Howard Schultz and the varieties of centrism

If Howard Schultz runs for president as a centrist Democrat, then he will not be offering the voters a candidacy of a true Independent. There are going to be some centrist Democrats running in the Democratic primary — for example, former Maryland Congressman John Delaney. Mayor Michael Bloomberg can also be regarded as a centrist Democrat. 

A Schultz candidacy will only be interesting if it is different from a pro-business, bipartisan candidacy like Delaney’s or Bloomberg’s, two other independently wealthy candidates.

The question arises, then: What distinguishes a centrist Democratic candidacy from a centrist Independent candidacy? The difference presumably is not solely in terms of the content of particular public policies, although this would certainly be part of it. The difference also concerns the overall attitude and public philosophy of the candidate.

ADVERTISEMENT

A centrist Democrat and a centrist Independent might both call for reducing the national debt, but the centrist Independent might campaign on the theme that both parties have failed to address this problem, whereas the centrist Democrat might blame the problem on either progressive Democrats or Republicans. 

Some of the things Schultz has said sound like the kinds of things a centrist Democrat would say. For example, he has loudly denounced policies like “Medicare-for-all” because they are unrealistic from a fiscal point of view. This is the kind of position we expect from either a Republican or a centrist Democrat. Both are anti-Sanders, anti-Warren, anti-Ocasio-Cortez, and anti-Harris.

At the same time, some of the things Schultz has said sound like the kinds of things members of the Unite America third party say. He fiercely criticizes both parties for being incapable of compromise and for creating a dysfunctional national politics. Here he presents himself as an outsider of the political system who has proven leadership skills in the world of business.

As pundits and politicians continue to examine the potential Schultz candidacy, before he has even officially announced that he will be a candidate for president in 2020, a serious discussion also needs to be conducted over the variety of ways one can be a centrist — a voice for the middle of the country. 

The term centrism carries a negative connotation for many people since it connotes a “moderate” who does not have strong beliefs and values, a middle of the roader who lacks passion for any policies, even someone who cannot make up his or her mind.

There is a place in our politics, however, for passionate centrism, where centrism is not a moderate point of view at all; instead, it is an exciting synthesis, a point of view that transcends left and right and gives voters bold policies that — while they may take elements from either left or right — are bound to no rigid ideology. This kind of passionate centrism could also leverage the uncertainty that characterizes the attitude of many voters, who see nuances and ambiguity where the hard left and hard right have certainty.

ADVERTISEMENT

Passionate centrism is designed to avoid simplistic extremist policy positions that are responsible for the sad polarization that dominates our politics today. These centrists (what I have elsewhere called “sentrists”) take a page from John Dewey, John Maynard Keynes and Abraham Lincoln and embrace a pragmatic approach to policy and to politics. 

So far, Mr. Schultz seems to be talking less about this type of bold centrism and more about a Democratic centrism, a politics of smart business and broadly liberal on social policies. Schultz, moreover, appears to be banking on the public voting for him based on his brilliant billionaire business skills and his moral character as much as his policy positions.

There is nothing wrong with putting your brilliant billionaire business skills and moral character up front in a campaign; indeed, too many of our campaigns are dominated by “issues” without adequate attention to the person who is running and what background, skills, and character he or she has.

But what remains to be seen is whether Schultz or some other candidate for president will adopt a centrist point of view that goes beyond a version of moderation associated with either moderate Democrats or moderate Republicans. If such a candidate emerges, then, American politics will have a third choice which would really give voters a very different kind of candidate.   

Such a candidate could rightly run as an Independent, but it is not impossible for such a candidate to run as a Democrat. The key is not whether one runs as an Independent, but whether one adopts a bold enough approach that he or she stands apart from the rest of the ideological pack.

Dave Anderson is the editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework” (Springer, 2014). He is also the author of "Youth04: Young Voters, the Internet, and Political Power" (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) and co-editor of "The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). He has taught at George Washington University, the University of Cincinnati, and Johns Hopkins University. He was a candidate in the 2016 Democratic Primary in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Contact him at dmamaryland@gmail.com.