Howard Schultz Is a Brand, Not a President
Please don't let the former Starbucks CEO run for office
For all of the abject misery I’ve endured following current events in 2018, the most soul-crushing hour of my year was spent explaining to an otherwise perfectly sane and intelligent friend why Oprah Winfrey (whose main qualifications seem to be one Golden Globes speech and just under $3 billion), should not be the next President of the United States. It’s been less than a week since now-former Starbucks CEO and Chairman Howard Schultz stepped down from his post, and the hype train has already geared up for a 2020 run. Somehow, he’s an even more cynical and dangerous choice.
Before explaining why Schultz is unfit for political office, it’s important to acknowledge his unquestionable success as a businessman. When Schultz took over as CEO in 1986, there wasn’t a single Starbucks outside of Seattle. There were roughly 28,000 operating worldwide by the time he decided to step down. The company has continued to thrive, amassing record-setting revenues despite a greater diversity of competition than ever from other second- and third-wave coffee outlets.
This success with Shultz at the helm had little to do with the innate quality of Starbucks’ beans or lattes, but with the company’s ability to articulate its brand better than almost every other corporation on earth. The Starbucks logo has been seared into our collective memory since the 1990s, when Schultz’s “third place” concept made it the go-to coffee chain for the urbane and upwardly mobile.
“Starbucks seemed to understand brand names at a level even deeper than Madison Avenue,” author and activist Naomi Klein once wrote, noting that “the chain's strategic association with books, blues and jazz to its Euro-latte lingo” meant it could “foster powerful identities by making their brand concept into a virus and sending it out into the culture.” Translated into the parlance of the times by Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, Starbucks isn’t a coffee shop; it’s a place where one can sip a grande espresso, work on a Macbook, flip through an LL Bean (digital) catalogue, and somehow feel sexy. You weren’t purchasing a macchiato as much as a marker of identity.
Schultz succeeded because he knew how that process works better than his contemporaries. He’s a man who once described his Starbucks’ real ‘product’ as “the romance of the coffee experience, the feeling of warmth and community people get in Starbucks stores.” Schultz was smart enough to realize that corporate social responsibility could be an effective form of marketing, that some nod to the public interest disseminated through the appropriate PR channels could—purely coincidentally, no doubt—benefit private shareholders.
Through that lens, Starbucks’ support of various social causes are all efforts to articulate a friendly corporate brand whose values align with the greatest number of potential customers. Going to Starbucks isn’t about buying a coffee: it’s about helping veterans and refugees find work, or providing access to clean water by taking what little of it is left from California. Giving consumers the chance to offer passive support to such causes is an incredibly powerful differentiator, but it’s impossible to describe Starbucks’ motivations in entirely altruistic terms. The consumption may feel more ethical, but it’s still consumption.
Given that our current political landscape thrives on that sort of passive participation and legally views corporations as people, Schultz is perfectly positioned to appear as a savior.
Trump promised his base the chance to “win again” and “own the libs”. A vote for a socially liberal-leaning businessman like Schultz appeals to the #resistance’s obsession with decency and vague need to feel like they’re helping America do something right on the world stage without having to miss brunch.
The problem is that it’s easy to convey that elements of the Trump agenda like the Muslim ban are wrong and win people over. It’s much harder to enact an agenda that addresses the roots of these issues when you’re in a position to do something about them, especially if you’re unwilling to put your own interests aside.
And the early policy points we’ve seen from Schultz seem engineered to alienate and disappoint the base he’d need to mobilize in order to win a presidential election in 2020. His fiscal beliefs, which needlessly prioritize responsibility over recognizing government’s unique ability to provide for its citizens, are designed to perpetuate and possibly even worsen the already desperate status quo.
In an interview with CNBC this week (the first since being released from his corporate shackles), Schultz showed an inability to assess the current will of the public that only an overpaid Democratic party consultant could love. “It concerns me that so many voices within the Democratic Party are going so far to the left. I say to myself, ‘How are we going to pay for these things, ’in terms of things like single payer [and] people espousing the fact that the government is going to give everyone a job,” Schultz said without stopping to wonder how a Starbucks can afford to pay a $3,000 individual annual deductible on an average annual salary of $21,000.
Because capitalism obviously functions as a purely meritocratic system, one would assume that a man worth roughly $2.8 billion who owns a $25 million home is smart enough to figure out where to find the money necessary to fund Medicare for All or single payer healthcare. Something tells me a progressive tax on the top one percent of the top one percent of households in the United States might help to make a policy supported by nearly 60% of Americans a reality.
Elsewhere in his CNBC interview, Schultz said he considered the deficit to be the “greatest threat domestically to this country,” believing that it’s necessary to not only grow the economy by at least 4% (which hasn’t happened since the tech bubble burst in 2000) but then cut entitlements in order to correct course. At a time when financial advice to young people suffering through wage stagnation and crushing student debt boils down to “stop doing anything that makes life enjoyable and never get sick,” campaigning on fiscal responsibility won’t get anyone who isn’t already voting for Trump out to the polls. Not even Paul Ryan cares about the deficit anymore.
Probably the most damning bit of evidence against him is that Schultz would likely be welcomed by increasingly out-of-touch Democratic elites. Unwilling to conduct the full post-mortem that Hillary Clinton’s unthinkable defeat requires, the DNC, DCCC and other interests are gambling that Trump’s prevailing popularity will sweep Democrats to power without having to articulate any sort of new policy platform. A businessman like Schultz who can credibly tout his track record of “resisting” without truly progressive fiscal policies represents a much safer bet when it comes to courting powerful donors.
The problem is that a candidate Schultz could alienate huge swaths of voters to the left of center by refusing to offer them anything truly valuable, and opposing Medicare for All isn’t a good start. Coupled with the possibility that voters of color might not support someone who left a company in the midst of a racial sensitivity crisis, a candidate like Schultz is at real risk of the same voter apathy that kept Hillary Clinton out of the Oval Office.
There’s no doubt that Schultz would be an improvement over the current administration. There are undoubtedly some things he would do right. But much like buying a fair-trade coffee, elevating him to a position of power would only assuage our need to feel that we’re making a difference without doing the harder work to address America’s evident systemic issues. A man whose company can’t (or won’t) figure out how to make recyclable cups shouldn’t be in charge of fighting climate change. A billionaire who suddenly feels frugal when his own money is on the line shouldn’t ask a nation to go without entitlements. There are plenty of independent shops who can make you a better cup of coffee than Starbucks, and there are plenty of capable politicians and activists with less power than Howard Schultz who should lead us instead.