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Howard Schultz’s CNN town hall revealed the emptiness of elite centrism

Schultz’s vacuous politics are a reflection of his class.

Howard Schultz.
Howard Schultz.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The CNN town hall from former Starbucks CEO and potential 2020 candidate Howard Schultz on Tuesday was revelatory: It showed he has no agenda beyond blaming the “extreme left” and “extreme right.” Asked repeatedly to explain his policies for fixing America’s biggest problems, Schultz proved himself entirely incapable of proposing new ideas or specific solutions.

His policy answers were exercises in vacuity, less showcases for a potential president and more giant televised sucking sounds.

One audience member asked Schultz what he would do to fix the health care system. His response: “This gives me another opportunity to talk about the extreme left and the extreme right.” CNN’s Poppy Harlow asked him for specifics two more times, to explain what exactly he would do to overhaul American health care. Schultz had no plan.

A Houston resident, citing his city’s damage from Hurricane Harvey, asked Schultz what his plans would be to address climate change. Schultz responded by bashing the Green New Deal and complaining about the federal debt.

A third audience member asked Schultz, a billionaire, how he felt about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed 70 percent marginal tax rate on top earners and what his alternative would be. Schultz called AOC’s proposal “punitive” but admitted he personally should pay more in taxes. Then he refused to say how much: “I don’t know what the number should be.”

And when asked about a high-profile incident of racial profiling at a Starbucks, Schultz responded with a line straight out of a Stephen Colbert skit: “I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now.”

So it went, on topics ranging from veterans to gun control. Schultz’s inability to speak about policy or ideas in any level of detail led political scientist Seth Masket to dub him “the Trump of the center.”

The event demonstrated that Schultz’s candidacy is premised on a lie (or, more precisely, a series of falsehoods): He apparently believes a secret majority of Americans are yearning for a centrist candidate to save them from the two parties. But that majority doesn’t exist. What Schultz calls “centrism” is a vague repackaging of what centrist Democrats have been proposing for years, a vacuous ideology that makes sense to a small subset of elites but has no mass constituency.

Many of Schultz’s answers were terrible in part because he, personally, is clearly unprepared to be president. But it’s also because the set of ideas he claims to represent, a sort of generalized “centrism” untethered to either party, does not exist outside of an echo chamber made up of a small number of America’s wealthy, educated elite.

The false promise of elite “centrism”

The credo of elite centrism, inasmuch as it exists, is the slogan “socially liberal, fiscally conservative.” It’s a kind of light libertarianism, unconcerned by same-sex marriage but deeply worried about the federal debt.

Very few Americans actually subscribe to this belief structure. Check out this chart, from a 2017 Democracy Fund survey, that plots Americans on a quadrant system. The further to the right, the more economically conservative you are; the further down, the more socially liberal. The bottom right is the elite “social liberal, fiscal conservative” quadrant — potential Schultz voters. There are basically none of them:

Democracy Fund/Lee Drutman

“Centrist” ideas are the province of the educated, wealthy elite. Perhaps the single best predictor of social liberalism in America, aside from Democratic Party membership, is education: The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be open to things like same-sex marriage and immigration. At the same time, America’s elites are wealthy, and thus more likely to be leery of significant tax hikes that would hurt their bottom line.

Because elites tend to socialize with other elites, they can talk themselves into thinking that their ideas seem like common sense — and even that people like Howard Schultz can run for president on an independent ticket and win.

But these ideas have little in common with most of the electorate, and the town hall demonstrated the delusion at the root of this belief. When asked to explain which centrist ideas can solve the problems that really preoccupy Americans, Schultz had next to nothing.

Schultz is considering a run as an ideological entrepreneur, an independent who would bring a new set of ideas into American politics. That would be really hard even if he had a new set of ideas to offer: There are deep structural reasons for the party duopoly, with both the setup of America’s electoral system and powerful interest groups supporting the status quo. Political polarization has sorted most Americans into one of the two political parties, with the number of true independents vanishingly small. It would be very, very difficult to dislodge this system even if you had popular ideas to offer.

Trump succeeded as a billionaire politician because he found a seam in the Republican coalition — the party’s primary voters were crying out for a more nakedly racial politics — and exploited it. But he didn’t run as an independent: After winning the primary, he enjoyed the backing of a major party, and won primarily thanks to support from Republican partisans.

Schultz, in this respect, compares unfavorably to the president. He has none of Trump’s dark charisma and none of his political instincts for what’s popular. He has a set of ideas that seem obvious to him and a small number of people like him but have no grounding in an American intellectual tradition or mass politics. The result is an embarrassing night on national television — one that should cause Schultz to rethink what he’s doing.

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