Frustrated on the 4th: Howard Schultz and the Internet’s New Political Paradigms

howard schultz

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz lobs a warning shot at political leaders — innovation in politics is coming from far away from Washington

As the 4th of July arrives, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is frustrated, and it appears he is not alone.

Schultz took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to offer his customers a free cuppa joe on Independence Day, but what was more interesting about the letter was the warning shot across indivisiblethe bow to political leaders:

“I love America,” he wrote, “but we all know there is something wrong. The deficits this country must reconcile are much more than financial, and our inability to solve our own problems is sapping our national spirit.”

Provocative words from the head of a coffee company, but Schultz has been dipping his toe into the public square for some time now, notably with his initiative to encourage job creation and to bring jobs back to the United States from abroad.

Here he takes a more daring step. In action and words, Schultz seems to be encouraging private citizens to spark movement on national issues because the government seems unable to.  

“We can’t wait for Washington,” he wrote on Sunday, calling on citizens to gather around the hashtag #indivisible and demand that business leaders make job creation a priority. “As citizens, let’s all get more involved.”

The health of Starbucks obviously depends on a healthy, consumer economy, so Schultz has good business reasons for his worry.

But his frustration also reflects a deeper restlessness among Americans who see polarization in our political parties and paralysis in our government – and have had enough.

“It’s personal to me,” he told The Huffington Post in an interview about the letter. "I question the promise of America today." The article had close to 2,000 comments on it by Sunday afternoon.

The paralysis in Washington leaves a void that will not go unfilled. In an era devoid of decisive, political leadership, with the nation deeply dissatisfied with Congress, the Supreme Court and The White House, something needs to change.

I think that change will come from the same culture that created the internet.

Schultz seems to intuitively sense what political thinkers are starting to explore – the need for a new way of approaching politics, a view informed by the internet.

Former Clinton political advisor Eric Liu and Seattle-based Internet entrepreneur Nick Hanauer have teamed up to encapsulate this idea in a short, tightly written treatise on a new way of political thinking, which they call “Gardenbrain” (no, it doesn’t trip off the tongue).

“Every so often, the idea set shifts radically, and with it our notion of what is good for us,” they write.

The worldwide web has introduced a different way of solving problems, they argue: the network approach rather than a binary system of winners and losers. An interdependent ecosystem rather than a Darwinian dogma where self-interest drives capitalist society.  

Instead, they see three “gardens of democracy” – interlocking organic realms of public life that include citizenship, economy and government.

In a recent TED talk, “Wikinomics” author and business executive Don Tapscott hit on similar themes. He described the creation of the internet as defining a new era of openness in which transparency, trust and collaboration are required — not just desired — to survive.

His talk might be summed up as: “the arc of history bends toward openness,” a riff on Martin Luther King’s homily about justice.

Today as we approach the 4th of July, political polarization and paralysis seem to dictate the political agenda. And yet we live in an era of change the likes of which we have not seen for half a millenium, since the invention of the printing press.

The media is focused on the election, as it ought to be. But some bigger political ideas are beginning to spread and take root, and they are a direct outgrowth of the age of the internet. Let’s all pay attention and see where it takes us.