Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is flirting with the idea of an independent bid for the White House. This has set off the usual complaints that two party organizations should have a monopoly over who gets to run for president, and that Schultz would just be spoiling the election by taking their votes.
Of course, no party or candidate is entitled to votes. The Democrats and Republicans have to earn their votes, and when they complain about minor parties, they are basically saying that candidates and parties who have less than one percent of the resources and institutional power they do, who are banned from discriminatory debates, are simply too difficult to compete against. It’s actually a pretty funny argument when you think about it.
Democrats in particular seem to be worried Schultz would convince their voters he deserves their votes, but considering he’s a staunch fiscal conservative, it’s more likely that he would be aiming for the Gary Johnson/Evan McMullin vote on the onset.
Americans are increasingly soured on the two-party dominance of our politics, and generally support more options on the ballot. However, they by and large don’t vote for these options because they believe the other parties to not be viable contenders. After all, the media basically ignores third-party candidates, and they are typically not allowed into presidential debates.
Schultz, however, could break through the mold of independent candidates in a way contenders like Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin, Pat Buchanan, and Ralph Nader could not. He is, after all, a billionaire. He can spend a ludicrous sum of money to boost his name identification, force himself into the media, hire a large number of campaign staff, and meet the onerous polling requirements needed to gain entry to the presidential debates.
The question is, what would Schultz use his billionaire privilege to achieve?
The last viable — meaning, there is a chance they could have actually won and disrupted the two parties in a meaningful way — independent presidential candidate was Ross Perot. His marquee issue was the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and he made a real impact on the debate, even winning a coveted spot battling Al Gore on the issue on CNN the year after the election. Although he did not ultimately defeat NAFTA, he helped create a political opposition that is active to this day and manifested itself through President Trump changing the agreement.
Schultz, on the other hand, seems to be targeting the U.S. debt (also a Perot issue) and disparaging increasingly popular plans for universal health care and free college (not a Perot issue). Regardless of what I think about these plans, they don’t have much cache with American voters. That’s why I think he’d probably get something like five percent of the vote, probably an equal number of disaffected upper-middle class Republicans and Democrats as well as independents.
But if Schultz really does think the two parties are broken (and most Americans do) he could instead use his presidential bid to bolster a process by which they would finally be displaced from politics.
It’s often said that we have a “two-party system” in the United States. But that’s not quite true. There are independent and third-party lawmakers in America. Just ask the Socialist Alternative Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, or the Vermont Progressive Party. Ask Maine Independent Senator Angus King or Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders.
What we have is more accurately called a mostly-two-party outcome system. Our actual system, first-past-the-post, encourages voters to coalesce around two candidates, because the only person who gets power is the one who gets the most votes.
An alternative system, used by countries like Sweden and Israel, is called proportional representation. Proporational representation means you get as many seats in parliament as you get in the national election (there are usually floors you have to achieve, such as five percent of the national vote, first). So if the Green Party were to get five percent of the national vote, they’d get five percent of the seats in Congress. This way, you’re not bound to being represented just by the geographic territory you live in, and you don’t have to worry about your vote basically not mattering if you live in a gerrymandered district.
Schultz could argue to Americans that because they’re sick of two major parties controlling most of our government, we need to shift to a different electoral system. He has potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal, and will certainly get all the air time he wants to make this case.
There’s even a bill in Congress that was introduced in 2017 which would help move us towards a more proportional system. The Fair Representation Act would require independent redistricting across America, move us to multi-member districts, and enact ranked-choice voting in every district (where you rank candidates instead of voting for one). Put together, these reforms would weaken party dominance in every district, make it easier for third-parties to compete, and reduce the power of extremes.
If the two major parties feel so threatened by Schultz, they could always promise to move the Fair Representation Act to try and win his disaffected voters. In Canada, that’s basically what Justin Trudeau did to win minor-party voters — offer electoral reform so in the future their votes for parties that don’t win a majority will matter. He ended up backing off that promise, but there’s no reason our politicians have to follow suit.
Sanders is the longest-serving Independent in Congress’s history. Surely he of all people can recognize the need to make our system friendlier to independents. Embracing this issue would not only help him keep his voters away from a Schultz challenge, it would also set him apart from his Democratic primary field.
We can end two-party dominance in America, if we want to (and we do). But we need leadership that forces changes to how the electoral system itself works to make Americans feel comfortable voting for other people. If Schultz is up to the challenge, he could be the person to force that debate, much like Perot forced a much-needed debate on NAFTA.