Resentment springs eternal in American politics, and if the primaries of 2016 and 2020 indicate any kind of pattern, it’s that every unique form of resentment eventually gets its own presidential candidate. Howard Schultz, the billionaire former chief executive of Starbucks, is the manifested resentment of the super-rich, who have been as miffed by the right-wing turn toward gauche Trumpian reaction as by the Democratic shift toward economic populism. If you find Trump tacky and taxes icky, Schultz is your man.
Naturally, Schultz is considering running as a “centrist independent,” opposed to “unrealistic policies and promises” such as single-payer health care and tuition-free college. Schultz detests the idea of higher taxes on the super-rich, and also worries about the nation’s budget deficit, which he would shrink by targeting welfare spending. But, of course, he’s socially liberal — against Trump’s border wall and in favor of LGBTQ rights. He’s an American Dreamer, self-made with his own resolve and good, old-fashioned American opportunity, as he relishes to remind us. “Imagine,” he invites us in a recent op-ed, “if our founding ideals of freedom and equality, and the promise of opportunities such as education and jobs, were more fully realized.”
Imagine, indeed: How would Schultz actually secure greater freedom — not merely the opportunity to experience freedom, but the immediate reality of it — running the country according to a socially liberal, fiscally conservative ethos? The fact is — despite how uncomfortable it makes cocktail parties for extremely rich people who would prefer to be thought of as humane and friendly to the marginalized — austerity politics do not create greater freedom for society’s most vulnerable members. You can be socially indifferent and fiscally conservative, but not liberal in any committed, actionable sense.
Consider health care: In 2017, among the United States’ 27.4 million uninsured, non-elderly adults, 51 percent were black or Hispanic . A 2017 study also found — unsurprisingly — that, in part due to major gaps in regular preventive health-care access, black women die of cervical cancer at roughly double the rate of white women. And we know that under-vaccinated children (as opposed to unvaccinated children, whose parents have intentionally refused vaccines) tend to be poor and black, suggesting that their families struggle to access regular children’s health care. How does racial equality — a mainstay of social liberalism — register for people of color who can’t afford to go to the doctor for regular checkups, or even when they have an urgent need for medical care?
The same goes for those living on the wrong side of American inequality. Schultz may shy away from tax levels that would make a difference in the distribution of our country’s wealth, but doing so is a disservice to the types of people social liberals supposedly mean to support. LGBTQ people, for example, are poorer on average than non-LGBTQ people. A UCLA study released in 2016 also found that LGBTQ people were more likely to experience food insecurity than non-LGBTQ people, and that 27 percent of LGBTQ adults had participated in SNAP in previous years, as opposed to 20 percent of non-LGBTQ adults. The programs that will redress this poverty and its effects are the exact species of program Schultz has a problem with — entitlement spending, also known as social-welfare spending.
It’s not possible for people facing poverty, food insecurity and untreated health problems to engage in democracy as fully equal citizens. These challenges have a way of dominating lives and restricting the kinds of participation in society that people most value. They also diminish overall quality of life — which should be important, as a measure, if you imagine yourself to be an ally of marginalized groups. What this means in essence is that being a fiscally conservative social liberal is something of a misnomer: You can be committed to the status quo in terms of preservation of inequality, health-care gaps and food insecurity, or you can be committed to actually enhancing the quality of life and concrete freedoms of people who find themselves most vulnerable. But you can’t do both.
Schultz may be bothered by what he sees as “extremism” in both parties. But he should consider the fact that leftward “extremism” — that is, an increasing interest in programs that make American society more equal — is predicated on the kind of social liberalism of which he considers himself a proponent. Soft-spoken libertarianism, which is actually what Schultz is hawking, is not a step forward in terms of progressive goals. If Schultz does decide to inflict himself on the 2020 presidential election, I hope progressives will recognize that.