Thanks for your latest column about Howard Schultz, former Starbucks CEO, and his projected bid for the Presidency. You state your point about halfway through:
Schultz’s politics are to the left of mine, but I would vote for someone like him in a heartbeat if the other names on the ballot are Trump and, say, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Isn’t candidate diversity supposed to be something liberals believe in?
I have to say, this seems overly personal. Is it worth a whole column in early 2019 to announce which candidate you intend to vote for in late 2020? Just a thought.
Coincidentally, I’m drinking a cup of Starbucks coffee as we speak! Not because I like it, but because it’s the only coffee shop on the block. So much for “diversity.”
Anyway, who you vote for is your own business. But let’s start at the beginning and see if the facts add up.
Tens of millions of Americans were defined as the “Exhausted Majority” by last year’s pathbreaking “Hidden Tribes” report from the More In Common research group. It found that two-thirds of Americans are neither conservatives nor progressives. They are moderates, liberals and the disengaged, defined by their ideological flexibility, support for compromise, fatigue with the political debate — and the sense that they’re being ignored and forgotten.
You seem to be using this study to imply that your personal intentions are representative of a wider demographic in America. I would caution you against that, given that a New York Times columnist may not be a good representative of the average American. But the problems in this argument run deeper. This study is so flimsy it gives me a migraine and acid reflux at the same time. I realize that the amount of medication I take in a day is not your problem, but it really is bad for my liver.
The study’s most prominent coverage was by undisclosed contributor Yascha Mounk in the Atlantic, focusing on “political correctness.” Mounk claimed that 80 percent of Americans oppose political correctness, or “contemporary callout culture.” He insisted on this even after including an astonishing caveat: “since the survey question did not define political correctness for respondents, we cannot be sure what, exactly, the 80 percent of Americans who regard it as a problem have in mind.”
The methodology of the report itself also leaves me with a number of questions, not least whether a mass of disparate opinions, many of them vague, can be sorted into coherent groups. But this is exactly what you do, using this study to suggest that most Americans belong to the “center.” If political convictions fell on a straight line, you could make this argument, as indeed do the authors of the report. But that conclusion relies on combining four out of the seven categories it proposes, only one of which is “Moderates.” According to the report, Moderates “tend to be engaged in their communities, often volunteer, and are interested in current affairs.” They make up 15 percent of respondents—hardly a majority, exhausted or not. Even after adding the 11 percent of “Traditional Liberals”—roughly aligned with the Democratic Party—we’re still left with just over one quarter.
In order to add up to a majority, the report adds three other groups. “Passive Liberals” make up 15 percent; they are “quite uninformed, consume little news media, and generally avoid political debates.” The largest group, at 26 percent, is “Politically Disengaged.” According to the report, they are “the least well informed group on all measures of political knowledge.” In the absence of stated political opinions, the allegiance of this 41 percent of respondents to the political cause of centrism is quite a presumption.
Remarkably, that 41 percent is fairly close to the percentage of eligible voters who didn’t vote at all in 2016. There’s no reason to assume that the demographic of nonvoters is made up of the categories named in the Hidden Tribes report—indeed, there is no particular reason to accept that report’s categorizations at all. But it does raise a question: if we were to consider you, Bret Stephens, a representative of the majority of eligible voters in the United States, what the facts suggest is that you would not be voting for Howard Schultz. You would not vote at all.
An independent candidacy like Schultz’s exists to appeal to this silent majority. Can it succeed? My colleague Jamelle Bouie wrote a powerful column explaining why it’s never worked before in U.S. history and is even less likely to work for Schultz. He represents no sectional, factional, ideological or economic interest, the way Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Henry Wallace, or Ross Perot did. His views amount to a kind of warmed-over Clintonism, hopefully without scandal but 20 years past its sell-by date.
It would probably render Schultz unique among all politicians in history if he represented “no sectional, factional, ideological or economic interest.” That being said, this is often a claim politicians make, with platitudes of “bipartisanship” and “integrity” and so on. Some might argue it is the role of the press to cut through this blather and assess politicians in order to determine their true ideological leanings and allegiances. But you’re the columnist, and I’m just a fact checker.
Let’s look at Schultz’s own words. The reason he cited for parting with the Democratic Party was his opposition to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed 70 percent marginal income tax rate on Americans with an income of higher than $10 million. In Schultz’s words: “I respect the Democratic Party. I no longer feel affiliated because I don’t know their views represent the majority of Americans. I don’t think we want a 70 percent income tax in America.”
It’s only a small number of Americans who would pay taxes at that marginal rate. This seems to make it an economic interest for a section of a faction. And If you believe that the preservation of wealth for this small handful of people is not a sectional, factional, ideological or economic interest, I would be happy to sell you a bridge for the low price of $10 million.
But even if Schultz’s chances as an independent are slim, what’s certain is that they are becoming much slimmer as a Democrat. This is what makes the insistence of some liberals that he run as a Democrat so disingenuous: Compete on our turf where the field will be tilted against you, or don’t compete at all. It’s hard to blame Schultz for walking away from that Hobson’s choice.
It’s interesting you use the phrase “Hobson’s choice” here. It originates from a policy held by a 16th-century English stable owner, who put dozens of horses on display but only allowed customers a limited choice: buy the horse nearest the door, or none at all. If you take the perspective of a citizen rather than a candidate, the expression has more to do with voting rather than running for office. A lot of people don’t buy the horse.
It’s hard to blame him, too, for walking away from Democrats altogether. Liberalism used to be about making the capitalist system fairer, gentler and more inclusive. It has become an ideology for maligning it as a “rigged system” (Elizabeth Warren), or eliminating an entire industry within it (Kamala Harris), or demonizing and punishing those who do exceptionally well at it (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), or waging class warfare (all of the above).
Elizabeth Warren has described herself as “capitalist to my bones,” so it may not quite be accurate to describe her as a Bolshevik. You leave unstated which industry Harris has threatened, so you may want to specify. Schultz has publicly criticized Harris’s stated support for a Medicare for All program, describing it as “not American.” As he asked on CBS, “What’s next? What industry are we going to abolish next? The coffee industry?” The Hidden Tribes report overlooked the question of the coffee industry, so you may want to raise that directly if you share Schultz’s concern.
That means that if Schultz doesn’t run and a candidate like Warren wins the Democratic nomination, the same reluctant G.O.P. voters who handed the presidency to Trump in 2016 because they found Hillary Clinton even more unpalatable will vote for him again. How to avoid that wretched outcome?
Did “reluctant G.O.P. voters” hand the presidency to Trump in 2016? It’s always tricky to deal with election data, given the jumble of polls and statistics, but you’re making a series of highly questionable direct claims here. The first is that G.O.P. voters were reluctant to support Trump. Turnout for the 2016 Republican primary hit a record high, resulting in a landslide win for Trump.
The other assumption is that in the general election, Republican support was the decisive factor in his victory. Your own paper has suggested other interpretations. For example: “The swing of Obama voters to Mr. Trump proved a decisive factor in the 2016 presidential election. Of the more than 650 counties that chose Mr. Obama twice, about a third flipped to Mr. Trump. Many were in states critical to Mr. Trump’s win, like Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.”
I’m not saying that these voters “handed the Presidency to Trump”—you’d never catch me making a sweeping statement like that! But you’ve made a claim here that smuggles in some other claims along with it, and proceed to base an argument on that nonexistent foundation.
These paragons could also correct some of the magical thinking when it comes to free college tuition, a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthiest, or a Sanders-style health care system. Without some reality checks, Democratic primary voters might be gulled by the left-wing version of the fairy dust Trump voters inhaled when they bought into promises about Mexico paying for the wall.
At this point, you switch from claiming to speak for the public to admonishing them. According to Reuters, 70 percent of Americans support Medicare for All and 60 percent support free college. You can chalk this up to magical thinking and fairy dust if you consider England, Norway, Finland, and a slew of other European countries to be fantasy lands. Which I don’t completely blame you for, I hear fantasy fiction is “in” right now. (But there’s also Canada.)
The main rejoinder to proposals like these in the United States is, “how will you pay for it?” Fortunately, you’ve brought the solution up in your piece—higher taxes on the super-rich. This plan also happens to have broad support among the electorate. A poll by Fox News, of all places, found that that 70 percent of respondents, including 54 percent of Republicans, support Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed marginal tax rate. There is another predictable response, which is that it might work elsewhere, but not in this country. But it already has—during most of the 1950s, the top marginal tax rate exceeded 90 percent.
In the meantime, a potential Schultz candidacy can serve the useful function of reminding Democrats that he really could throw the election to Trump if they continue moving farther to the left. The best way to diminish that possibility isn’t to scream at him. It’s to listen to the forgotten voters he potentially represents. If Democrats don’t want to lose the 2020 election, they would do better to reclaim the center than to pretend they can redefine it.
You may want to remember what the actual Democratic strategy was in 2016. As Senator Chuck Schumer put it back then, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
If this is the strategy you have in mind, it’s time to take a huge sip of coffee and google “Who is the president.”
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