The hopefully short-lived candidacy of Howard Schultz is illustrative of so many of the problems facing our country today. Those issues go far beyond what Schultz and his pundit centrist sycophants say about the current state of American political critique and strike at the extraordinary disconnect between the American citizenry and the ruling elites.
It is hardly surprising that Howard Schultz had the hubris to believe he could mount a credible campaign for the presidency. Lots of supposedly successful businessman have flirted with the idea over the years and Schultz had to figure if Trump can do it, so could he. But it takes a special degree of self-delusion to believe he can win as an independent. In the modern era, only Ross Perot and George Wallace have been able to run anything like a reasonably successful independent presidential campaign.
The difference between Schultz and Perot and Wallace is that those two actually had an issue to run on. Perot ran on economic nationalism with a separate focus on the deficit/debt while Wallace ran on white nationalism. Trump’s success was based on the combination of those two while running as a Republican. Schultz, however, provides no rationale for his campaign other than a pox on both the Democratic and Republican houses, while fear-mongering about the debt without any plan to reduce it other than bringing the two parties that he is slagging together to fulfill the Republican fantasy of cutting entitlements.
It’s not a winning message and it is reflected in the fact that Schultz’s favorability rating currently polls in the low single digits across all political stripes, Democratic, Republican, and so-called independent. On paper, Schultz is arguably less qualified than the bizarre Richard Ojeda whose campaign has already died in obscurity. But Schultz’s candidacy was taken seriously for just two reasons. He is a billionaire and can therefore finance his own campaign and his “centrist message” of blaming both Republicans and Democrats along with a debt hawkery focused on “reining in” entitlements have a strong constituency in the elite political pundit class. More than anything, Schultz’s candidacy and its initial media reception highlighted just how much the ideas and concerns of the plutocratic class drive the political debate in Washington these days.
The reality in the country is actually quite different, especially in the wake of the financial crisis. Obama was specifically elected with a promise of hope and change that focused on increased access to health care and the promise of higher taxes on the wealthy combined with lower taxes for ordinary Americans. The Tea Party and the Occupy movements were both reactions to the utter failure of the plutocratic class regarding the financial crisis, with the former originally focused on protecting predominantly white Americans from having to shoulder the cost of digging out from the crisis and the latter focused on breaking up the power of the plutocratic corporate class that created the crisis to begin with and was then bailed out by the government. Mitt Romney’s campaign was doomed because he could never shake off the stench of his plutocratic instincts, openly revealed in his 47% comment, no matter how much he pandered to the nativism in the Republican party. While Trump’s campaign now is largely remembered for its white nationalism and the promise of a wall, it is important to remember that he also promised economic nationalism, to fix the issue of cost for Obamacare users not qualified for subsidies, to tax the wealthy, and to not touch Social Security and Medicare. The fact that these were all lies and he has governed like the plutocratic elite he has always wanted to be accepted as part of does not diminish the importance of these promises in getting Trump elected.
In other words, there is no constituency for entitlement reform and the constituency for debt reduction and decreased government spending among regular, primarily white, Americans is more driven by the belief that such spending is going to others and not them, as opposed to any existential fears about the government being unable to borrow or even the cost of financing that debt.
In light of that recent history, Schultz’s electoral plan makes no sense. In addition, assuming he is serious about his concern about the debt, Schultz’s diatribe against both parties ignores the history of the last forty years. Every Democratic president since Reagan has dramatically reduced the deficit from the beginning of their term until the end. One, Bill Clinton, even left a budget surplus that his Republican successor immediately squandered through tax reductions that favored the wealthy. In addition, Obama offered the “Grand Bargain” in 2011 which, in return for higher taxes on the wealthy, offered the entitlement reform that Schultz says he seeks. Boehner and the Republicans refused. But, for Schultz and the elite pundits, both sides bear responsibility.
Worse, Schultz’s response to any ideas of taxing the wealthy is typical of his plutocratic class. He has called Ocasio-Cortez’s plan for a 70% tax on earnings above $10 million “un-American” and accused her of being “misinformed”. He has further described Elizabeth Warren’s plan for a wealth tax “ridiculous” and his partner in plutocracy, Mike Bloomberg, has derided it as leading us to become Venezuela. Instead, Schultz has talked about he wants to create the same opportunities that allowed him to become the billionaire he is today that he had when he was growing up. Of course, he grew up in subsidized middle class housing in an era where the top marginal tax rate was, wait for it, 70%. And, as Chris Hayes constantly points out, every American who owns a home pays a wealth tax based on a valuation provided by the government. It is called a property tax. As far as I know, we are not yet Venezuela. And Warren’s wealth tax is incredibly popular with both parties.
Schultz’s obliviousness to the current American reality is at least explained by his financial ability to be removed from it. The media’s swoon over his candidacy is far less excusable yet all too typical. After three years, they still have not figured out how to deal with Trump’s tabloid tactics. Many outlets essentially perform “access stenography” for Trump and his administration. It is amazing how many important questions never get asked, basic ones such as whether he dictated the Don Jr. Trump Tower meeting adoption excuse or why he lied when he said he didn’t know about the payments to Stormy Daniels, in those rare sit down interviews he gives with real news outlets such as the Times and Post. And now, by all indications of how the media has covered Elizabeth Warren and Schultz, it appears their coverage of the 2020 campaign could be even worse than it was in 2016 when they clearly missed uncovering a whole host of Trump scandals and corruption and focused on email server management issues instead.
In addition, neither Schultz’s centrism or Trumpism are even offering solutions for the real crises threatening our country, many of which are also unaddressed by the media. Republicans are still focused on destroying Obamacare while offering no real plan to replace it in any way. Meanwhile, the media adopts the position of plutocrats like Schultz by misleading Americans about the feasability and costs of true universal health care. The Democrats’ Medicare-for-all plan is pooh-poohed as being unrealistic because it will cost $32 trillion over the next decade. But, as Paul Waldman notes, that “unaffordable” number actually pales in comparison to the $50 trillion we are expected to pay under the current status quo. The plutocrats don’t want to admit that and the media barely discusses it, focusing instead on the mythical elimination of private insurance.
America is suffering from the failure of capitalism. Median wage workers have not seen an increase in their inflation adjusted wages in nearly a half century. Recent record low unemployment has not significantly altered that fact despite the economic theory that says it should. The government shutdown highlighted the fact that a vast majority of Americans live paycheck to paycheck with the median retirement savings at a pitiful $5,000. Much of American business is controlled by monopolies or oligopolies. Corruption and wage theft are rampant. American capitalism can not provide health care for all Americans and recently looks like it can not provide the journalism necessary for a free society. Globalization was always going to create winners and losers but the current arrangement provides all its spoils to the plutocratic class. Even under Trump, the current tax code rewards moving jobs overseas. And there is the looming problem of massive disruption from automation.
Trumpism addresses the failure of American capitalism with nativism and self-destructive protectionism. The plutocrats simply demand further breaks for “job creators” who are incentivized to move those jobs overseas and pocket the profits. On the other hand, Democrats are offering to plans that challenge the core structure of shareholder focused capitalism. Elizabeth Warren recognizes that the hand-picked Republican Supreme Court is intent on giving corporations more and more rights so she is proposing they have more and more responsibilities. That includes a new charter for corporations over $1 billion that requires co-determination and consideration of employees, customers, and communities, as opposed to just shareholders, in their decision-making. In addition, it would shifts who decides how and to whom corporations make their political donations to a supermajority of shareholders and the board. Needless to say, those on the right describe this as “the wholesale expropriation of private enterprise in the United States” while the media focuses on the “clouds” hanging over Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry and reverts to the sexist trope about her likeability.
America is also suffering from a crisis in democracy. The last two Republican presidents were originally elected with a minority of votes. Right now, a minority of voters are represented by a majority of US Senators and in a little more than a decade from now, it is estimated that 30% of the population will control 70 seats in the US Senate. Extreme partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression have created state governments where a minority of voters have established an almost permanent legislative majority. The Supreme Court, nearly half of whom have now been seated by those minority presidents, is now seen as increasingly partisan and political. The current president is perhaps compromised by a foreign power and resembles an autocrat, using imaginary crises to implement his tariffs and restrict immigration. His administration is corrupt and foreign powers believe it can be bought. None of this bothers the plutocrats, who demanded their corporate tax cut and got it. And the media was only too happy to be their stenographers and regurgitate the lie, denied by all evidence from the last forty years, that the tax cuts would pay for themselves without any serious or consistent challenge.
We see a similar situation with the truly existential problem of climate change. The official position of Trump and the Republican party is that climate change is a hoax. Yet the Democratic proposal of a Green New Deal gets attacked as a “pie in the sky” proposal from the plutocratic centrists who have yet to offer any plan of their own and benefit the most from the exploitation of the world’s resources without any responsibility for the externalities and damage that creates.
The plutocrats offer no solutions to any of these critical problems other than their tired efforts to give themselves more money via tax cuts. Trumpism’s answer is Fortress America, enclosed by a wall of protectionism and restrictions on immigration, projecting dominant military power. The Democrats are at least providing new and innovative solutions. Meanwhile, the punditocracy fantasizes about a leader who can convince the Republicans to do what the Democrats are already proposing while pretending the Democrats have nothing new to offer either. As their endless kvetching about Democrats moving too far to the left illustrates, they still don’t understand the transformation in the Democratic party and the country as a whole.
Kevin Drum points out that the sudden valence of Medicare for all and higher taxes on the wealthy in the Democratic party is less about a “a shift to the left in the party, but it’s really more of a shift to the left in the nation”. Yes, part of the move to the left within the party came because there is no longer any need to appeal to its Southern conservative bloc and can now abandon the “tactical centrism” epitomized by Clintonism. But that actually creates an opening for what Ed Kilgore calls “the future of biracial Democratic politics in the South: a strongly progressive (though not abrasively so) African-American who can expand turnout among a rising minority population while still appealing to increasingly liberal white Democratic and independent voters as well” epitomized by Stacy Abrams and Andrew Gillum.
Meanwhile, the complete takeover of the Republican party by Trumpism actually represents a retrenchment for the Republican party. While the Schultz candidacy is presented in the press as a threat to Democrats primarily because he is a known Democratic donor, it really signals a crack in the Republican party. Schultz is basically running as an independent on the GOP’s traditional plutocratic policies without Trump’s overt racism and nativism, basically another iteration of the Romney campaign. For Schultz, the newly configured Democratic party is the enemy and that is where most of his attacks have been directed. And the media tells us that this man, who is overwhelmingly rejected by both parties, is the one who can bring the country together.
Originally published at thesoundings.com on February 4, 2019.