Social media was aflutter this week with former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s noncommittal announcement that he’s actually most certainly totally serious about considering running for president in 2020.
As an Independent.
Now, this post isn’t about whether Howard Schultz has a plausible chance of winning (he doesn’t). Nor is it about whether Schultz is likely to make a good president (he isn’t). Nor is it about whether Schultz’s run as an Independent would likely help get Trump reelected (it would). Rather—if you’ll pardon my negligent punning—it’s about whether Schultz has good grounds for a presidential run.
You see, I believe that what’s oftentimes far more important than who is running for president is the political climate that exists during a presidential race. Donald Trump—to put it bluntly—is the sort of candidate whose successful race had almost nothing to do with Donald Trump and quite a lot to do with the desire many had in the Republican party to elect an “outsider” and “businessman” who would “stir things up” and “Make America Great Again!” Much like the previous era’s desire for “hope” and “change”—whatever the heck that means—gave us Obama, Trump’s ascendance would not have been possible had large swaths of the population not been so frustrated with Washington that it seemed to make more sense to burn things down than build things up.
The viability of a candidate such as Shultz rests predominantly on whether the American people are drinking up what he’s roasting. Do we think a third-party will break the political gridlock? Do we think an outsider is what’s needed on the inside? Do we want change or to stay the course? Do we fancy a business or a political leader? Do we want a uniter or a fighter? Are we thirsty for a plain vanilla latte or another round of the pumpkin spice variety?
The chief conundrum here is that none of these ideas are solutions to our problems because they don’t actually mean anything. For example, here in Oklahoma we just elected a new governor largely on the notion he was a “businessman” and an “outsider”. I’m still not clear how those empty phrases make someone an ideal candidate. Does that mean—should he run for reelection in four years—his supporters will oppose him on the basis he’s now a “politician” and an “insider”? What makes someone an “outsider”? Under what circumstances does an “outsider” become an “insider”?
It’s evident Schultz’s schtick is to position himself as the third-party centrist who’s a “uniter” in a time of chaos and division where Republicans and Democrats appear to be in a polarized race to who can out-extreme the other. Running as an Independent I get, but what makes him a “centrist” or a “uniter”? “Becoming better begins by repairing our broken two-party system, which is why I am seriously considering running for president of the United States as a centrist independent.” Schultz wrote this week, “I will spend the next few months deciding by traveling the country, and listening to my fellow Americans.” That last part seems a bit embellished, but I digress.
Schultz is rehashing the tiresome argument that Americans secretly want a third choice in political parties and that somehow—God willing—this time it’ll be successful in spite of over two centuries of evidence to the contrary:
“A formidable third choice for president also has a chance to succeed for the first time since George Washington because this precise moment in history is uniquely perilous, and brimming with possibility. The toxic mix of social and fiscal challenges, extreme ideological divisions and political dysfunction threatens to deteriorate the greatest democracy in human history. How can elected officials solve complex problems such as unaffordable health care, a crumbling national infrastructure, a debilitating national debt, unequal access to education and employment, and disappearing middle-class jobs if our leaders cannot hold a productive conversation—or keep the government open?”
There’s a powerful and unspoken assumption that underlies Schultz’s message: namely, the idea that the pathway to solving what ails our nation rests in the hands of electing an independent, centrist political figure. I do not deny that the increasing hostility and extremity between our two parties is a problem. Nor do I deny that a unifying leader would be highly beneficial right about now. But I do believe that this simplistic view of the situation risks masking our underlying cultural and spiritual problems.
Stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan joked that the color black had the power to make fat people look in shape. Perhaps. But it doesn’t have the power to actually get people in shape. In much the same way, the main problem with the idea of a third party solving our woes is that it ignores the source of our woes. The polarization, incivility, and inability to put the interest of the nation over one’s personal interests does not stem from the two-party system. The problem rests with human beings, not the structures they inhabit. Changing the label from Republican/Democrat to Independent doesn’t make us angels.
It isn’t an accident that America has essentially had a two-party system since Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. There are structural reasons why it’s nearly impossible for a third-party to get ahead, as National Review correspondent Jay Cost argues here. The upshot of this is that if we’re truly interested in addressing our problems it would be better to focus our time, talent, energy, and finances on reforming the party’s we’ve got than springing for an option that’s never been tried successfully.
But far too many would rather reach for the shiny and empty promises of easy fixes that involve no real sacrifice on their part. This way of thinking can best be summarized as populism. And while two populists may radically disagree on which course of action to take, their modus operandi is essentially the same: we can solve problems by putting the “right people” in office instead of the “wrong people”.
By leaning so heavily on the notion that what America needs to be united again is an independent centrist, Schultz is ironically singing from the same hymnal that got Trump (and Obama) elected. All of these men—no matter how different they may appear at first blush—are essentially selling us on the idea that the pathway to healing our nation involves electing the “right guy” for the job which, coincidentally, just happens to be them.
Of course, anyone running for president has to convince us they’re the “right guy” to some degree. Whether we settle for empty, meaningless phrases instead of demanding of them actual ideas, arguments, and credentials is entirely up to us. So, as 2020 approaches and the nation once again enters the frenzy of another presidential race, might I humbly suggest that if we’re serious about solving the nation’s problems we’re going to have to look much deeper, further, and broader than yet another presidential hopeful trying to convince us they can fix what the last guy never could.