The 2020 Democratic primaries were shaping up to be the most progressive in a generation. To many, the lesson of 2016 was to go bold and never settle for the compromise candidate. With 56% of voters saying they will not vote for Trump, this looked like the moment to nominate a true progressive firebrand. What are moderate Democrats going to do otherwise, vote Trump? Sit out the election and enable a second Trump term? This was the time to prove, once and for all, the great hypothetical of the left: Bernie would’ve won.
Enter Howard Schultz, the billionaire centrist who has shaken up the best-laid plans of the coalition of the ascendant. Needless to say, they’re not happy about it.
Howard Schultz is almost certainly not, as progressive populist Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown recently called him, a “total idiot.” But Sherrod Brown does have a reasonable grievance: Howard Schultz may run a third-party bid if an economic populist like him is the Democratic nominee. And that’s why neither Sherrod Brown, nor any other left-wing progressive, is likely to be the ultimate Democratic nominee.
Perhaps primary voters will not want to pick a fight with the billionaire who could sink their general election prospects, even if they think Shultz’s rationale for running is wrongheaded. Maybe they’ll be mindful not to choose someone who is too anti-business or speaks too stridently about tearing down the White Male Patriarchy, out of fear this would cause Schultz to run — inadvertently electing Trump. Once a moderate candidate suitable to Schultz’s taste is chosen as the Democratic nominee, Schultz won't need to run, and he won't.
Former New York Mayor and fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg has a straightforward take on the dynamic: “In 2020, the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the President,” he said in January.
Howard Schultz surely knows this too. He just needs to keep his potential third-party run credible by acting as if he believes otherwise.
That’s why Schultz recently wrote that the wrong Democratic nominee, someone “far to the radical left,” might in fact be the party’s true “spoiler.” Does Schultz really believe this? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether voters think he believes it.
In this way, you could say Schultz is ”giving permission” for primary voters to support moderate candidates, allowing them to outsource the consequences of their choice onto him. The rationalization — “Howard Schultz made me do it!” — could allow primary voters to explain to themselves and others why they voted for a moderate rather than one of the True Progressives the mood otherwise calls for.
If anything, Schultz’s mistake may have been making one of the classic errors of the Trump era: saying the quiet part out loud. “I would reassess the situation if the numbers change as a result of a centrist Democrat winning the nomination,” he told the Washington Post. While this arguably meant his candidacy would be made redundant by a centrist Democrat, the line was interpreted by some as a direct threat to sink any progressive nominee. Bernie Sanders called it “blackmail” this week, although Schultz has previously said he believes his third-party run would siphon votes from moderate Republicans who’d otherwise go for Trump.
Ultimately, rather than lamenting Schultz as a spoiler, the progressive left might better express their anger by claiming the primary electorate cannot vote their true candidate preferences with the power imbalance created by a Person of Wealth looming over them. And that’s precisely the point.
And if Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown or another populist progressive does become the nominee, will Schultz really go through with his third-party run? Or is this all a bluff?
While figuring out the answer to that question, consider this: to the surprise of many, richest-man-in the world Jeff Bezos walked away from a proposed Amazon headquarters in New York City in the face of progressive badgering. Will Democratic primary voters really want to find out if Howard Schultz similarly has the nerve to launch a third-party run? Is he bluffing?
Adam Jayne is a cognitive science researcher living in New York.