embrace of socialism, neither major American party adequately represents the will, ethos, or needs of those they claim to represent. SAM is determined to disrupt the stranglehold that these two corrupt and ideologically dangerous parties have on our political system.
SAM is building a new political party for those who are disillusioned with their current options. Our goal is nothing less than to disrupt the two-party monopoly by creating a new national party from the ground up: a New Party for a New Majority.
We are building this new political party by gaining ballot access as a party in each state, and we are building the human, financial, and political infrastructure necessary to grow locally. Where we can form alliances with pre-existing parties and groups, we will do so. In some places we can identify pioneers—like former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner (D) and Pelham Mayor Michael Volpe (R)—to run as SAM candidates with the goal of reforming their state governments, bringing national attention to the cause, and getting ballot access for SAM as a party. In other states, where there are different avenues to ballot access, we will progress over time and in a thoughtful and methodical way based on local conditions and the resonance of our message.
SAM’s solution is to put a new team on the field—not a red team or a blue team, but a red, white, and blue team. America needs a team with the willingness and ability to move the ball down the field; achieving progress on such topics as the health of our democracy, addressing the Federal debt, and creating an environment in which Americans can flourish.
We are committed to ensuring that this new team will also change the rules of the game, so that those in power can never again rig the system as the two-party monopoly has done. We agree with former Congressman Mickey Edwards’s sentiments in his book, The Parties vs. the People:
Having political parties—that is having Americans—gather together to support common goals is an essential ingredient of the democratic process, but allowing them to also dictate how we elect our officials and how we govern our nation is an unfathomable surrender of our rights as a people to decide how we will be governed.
The Challenges Ahead
For SAM, this past year has been one of examination, exploration, and experimentation. What most ails American politics? What are the clearest, most direct ways to provide solutions to our most pressing problems? Is there yet a critical mass of Americans tired of our old, noxious politics who are ready to build a new movement and ultimately a new party? How will we ensure SAM is different? Is now the time to take on the entrenched two-party monopoly?
We know we are not alone in believing that a new party is the best path forward. A September 2017 Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans support the idea of new major political party, “the highest level of support Gallup has ever recorded,” according to a Washington Post column by Juleanna Glover. The New York Times recently reported that over 60 percent of adults in California think that, “both parties [are] doing such a poor job that another party [is] needed.” The youngest generation of voters is perhaps the most hungry for change: An NBC News/GenForward Survey in November 2017 found that 71 percent of millennials say a new major party is needed.
SAM’s most pressing challenge—and most promising opportunity—is to translate the preference of a majority of voters into electoral reality. Moving from poll results toward tangible success in building a party requires SAM to address three discrete issues.
First, SAM must make the case that creating a new political party is necessary, feasible, and wise. Among other things, we need to explain how our approach differs from the approaches of others who are trying to improve our politics, and why disrupting the two-party monopoly is a better strategy than more incremental efforts to improve the current system.
Second, SAM candidates must take on the issues that are most pressing to America’s centrist majority—the issues on which the two major parties have been silent at best and divisive and destructive at worst.
Finally, we need to create energy and intensity sufficient to persuade potential supporters that a vote for “third party” candidate is not a wasted vote, that helping a “new” party is not a waste of time, energy, and resources, and that the risk of being a “spoiler” and perhaps helping electing the candidate a voter least likes is worth the risk.
Why We Need a New Party for a New Majority
Over the past year and a half, we have spent significant amounts of time talking to voters, experts, and others who are deeply concerned about the state of our politics. Many have spent lifetimes thinking about and observing our political system, and we have learned much from them. Others have committed their time and vast resources to a variety of approaches to reform our democratic process and culture.
Some work hard to improve the system from the inside. This may take the form of supporting so-called moderate members of the Republican or Democratic caucuses in Congress or attempting to achieve administrative or legislative reform with the current players. But the political system has little desire to change and certainly will not do so from within. While we share with the system-reformers the hope for a better, more democratic future, the sad fact is that our democratic systems and norms have continued to unravel despite the efforts of reformers.
There are also those working outside the traditional party system by attempting to recruit, support, and elect independent candidates to office. These efforts recognize the two-party monopoly as a core problem but do little to combat the structural dynamics that keep it in place.
During campaigns, independent candidates carry no party label or identifier and often have little-to-no infrastructure, and most must overcome overwhelming skepticism by the political elite, media, and most voters alike. Further, because of the way ballot access laws work in each state, every time an independent candidate wants to run for office (including re-election) the individual must go through the difficult and expensive process of gathering voter signatures on a so-called ballot petition. After every election, all the work that was done to gather signatures prior to the election is thrown away.
Finally, continually running candidates for office as independents and not as representatives of an officially recognized party ignores the fact that official parties enjoy significant advantages under the campaign finance laws as compared to those who are merely seeking and obtaining access to the ballot as individuals.
A new party for a new majority is necessary to address what ails America’s political system: The only way to disrupt the two-party monopoly is to challenge it. The only argument against the ambitious but necessary work of party building is that building a new party is hard. We agree, and we know from firsthand experience: It is hard. But it is not impossible; at least two parties in the recent past (the Libertarians and the Greens) have become national parties by doing exactly what we are proposing to do: building their parties from the ground up, state by state, focusing on ballot access, people, and local infrastructure.
We’re rolling up our sleeves and doing the enormously hard but necessary work of recruiting leaders and members, building infrastructure throughout the country, and achieving state-by-state ballot access. We are building a sustainable new party that represents the majority of Americans, in order to give voters the choices they deserve.
The SAM Plan
Americans understandably want to know what their political party stands for. “Centrist” or “moderate” labels can be perceived as meaningless: standing against the extremism of the two parties can be mistaken for standing for nothing. But this is far from true in SAM’s case. The two parties benefit from focusing on the most polarizing issues, not the issues that matter most to current and future generations of Americans. A polarized and angry electorate entrenches the dominance of the ideologically extreme parties—but the result is that opportunities to move America forward on most critical issues are lost.
The two political parties have dropped the ball on the issues that matter to voters: SAM wants to pick up that ball and move it down the field. This means taking on core issues that matter to the health of our democracy and tackling the big problems that face American society.
Fixing Our System
In today’s unique environment, the charges of self-interested and anti-competitive abuse of power at the heart of our movement have resonance with an American public tired of being denied any meaningful choices. This is a core element of SAM’s mission, one that we will pursue with vigor. As Gehl and Porter write, “The politics industry is different from virtually all other industries in the economy because the participants, themselves, control the rules of competition.”
A significant number of credible and worthy groups such as the Brennan Center, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and others have been working on these issues for years; SAM hopes to partner with many of them. We all face the same hurdle of overcoming the rules in 50 different states, rules that were specifically designed by the incumbent parties to limit, deter, and belittle credible competition to their electoral majorities and governing power.
We are therefore joining forces with these groups and working on the following six core reforms:
1. End Partisan Gerrymandering. In states where one political party dominates both the legislature and the Governor’s office, the redistricting process—designed to address changes in population and ensure equal representation—has been employed as a tool to reinforce the control of the incumbent party to “gerrymander.” The result of this process is that (a) politicians end up choosing their own voters, and (b) polarization is increased as fewer and fewer differing viewpoints are adequately represented.
SAM is actively supporting efforts, many of them as a result of citizens initiatives that appear on the ballot before voters, to create non-partisan redistricting commissions like those currently in use in California and Arizona. This takes the power to draw district lines away from the politicians and puts them in the hands of voters. SAM expects to support the redistricting reform measures that will appear on the November ballot in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah.
2. Repeal “Sore-Loser” Laws. Forty-four states employ “sore-loser” laws to enforce discipline in the major parties and prevent breakaway third-party movements. These laws provide that, if a candidate has participated and lost in a partisan primary, they are barred from running as an independent on the General Election ballot. Given the hyper-partisan nature of today’s party primary system, this means that general election candidates tend to be far more extreme than the electorate writ large.
SAM supports efforts to repeal these laws, which serve as barriers to ideologically moderate candidates, and which drive the extremism of the two major parties.
3.Remove the Unnecessarily High Barriers to Ballot Access by Independents and New Parties. The two dominant parties use their historic dominance over Federal and state legislatures to systematically protect their monopoly position. They erect virtually insurmountable barriers to competition such as steep filing fees; difficult, expensive, and often arcane signature-gathering requirements; and filing deadlines that purposefully eliminate independent candidates and the establishment of challenger parties.
SAM believes that overly burdensome barriers to entry should be eliminated. We must expand voter choice and encourage participation by independent parties and by candidates who otherwise fulfill the legal and constitutional requirements for the office for which they intend to run.
4. Give Voters More General Election Choices. In most elections today, the candidates who appear on the General Election ballot are limited to two candidates—one from each of the two major parties—and those candidates often represent the extremes. This is because those candidates are chosen in low-turnout partisan primaries conducted by the parties themselves that tend to attract only the most activist and often most extreme voters. It is also a product of our outdated plurality voting method, which strongly tends to limit competition to two major parties and puts independent or third parties into the undeserved role of “spoilers.” The combination of these factors inevitably results in ideologically extreme elected officials who take hardline positions when in office and demonstrate a total unwillingness to compromise.
SAM believes that all voters should have the ability to participate in the selection of the candidates who appear on the General Election ballot. Voters should not be limited to participating in a primary held by one of the two dominant parties under rules set by the party. This could be accomplished through adopting a “top four” primary system and ranked choice voting, as suggested by Gehl and Porter.
5. Reform and Strengthen Enforcement of Campaign Finance Laws. Today our politics are infected with enormous amounts of “dark money” injected into the system by undisclosed groups.
SAM believes in requiring the immediate, online disclosure of all political contributions (as is required in Oregon), and in strict, fully resourced enforcement of state and Federal laws designed to ensure that what purport to be lawful “independent” expenditures are not, in fact, the result of coordination with the candidate and therefore illegal campaign contributions.
6. Expand Voter Registration and Access. Nothing is more fundamental to a democracy than the right to vote. Yet for too many Americans, the act of registering to vote and casting a ballot is far too difficult. Calls to simplify the process and make it more flexible are too often resisted for partisan reasons based on exaggerated claims about the prevalence of voter fraud.
It is time for all eligible Americans to be able to register to vote easily, and for unnecessary obstacles to lawful voting to be removed in favor of increasing turnout. SAM therefore supports efforts in a rapidly growing number of states to use technology to simplify the process of registering and voting, allowing automatic online registration through the use of existing driver’s licenses and similar systems. We also support increasing flexibility in the time and manner of voting, including allowing more voters to cast their vote prior to and on Election Day without physically appearing at the poll or physically showing specified government issued photo identification.
Enacting the electoral reforms we (and many others) advocate is far easier said than done. It is absolutely clear that the two entrenched political parties will not voluntarily relinquish their favored position or cooperate in repealing the laws they have jointly enacted over the last century to keep their grip on the power.
Moving America Forward
SAM’s proposed governing philosophy is not limited to the structural reform of the electoral system and ousting from power both parts of the “two-party monopoly.” SAM was formed around a set of Founding Principles and, at the Federal level, espouses specific policy priorities. As reflected in our Candidate Criteria, we seek a set of qualities in candidates who carry the SAM banner. SAM’s beliefs reflect a perspective that is socially tolerant and inclusive, modern and forward looking, free-market oriented, and fiscally and environmentally responsible to future generations.
That perspective provides guardrails to those who are running and will run as SAM candidates. Our priorities are designed to be broad enough to allow candidates to develop their own policy positions, consistent with their own personal beliefs and the needs of their communities—and yet narrow enough to guard against the ideological extremism prevailing in both of the two major parties.
SAM’s priorities are as follows:
- Bringing our country’s debt and fiscal policy under control, setting up future generations for success;
- Focusing public and private resources on ensuring the health of America’s people and the vitality of local communities by innovating in education, healthcare, and infrastructure;
- Creating jobs and growing the economy in a sustainable way by embracing free enterprise, free markets, free trade, and measured immigration across secure borders;
- Pursuing criminal justice reform and ending the era of mass incarceration;
- Making the election process truly democratic and ensuring access for all voters;
- Rejecting retreat from the world and committing to America’s role as a strong, clear-eyed, values-based leader on the world stage.
Overcoming “Wasted Vote” and “Spoiler” Concerns
Americans consistently tell pollsters that they are broadly unhappy with both the Republican and Democratic parties. More voters identify as “independent” or “unaffiliated” every year. In California this year, voters registering as “No Party Preference” became the second largest constituency, outpacing Republican registrants for the first time.
Last summer, we asked voters in two states how they felt about independent candidates. More than 70 percent of respondents in both states viewed non-aligned candidates favorably. When asked later in the survey if they would vote for an independent candidate, however, about 70 percent of those same respondents said they would not.
What explains this difference between preference and willingness to act? Voters’ hope for independent and new party candidates to improve our politics trades off against fear. When a voter goes to the ballot box and is presented with only two bad choices, what should be a decision of which candidate is best qualified to lead America forward is reduced to weighing which option is “the lesser of two evils.” While voters dislike both the Republican and Democratic parties, most voters have a party they dislike more.
Voters carry some fear that candidates outside the two major parties could act as “spoilers,” propelling the greater of two evils to office. But this way of thinking concedes the proposition that the two dominant parties have already spoiled the system and that the current electoral system is not producing the results our citizens want.
Introducing more options into this mix is the only way to change the calculus, and to ensure that our options at the ballot box are more than variations of “evil.” As SAM grows, and voters see not only more options but, more importantly, that significant numbers of other votes (like themselves) also want a new and different option, we believe they will see the power in their own numbers and begin to shed the fear that their vote won’t carry weight—and instead understand that their choice is the path to real change.
Is there a risk in the short term that additional choices will result in the election of non-SAM candidates who may be more rather than less partisan? SAM will do its best to select races and candidates where our candidate has a reasonable and demonstrable chance of success against major party candidates whose views are fundamentally inconsistent with our Founding Principles and Priorities.
Fighting the Fight
Since the Civil War, the Republican and Democratic parties have dominated our electoral, policymaking and governmental systems. After those 16 decades, SAM believes now is the time for a new, political party to take the stage.
The process of building a new party will not be easy, nor will it be fast.
SAM will be methodical, focused, and dedicated to achieving ballot access in states across the country. Starting this year, in 2018, we will create a number of state-level SAM affiliates that, once qualified, will immediately begin the party-building process in earnest: registering voters, engaging volunteers, creating a self-sustaining fundraising operation, and recruiting candidates for state and Federal offices.
To complement our ballot access efforts, we will endorse and support independent candidates for office. These candidates will be screened and ultimately selected for SAM’s support: Do they embody the principles and priorities SAM believes are necessary to put America back on the right track?
Lastly, we will support ballot measures across America that specifically focus on electoral reforms such as ending partisan gerrymandering, voter ID, and voter access. These electoral reform measures are a key component of SAM’s overall strategy of leveling the playing field and putting voters’ voices first, and politicians and their parties second.
As SAM accomplishes objectives and achieves more success, we know that resistance from the two dominant parties will only grow. This could take the form of attempting to co-opt SAM into a wing of the Republican or Democratic Party, or more likely, blatant and ceaseless attacks on SAM’s members, leaders, and candidates. Our ability to have substantive political debates in this country has deteriorated and, as SAM gains traction, we know the two-party monopoly will likely prove that sad fact time and again.
None of these hurdles will deter SAM in its efforts. As an organization, we are nothing if not optimistic. Optimism is a key ingredient of the work SAM does every day: Without it, the daunting tasks ahead would be almost too much to contemplate. SAM is ready for the challenges, because we know the benefits: A political system that serves its people is one worth fighting for. We’re ready. Will you join us?