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The Dangers of Executive Populism and the Threat to Political Expertise


Some years ago, I had a conversation with a classmate who insisted that scientists and other highly qualified specialists can and should be powerful political figures. I told him then, as I would say again now, that while this thought sounds great, it misses out on the important fact that politics, policy, and power are, in and of themselves, areas that require specific specialization in order to succeed (I admit that merely getting oneself elected may be another story altogether!). Of course, a scientist can become a politician, but that person would, in my view, need equal competency in the two widely different disciplines of politics and natural sciences.

These memories came roaring back when I saw Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, announce his interest in running for president as an independent candidate on the January 27th installment of 60 Minutes. His decision to possibly run, his stated reasons for doing so, and his campaign strategy all provoke concern that democracy is increasing its sickly reliance on populism. It also highlights a certain naïveté among elite influencers in global society around effective political leadership.

Core Problems

Schultz’s candidacy highlights and exacerbates several fundamental political problems, from electability of non-incumbent rivals to paving the way towards industrial complex-fueled corruption. Among these, I will explore three:

1.     Electoral Math

This needs to be said bluntly: any major independent presidential candidate in a two-party system like the US will siphon votes away from one of the viable parties, inevitably benefitting the other. The United States has seen this play before; in the nineties Ross Perot interrupted the now widely respected first Bush Presidency, 2000 was a cluster-disaster in part because Ralph Nader attracted votes that would have otherwise won Al Gore Florida (and the election), and the 2016 had Jill Stein, who had a similar Nader-esque effect.

Simply put: if Howard Schultz truly wants to change the country, he should either run as a Democrat or not at all.

2. Generational Dispositions

The differences between the ruling Baby Boomers, the ascendant Millenials, and the emerging Generation Z have been well documented. In this context, the nearsightedness I’ve seen with Baby Boomer leadership figures like Schultz is less about technological incompetence and more about the willful ignorance of such one-percenters who arrogantly claim to represent the people. The structural and policy factors that unfairly benefit the Boomers are hard to see if you are actually a Boomer, and the generation’s upbringing and cultural disposition both serve to minimize the encouragement of mindfulness about these advantages.

In the case of Schultz, this means that his claims that he really cares about Starbucks workers and can therefore meaningfully resolve thorny issues like job growth and healthcare ring rather hollow. This is further evidenced by his knee-jerk, tacky, and mostly ineffective initiatives towards race relations, a powder keg of a social issue literally brewed throughout the history of the country he supposedly wants to lead.

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Business Executives in Politics

CEOs can be a problem element when they are fully immersed into political situations as either power brokers or campaigners. Normally, this is manifested through special interest group activity which includes the employment of political professionals to help corporations further their interests. When such interest groups are in competition with one another for the fairly earned attention of policymakers, this system actually works well as predicted by the Founding Fathers of the US themselves.

Today, however, everything is rigged. Certain companies and interests dominate Capitol Hill over others, subverting the economy and, in the case of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, creating a political and economic infrastructure that is dangerously un-sturdy at best. In recent years, this process has appeared to be more streamlined, with tighter connections of people and professional competencies between industries and their lobbyists, a tail wagging the dog within the larger tail of special interests wagging the large dog that is the US/world economy. Here, the rise of Donald Trump shows how CEOs themselves are taking directly expressed political roles in major economies, preaching the supposed practicality of business-centric solutions to all problems. Yet this creates conflicts of interests and revolving doors of exponential scale, with those of us outside the corporate umbrella left out.

This is corruption on a nefarious and frightening level and represents a societal cancer diagnosis that should not be exacerbated by another Master of the Universe striving for more power for purposes not obviously benefiting the whole.

This is also populism, a new form of potent governing style for many in the West.

Key Symptoms

Through his grandiose pronouncements addressing boilerplate and grassroots progressive issues in America, Howard Schultz employs a technique designed to broadcast an appealing but misleading populist message: “I built Starbucks into a company the size of some countries and made it a fair and welcoming place for average people/employees; I am suited to serve the US as President because what I did at Starbucks is only a small step below the Presidency.”

If we look at the White House now, we see that the current occupant is a populist leader representing the right-wing faction of American politics. Schultz, on the other hand, is more progressive. This is important to think about for 2020 because there is a chance we could see a cross-party change in power between populists. This situation is more volatile than other transitions because populists tend to be fervent towards their support bases; Trump surely fits this mold and is encouraged to do so thanks to hyper-polarization.

It is important that we also look at how Trumpian and Schultzian interactions have played out in different global contexts (indeed, there are historical examples for all of this!):

1.     21st Century Brazil

The recent election of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right candidate, as President of Brazil was a meaningful moment for the history of the country, the region, and the world. One of the characteristics of its historic status was that it represented a fully-swung pendulum away from the left-wing movements led by former President Lula da Silva over the previous decade and more. What is also interesting about Bolsonaro’s campaign and victory is that it exemplified the cultural template of Latin American populism (a longstanding political tradition in the region) using strategies and techniques used effectively in far left-leaning countries - namely Venezuela under Hugo Chavez - to advance a total repudiation of official political agendas to date.

2. Cults of Celebrity

Ironically, capitalist countries like the United States do have some things to learn from Communist states. One important historical lesson involves the instabilities created during periods in which leaders were deified. As a student of China, I have explored situations like the Cultural Revolution in depth, as well as its tragic aftermath, and this difficult political situation is seared into my memory. Unfortunately, the advent of social media and reality television (combined with the aforementioned crony capitalist politics) has made voting publics obsessed with being in contact with wealth and fame at all costs. This is a big reason why Donald Trump was able to easily transition to politics; his reality show combined name recognition with an established reputation as a decision maker.

Liberals are not immune to this fever, and Schultz is another example. I imagine his planned campaign is based on raising his own profile to beloved status across America. Many CEOs and those in power - sometimes through personality, sometimes because no one opposes them or sets boundaries - think their efforts will be welcomed and successful through sheer confidence and energy.

Politics is about managing failure more than it is about creating success, and such disappointment can shatter such a fragile ego. This is a frightening situation, as many sullied leaders throughout history have initiated painful social backlashes as a result; in fact, this is one of the principal reasons Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution in the first place.

The Importance of Expertise

This post should underscore the fact that political skill, knowledge, and competence are worthwhile professional attributes requiring professionals at high positions. For companies, this should also emphasize that political risk professionals and others who intricately know international markets (like Weilian Poder Global Consulting) are always valuable investments to consult going forward.

Whether it is diagnosing Chinese political conditions via a mix of Confucian and Communist theories or comparing the Venezuelan, Guyanese, Chilean, Bolivian, South African, Iranian, or Saudi resource “curses,” professionals like us understand that there needs to be measured balances of business priorities and political calculus. This is why the hated “Washington Insider,” is not bad per se; it just needs to communicate appropriately with the needs of the economy.

With this, experts in the political campaign, governance, and analysis fields can be more empowered to produce trend and threat detection that can benefit political actors and society as a whole. Although such a system invariably requires challenging powerful people and managing sensitive egos, a more technocratic approach to political strategy and analysis can enable more rational decision making by leaders who acknowledge their bias and can effectively work around it to produce successful policy, as people like Howard Schultz could demonstrate by acting more reasonably within political norms. We need this badly in order to best address the leading sociopolitical challenges of our age.

I welcome your thoughts. Please feel free to respond in the comments or to email me at info@wpglobalconsulting.com to discuss further.

William VogtComment