Democrats are already in panic mode over the 2020 election: Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, is contemplating running as "centrist independent," and liberals across the land seem terrified he'll end up a spoiler for their ambitions, handing the White House back to President Trump for a second term.
Their solution: Boycott Starbucks.
Vanity projects that help destroy democracy are disgusting. If he enters the race, I will start a Starbucks boycott because I'm not giving a penny that will end up in the election coffers of a guy who will help Trump win. https://t.co/epUYVrcEg8
— Neera Tanden (@neeratanden) January 26, 2019
That's not a great idea.
Certainly, Schultz's candidacy isn't a great idea either — we'll get to that in a moment — and boycotts have a long, often honorable history in American politics, used by pre-Revolutionary tea drinkers and Civil Rights-era activists alike. Senator Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) ongoing attempts to allow state and local governments to discriminate against Americans who boycott Israel disrespects both that tradition and the First Amendment of the Constitution.
So it's understandable that anti-Trump activists might look to a boycott to pressure Schultz into abandoning the race. Will Bunch, the Philadelphia newspaper columnist, recently made a good argument for Democrats considering skipping their next half-caf skinny latte: "It feels like in this so-called democracy, the only power everyday people have is as a consumer," he said in a tweet. "We can't get states to control guns but Dick's Sporting Goods will, if they want to keep their customers."
Fair enough. But there are several reasons a boycott of Starbucks might be unnecessary — or, at the very least, overkill — when it comes to Schultz's presidential campaign.
First, his candidacy is unlikely to amount to much. Nobody's taking him seriously as a threat to actually capture the Oval Office; the real worry among Democrats is that he'll peel enough anti-Trump votes away from them to accidentally give Trump a victory. Nightmares of Ralph Nader's 2000 candidacy, and how it may have helped George W. Bush claim the presidency, still haunt liberal activists nearly 20 years later.
Schultz is no Nader. To the extent that third-party candidates can play spoiler in an election, it's usually because they're true believers who attract true believers. Nader ran against a mushy centrism that, for many voters, made Third Way Democrats of the Al Gore-Bill Clinton variety barely distinguishable from Bush's laissez-faire capitalism. Schultz apparently has his issues — deficit reduction, for one — but mostly he seems like your run-of-the-mill rich guy running for president because he's got money, time, and ego to spare. It is difficult to imagine there's much constituency there.
Even if he loomed as a greater threat, there's another problem with the idea of boycotting Starbucks: Schultz, with an estimated net worth of more than $3 billion, will be insulated from its effects. He may still care about the fortunes of the company he led for so long, but if the idea of a boycott is to deprive Schultz's election coffers of cash, well, too late.
The people more likely to suffer from a boycott are the baristas at your neighborhood Starbucks.
The most important reason that a boycott is a bad idea in this case: It's anti-democratic. Nobody seems to be saying that Schultz is a terrible man, or that he is promoting ugly and harmful ideas that deserve to be driven from the public square. Mostly, they seem mad that he's in the way of their plans. That's different, and it seems like an insufficient reason to boycott. Schultz wants to exercise his right as an American and run for office, and for that reason only people want to harm his livelihood. It smacks of desperation, a sign that Democrats aren't confident they can win their argument for 2020 on the merits.
None of this means Schultz is untouchable. His policy ideas are easily critiqued. His record as Starbucks CEO is fair game — lefty voters, for example, will be interested in the company's history of anti-union tactics. And Democrats should absolutely educate the public about the possible consequences of a vote for Schultz: He should be made to answer, for example, how an "independent" in the White House will be able to pass an agenda through a partisan Congress. (Spoiler alert: It's probably impossible.)
Americans, of course, should spend their money how they like. I rarely drink Starbucks, for example, but that's because I have the good fortune of living in a funky little college town that sprouts new independent java joints with startling regularity. Don't avoid Starbucks because you're afraid of Howard Schultz's presidential candidacy. Do it for the reason everybody else does: To get better coffee somewhere else.