MSNBC’s Ari Velshi recently grilled Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, about his candidacy for president. Refreshingly, the interview wasn’t the usual mix of softball questions and unchallenged responses. Schultz stuck to the tired candidacy trope that people and elected officials are divided and don’t talk with each other, and that he had the leadership qualities needed to bridge the gap and heal the nation. Ari repeatedly challenged Schultz’s version about the cause of the division, asserting that perhaps it had less to do with personality and civility than it had to do with inequality and money in politics. In other words, Ari was positing that the divide was more structural than style, more substance than form. He even repeatedly referred to Schultz as “you rich guys,” arguing that he didn’t understand the plight of most Americans. Schultz rejected the characterization, asserting that he started from modest means and was a “self-made” billionaire. He also talked about the progressive benefits that Starbucks employees enjoyed. Schultz used this reasoning to circle back to his thesis that he possessed the unique leadership skills that could heal the nation.
Most of our post-war presidents ran on and were elected on the basis of perceived leadership qualities. Perhaps this made sense when the country was less divided on policy. For example, Nixon came close to passing a form of universal basic income and Obama’s Affordable Care Act was derived from a market-based plan proposed by the Heritage Foundation and promoted by Bob Dole as a response to the Clinton healthcare plan. Of course, such social programs are now anathema in the Republican party. We’ve also had a steady drum beat of politicians claiming their alleged business acumen qualified them for elected office. The last presidential candidate to do so is the current President. So Schultz is really claiming a more authentic business acumen and style than Trump instead of a substantively different approach.
There also seems to be a common mindset among self-made billionaires that their good fortune is the path for all America – if it worked for them, we need more of the same. To them, those who did not experience the same income and capital level were either less talented or less industrious. They never consider that maybe the 99% focused their industriousness and talent in achieving the common good (e.g., teachers, first responders, social workers, etc); or were more ethical or empathetic (bypassing an opportunity to crush a rival or monopolize an idea); or sacrificed time chasing wealth in favor of spending more time on their children and family, etc. They rarely consider their wealth to be the product of good fortune or a heavy investment by the public in their ability to achieve wealth – from public education, roads, public safety, etc.
Never in post-WWII America have the policy differences been so pronounced as now. This circumstance comes after 40 years of disinvestment in nearly all public programs except incarceration. Foremost among the policy differences is healthcare; in particular, whether we extend Medicare to all. Public education and progressive taxation, the bedrocks of America’s middle class, are also being fundamentally challenged. Finally on deck are whether we heed or ignore our scientists’ warning of an imminent catastrophe from climate change and whether our economy should embrace the future with the inevitable global green technology revolution or cling to the past with coal and oil. These policies are not a matter of personality or leadership qualities among the candidates. They are much more binary than that. They are defining the election despite the fact that media is almost entirely consumed by the day to day drama of a made-for-TV drama president.
So far, the 2020 presidential candidacies seem evenly split among those who are touting their leadership qualities vs. those who are touting their policy solutions. While history seems to favor the former group, in my opinion, our current circumstances beg for the election of someone from the latter group.
(See the Daily Beast take on the Schultz interview).