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The Dartmouth
March 2, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Zaman: The Schultz Shtick

Is the American Dream a pipe dream? Can we count on successes to know?


How does a boy who grew up in public housing in Brooklyn become a man who wants to cut Social Security?

This is the million — sorry, 3.5-billion — dollar question, folks. More than the question of whether former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz will run as an independent for the 2020 presidential election, as he’s been suggesting or possibly threatening to do, the question of where his entire platform sprung from has been eating away at me. Just last June, Schultz named the national debt the greatest threat domestically to the country. He’s dismissed single-payer healthcare as economically unfeasible (false), dubbed Medicare-for-all as “not American” and has expressed strong opposition to popular tax proposals aimed at the wealthy by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and presidential contender Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Recently, he popped up in the headlines again by declaring “I honestly don’t see color,” which has to be the most pre-2016-election overused line ever. It’s 2019; if we’re racist, let’s flat-out admit it instead of bringing up colorblindness or, God forbid, claiming we have black friends. (Looking at you, Ralph Northam.) 

Schultz’s budding platform is overwhelmingly fiscally conservative, out-of-touch, and unsurprising for a billionaire and CEO. But it doesn’t quite jive with his background story, a classic rags-to-riches Horatio Alger tale. My fellow opinion columnist Steven Adelberg ’21, in an argument in favor of a Schultz bid, described him as “a self-made business magnate who rose from the projects of Brooklyn to build his socially-conscious Starbucks Corporation to greatness.” Adelberg notes that Schultz’s “American Dream life story can also have broad appeal in this time of economic uncertainty.” It’s an eloquently-written argument that I won’t bother directly refuting, because Schultz’s platform in itself is an argument why no one should vote for him. In fact, his platform is the near-antithesis of a progressive economic agenda, the latter being possibly the only thing that could unite both the urban and rural working classes and something that nearly every Democratic presidential candidate has emphasized so far. Instead, with an embrace of classic corporatism and a telling discomfort to reveal whether he’ll sell his Starbucks shares if elected, Schultz shows more regard for C-Suite executives than labor unions.

But Schultz’s biography paints the picture of someone who is no stranger to poverty and financial hardship. The financial stress of his childhood is legitimate, and the obstacles he experienced as a youth are to be taken seriously. Somewhere in the transition from working hot summers steaming yarn in a sweatshop as a teenager to being one of the most powerful corporate leaders in the world, Schultz has embraced the institutions that paved the way to his personal success. In doing so, he’s forgotten that these institutions are also what lock the majority of the poor and working class into the same economic class for the rest of their lives and turns socioeconomic mobility from the American Dream into an illusion. Schultz has emphasized his “perseverance and drive,” saying “I willed my dreams to come true. I took my life in my hands, learned from anyone I could, and grabbed whatever opportunities came my way.” 

Undoubtedly, Schultz’s personal qualities played no small role in his success. But in building them up, he de-emphasizes the effect that luck played in his meteoric rise to the top. Surely Schultz must remember that sheer will alone doesn’t make dreams come true, and it doesn’t remove socioeconomic barriers and structural inequality. Surely, it occurs to him — what if I hadn’t gotten that scholarship? That job at the right time and place, that promotion, the money and help I needed to start Starbucks? 

What Schultz doesn’t get — apart from the obvious, such as that the average American doesn’t care too much about national debt and likes the idea of having retirement money and affordable hospital visits — is that what worked for him often doesn’t and can't work for everyone else. It’s this poor memory (or deliberate ignoring) of structural barriers to success and fulfillment, or sometimes just basic necessities, that breeds lazy corporate thinking suggesting cuts to funding for social safety nets and instead pandering to billion-dollar companies. 

This all begs a fundamental question: do economically struggling, left-behind Americans (as the popular, sympathetic narrative about Trump or stay-home voters goes) want a president who started off “just like them,” as Schultz is sure to tell his audiences, but now perches so high up the ladder he cannot remember that those below may need a hand up? Or do they instead want a politician who is accessible not because they are knowledgeable about their constituents’ struggles, but have personally experienced them? If the latter is preferable, it may be time to correct misperceptions about how politicians and public figures brand themselves. I’ve already expressed my belief that Schultz’s odds are low, but other potential candidates have a lesson to learn here too. Voters don’t want billionaires or CEOs. They don’t want wildly impressive success stories leading this country if they can’t understand their personal story is not America’s, or that merit alone doesn’t grant most people a comfortable lifestyle. 

Conservatives have traditionally preached limited government and a hands-off approach to economic policy, but as David Leonhardt of the New York Times points out, many Americans lean socially conservative and economically liberal. No doubt this is a surprise to Dartmouth, where the opposite is much more common. The Dartmouth community is quick to claim campus is a bubble due to its political homogeneity, but the real reason it’s a bubble is due to the level of affluence here. That affluence would probably experience little impact at the hands of Schultz’s ideas — financially-struggling Rust Belt voters would not be so fortunate.

And if it turns out Schultz does do well in that demographic, then it may be time to rethink popular wisdom about what part of Trump’s rhetoric appealed to these voters anyway. Hint: it probably wasn’t the bit about the economy.

There’s a takeaway here, though; Schultz’s centrism thinly disguises a backwards view on economic opportunity and complex notions of merit and “deserving” in America. Hopefully voters will see this and, well, pick a better choice. But just in case, I recommend we all opt for KAF over Starbucks in the next few weeks or so — even if it does make the line even longer.