Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Billionaire Fantasies

As if Tom Steyer hasn't done enough mischief with his ill-advised campaign to promote another 1990s-style, partisan impeachment of a president, now we have Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame proposing himself as a plausible "independent" candidate for president. What fantasies are generated when one has too much money! Schultz's "candidacy" highlights at least three contemporary problems with how we purport to govern ourselves.

First and most obvious is the excessive and hence dangerous role that money plays in our politics. Having money has always been an advantage, although not necessarily a decisive one. John Kennedy could probably never have risen to the presidency without his (that is, his father's) money. On the other hand, his contemporary Nelson Rockefeller still couldn't achieve his goal, for all his millions. Schultz's millions won't elect him president anymore than Steyer's wealth will win him the impeachment effort he so craves. But both can throw their money around, get lots of attention, and so seriously distort the political and electoral processes.

The second, not unrelated, problem is the furtherance of the strangely popular notion that business success qualifies one for political success. There is a reason, of course, why prior to President Trump all his predecessors had had some political or military experience prior to moving to the White House. Even if Trump had really been the successful businessman he presented himself as, that would not have provided him with relevant experience to prepare him for the job of governing. Honestly, even if a candidate has had a successful business career, why should that qualify him or her for political office? Business is about the pursuit of private gain. Politics is about the public interest, the common good, even at the cost of private individuals' private interests. Besides the peculiar American admiration for successful businessmen, this also reflects the problematic notion that an "outsider" can fix things. By now we have elected enough such "outsider" candidates that we should know better!

The third problem is the persistent fantasy that "independent" or third-party candidates can actually win - or that they even represent a serious constituency. Most such "independent" or third party candidates are marginal figures who represent hardly anyone and thankfully have no substantive effect on the election. On the other hand, there have been candidates who have impacted the election by taking too many votes from one major candidate and thus throwing the election to the other. Theodore Roosevelt effectively elected Woodrow Wilson in 1912, something he certainly lived to regret. In Florida in 2000 Ralph Nader's curious candidacy is generally thought to have elected George W. Bush, and we all know how that turned out!. The fact is that, in our presidential as opposed to parliamentary system (in which coalitions are only possible within parties before the election rather than among parties after) and where the vote is significantly distorted by the winner-take-all system (especially in the electoral college), it is almost impossible for an "independent" or third-party candidate to win, but it remains quite possible for him or her to affect the outcome.

A personal confession: almost 40 years ago, in my earlier career, I voted for an "independent" candidate, Congressman John Anderson, in the 1980 presidential election. Since at the time I was a professor of political science, presumably I knew better. In fact, I knew perfectly well that such candidates cannot win but can distort the election so as to elect the candidate they are most opposed to, which is of course exactly what happened. Although I knew better, it was a typical - typically foolish - case of voting one's heart over one's head. I had voted for Senator Ted Kennedy in the primary and was so angry that Carter had won the nomination that I could not bring myself to vote for him in the general election. So I wasted my vote. (As it happened, the election was a landslide and Anderson's quixotic candidacy had no real impact.)

An "independent" Schultz candidacy is premised on the morally dubious notion that because one has money to spend one should do so and the equally dubious notion that being a successful entrepreneur and/or an "outsider" constitutes some sort of qualification for office. It is also premised on the factually questionable notion that there actually exists some sort of "independent" constituency somewhere out there, whereas in fact we know that most so-called independents - if and when they actually vote - effectively lean toward one party or the other. If anything, there are probably fewer genuine "swing" voters today than in earlier elections, as evidenced by the obvious decline in ticket-splitting.

Of course, it is possible that there are voters not completely at home in the party of their choice, who in some alternate universe would prefer a more centrist party. There is evidently considerable popular support for more left-leaning economic policies. What gets in the way of the party that (sometimes) advocates for them is that party's accidental association with certain extreme social and cultural  policies. If the electoral system would accommodate it, a centrist party that advocated significantly higher taxes on the rich, more extensive healthcare for all (e.g., "Medicare for All"), and similar policies, but which was decidedly less extreme on social and cultural issues, might well have a real chance. (Subtract the personality issues and the rhetorical bombast, and one could argue that Trump campaigned in part as such a"centrist" alternative candidate in 2016, although he has obviously not governed as such a "centrist" president since taking office.) Ironically, however, Schultz seems to want a centrist party that advocates almost the exact opposite - a very liberal social and cultural stance combined with pro-rich economic policies - a combination for which there seems to be little or no really significant constituency.

I like Starbucks coffee a lot, and wish its former CEO all the best in his personal and professional life, but I hope he spends his money on better projects than a quixotic quest for the presidency that would likely accomplish little good and could run the risk of causing considerable mischief!

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