By Ezra Klein
Howard Schultz isn’t solving America’s problems. He’s reinforcing them.
Tuesday night, CNN will host a live town hall with former Starbucks CEO, and potential presidential candidate, Howard Schultz. Why is Schultz, a political newcomer who “had the worst numbers of any potential candidate tested” in CNN’s own poll, getting such red-carpet treatment?
The answer, of course, is money. Schultz is a billionaire, and in American politics, money is a shortcut to legitimacy.
“Schultz doesn’t have to do the hard work of building a mass movement or representing a genuine constituency to get attention in our politics, because the media uses ability to spend money as a proxy for seriousness of campaign,” says Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the New American Foundation. “And when the media bestows seriousness on a candidate, the public follows along.”
But just because you can self-fund a presidential campaign into relevancy, doesn’t mean doing so is a good idea — either for you, or the issues you care about.
I have disagreements with some of Schultz’s policy ideas, but that’s not really the point. What I want to show here is that if Schultz believes his own diagnosis of America’s problems, he’s going about this in exactly the wrong way, and demonstrating a disqualifying level of confusion about how the American political system works and what might fix it.
I should note that I tried to schedule an interview with Schultz to discuss these questions to him directly, but after initially agreeing, his team backed out. It’s a conversation I’d still be happy to have if they change their mind.
Howard Schultz’s case for Howard Schultz
Last week, Schultz’s team emailed reporters to tout their candidate’s first official speech, to be delivered at Purdue University. “Schultz will address some of the problems that have been intractable in the broken two party system including the tax code, healthcare, immigration, education, and economic opportunity,” they wrote. “He will focus on laying out an agenda for opportunity and restoring power to the American people.”
To say the speech laid out an agenda for anything, really, is to oversell it. But the speech did lay out Schultz’s basic diagnosis of America’s political problems. “Two-thirds of American voters agree that our two-party system is broken,” he says, “and it’s time for a centrist candidate not affiliated with either party to be president.”
Why would a centrist president help matters? “Being an independent centrist would completely free me from being beholden to special interest groups and extreme party ideologies,” Schultz says. “Leading as an independent would allow me to represent all of the American people, and focus on the best solutions through a new, non-partisan lens.”
The rest of the speech is a litany of policy issues in which Schultz names a problem (immigration, health care), lays out a caricatured version of the “far left” and “far right” solutions, as if that actually represents the debate, then offers a few sentences on what he would do instead.
In every case, Schultz’s solution is either what the mainstream of the Democratic Party is already proposing to do, or is so vague as to be meaningless. Consider, for instance, his solution for education:
We must make our education system more-nimble, more advanced, and driven by innovative new ideas. True reform requires everyone at the table: students, parents, educators, administrators, unions, charters, parochial schools and businesses.
That’s it. Seriously.
The two-party problem
At the core of Schultz’s diagnosis is the idea that America’s two-party duopoly is distorting politics and leaving Americans unrepresented, good ideas unnoticed, and policy problems entrenched. “People lose faith in democracy when they feel their vote doesn’t count, and their voice is not heard,” he says.
Schultz identifies two issues here. One is the way politicians get elected, which is where the two-party system gets constructed, and the other is the way policy gets passed, which is where the two-party system holds back progress. We’ll take them in turn.
In political science, there’s an idea known as Duverger’s Law, which states that winner-take-all election systems lead to two-party political systems and proportional representation systems lead to multiparty political systems.
The reason is simple enough. In a system where the only thing that matters is who gets the most votes, smaller parties will enter into coalitions large enough to win the most votes, or they will die off. In a system of proportional representation, where 15 percent of the vote can get you 15 percent of the seats, smaller parties can survive and even build strength without ever winning the most votes in an election.
Schultz says it is “intellectually dishonest to suggest that either party’s candidate could lose because of a third choice,” which suggests that Schultz either doesn’t know what the term “intellectually dishonest” means, or that he is being intellectually dishonest. But the way a party could lose because of a third-party candidate is perfectly obvious.
On virtually every policy issue, Schultz’s speech reveals himself to be closer to the Democrats than to the Republicans. On immigration, he wants a path to citizenship. On taxes, he says rich guys like him should pay more. On health care, he wants to build on Obamacare’s gains. On gun control, he wants universal background checks. On debt reduction, he wants to balance the budget “while keeping America strong and reinforcing the safety net for the most vulnerable.”
Schultz’s agenda is basically Barack Obama’s agenda, or Chuck Schumer’s agenda and, in theory at least, he can be expected to take votes from the Democrats.
Imagine an election conducted under proportional rules, where Donald Trump gets 40 percent of the votes, the Democratic candidate gets 38 percent of the vote, and Schultz gets 22 percent of the vote. In that election, Schultz and the Democrats get …read more