If you were judging Howard Schultz’s presidential candidacy solely on the amount of TV time he received last week upon his entry into the 2020 race, you’d think that he was a top-level contender. He appeared on every single cable news network, doing nothing but cosplaying a Very Serious Person and telling us how we cannot afford nice things that other countries have had for decades (including this country, half a century ago).
Unfortunately, because we live in a world with a mainstream political press that largely struggles to see America outside of the D.C.-NYC beltway worldview, a man who has quite literally not announced a single policy that he would enact as president was described thusly in a piece headlined by ABC’s political director:
But the former Starbucks CEO has already managed to do something that almost no one other than President Donald Trump has done in two years’ time: drive a sustained debate on both policy and politics.
This is some really embarrassing political analysis. If this article were submitted to Paste, I’d decline it and ignore all future e-mails from this writer. We just spent three weeks talking about tax rates thanks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren (the juxtaposition of saying a white, male deficit scold is driving a debate on policy while ignoring two women who have proposed very detailed tax policy is not a great look, ABC)—not to mention the ongoing debates around the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. For God’s sake, AOC went on the biggest political show in America, 60 Minutes, and caused a whole kerfuffle by sparking a national policy debate about freaking marginal tax rates. When was the last time you heard a politician say the phrase, “marginal tax rates”?
Because we have a mainstream media who largely eschews policy for personality, and TV booking agents who believe that all rich white men deserve air time, ABC’s political director winds up confusing Schultz’s “deficit scold” schtick for actual policy. This is not an isolated incident, and many powerful folks throughout major media like Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd have a habit of making “centrist” billionaire policy seem “rational” (which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that 90% of our media is owned by six conglomerates that all rake in billions in revenue each year), as Margaret Sullivan wrote in The Washington Post:
One of the supposed golden rules of journalism goes like this: “If everybody’s mad at your coverage, you must be doing a good job.”
That’s ridiculous, of course, though it seems comforting. If everybody’s mad, it may just mean you’re getting everything wrong.
But it’s the kind of muddled thinking that feels right to media people who practice what I’ll call the middle-lane approach to journalism — the smarmy centrism that often benefits nobody, but promises that you won’t offend anyone.
There Is No Constituency For Howard Schultz’s Presidential Campaign
Firstly, Schultz has made an error that would fail him out of polisci 101: Independents are not moderates (for example, I am a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and I have been an Independent for over a decade who consistently votes Democrat).
Secondly, juxtaposing polling that came out over the weekend with today’s NBC article that can only be described as a press release for Howard Schultz provides the perfect example of how the media carries water for billionaires.
Change Research conducted a poll from Jan. 31 to Feb. 1 of likely general election voters’ attitudes towards Howard Schultz. The results prove that he is one of the few people who can unite this country…but not in the way that he would like to.
— Just 4% view him favorably versus 40% unfavorably
— 4% of Democrats, Republicans and Independents all view Schultz favorably
— 50% of Democrats, 43% of Republicans and 31% of Independents view Schultz unfavorably
And yet, Meet the Press spent a whole segment on Schultz’s internal polling that does not say who took the poll (“internal polling” could be a lot of different things), when it took place, or who they sampled. Today, NBC published this companion piece that looks and reads like a press release for Howard Schulz:
There is absolutely no reason to believe this source-less press release over polling that we know actual details about. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll demonstrates that while there is enthusiasm on both the right and left to vote for an Independent (41% of Trump voters say they would consider voting for a hypothetical independent, versus 31% of Democrats), history shows that it almost surely won't happen:
“On paper, there is a theory by which you could put together a coalition of [independent voters] to run as a third-party candidate,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way. “The problem is, elections don't happen on paper.”
“There is a guy who is literally carved into Mount Rushmore who couldn't win as an independent,” Bennett added, referring to Theodore Roosevelt's unsuccessful run as a minor-party candidate in 1912. “If Teddy Roosevelt can't win as a third-party candidate, you can't do it. It can't be done.”
The fact of the matter is that major media distorts reality in order to make a political movement that aligns with billionaires' policy preferences far larger than it seems. A survey of 2016 voters from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group demonstrates that libertarians practically don't exist, and their cousins—people who are socially liberal and economically conservative (AKA, TV news' rock stars)—are nowhere near as ubiquitous as major media makes it seem (the bottom right quadrant is filled with both political coalitions).
Elizabeth Bruenig described Howard Schultz’s candidacy perfectly this weekend in The Washington Post:
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.
Trump eviscerated #NeverTrump in 2016, highlighting that coalition’s infinitesimally small voter bloc for all to see. Nearly half (43%) of Democrats did not vote for the Democrats’ hand-picked nominee in 2016, and Democrats as a whole have been getting more liberal every year since the beginning of Obama’s second term (hell, 24% of millennial Republicans say they identify as Democratic Socialist or socialist).
When you ask Americans about policy, especially as it pertains to taxing billionaires like Howard Schultz, significant majorities (like 70+ percent significant) skew liberal. The difference is, us 76 percent of registered voters who believe that the wealthiest should pay more in taxes don’t have six media conglomerates run by friends/fellow investors that we can turn to in trying times. If it feels like the media is carrying water for Howard Schultz, that’s because they are, and it’s almost surely thanks to the fact that people like Howard Schultz sit on the boards of America’s major media enterprises. Fox News isn’t the only outlet that functions as something like state-run media in this hyper-capitalist country.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.