March 31, 2023 - 4:00pm

The recent sparring between Starbucks’s longtime CEO Howard Schultz and Senator Bernie Sanders reflects a conflict within the Democratic Party that is likely to get far more intense in the years ahead. Sanders accused Schultz, a self-described progressive who once considered a presidential run, of conducting “illegal union busting” at the coffee chain’s shops — something that the Starbucks CEO vehemently denied.

Schultz is finding out the hard way that liberal intentions are not enough to prevent his employees from seeking better wages and conditions. This dilemma mirrors that of his gentry progressive allies, who represent the Democrats’ increasingly affluent, well-educated base. They are now primary funders of the party and it is their agenda that has come to achieve dominance.

The Democratic merger between the corporate Left and traditional Leftism is clearly unnatural. The old Leftists like Sanders, and publications like The Nation, have become alarmed by the growing power of the oligarchic elites within the party as well as the accelerating movement of working class voters to the GOP. Given that all ten of the nation’s wealthiest congressional districts are now solidly Democratic, they have a point. As the radical publication Jacobin complained: “The Democratic base is getting richer and whiter.” 

The gap between the interests of investment banks, C-suite executives and elite professionals and that of working, even middle-class voters, is simply too large. Born out of fears over Trump and the MAGA movement, there may be a truce between the two factions in 2024. But, over time, economic issues will sunder this alliance, as is already happening with the growing presence of socialists on city councils in places like Los Angeles and New York. There’s even a growing socialist movement among woke employees in Silicon Valley

Among Leftists, there’s a natural hostility to the oligarchy’s excesses. After all, if the world is on the verge of apocalypse, and must adopt “net zero”, the issues of redistribution become greater. It is therefore not great advertising to their own party, let alone the world, when wealthy Democrats fly their private jets to discuss the “crisis” in places like Davos. 

Besides, people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez do not distinguish between good billionaires and bad ones, but instead believe that billionaires should not exist at all. The red-green (or watermelon) contingent generally agrees with the view of Barry Commoner, a founding father of modern environmentalism, that “capitalism is the earth’s number one enemy.” 

This division suggests that a new, more radical anti-capitalism may be ascendant — no doubt to the horror of Schultz and other moguls. It reflects a trend that is occurring across the Western world, with over half of respondents (56%) in a recent Edelman survey saying that they now believe that capitalism does more harm than good. Politically, this has resulted in younger voters drifting towards ideologically extreme candidates: in 2016, Sanders won more young votes in the primaries than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined.   

Although Joe Biden is likely to hold much of this coalition together, particularly against Trump, the radicalisation of younger voters cannot bode well for Schultz, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and similar corporate lords. Issues like January 6th, gender, race and climate may not be enough to hold the gentry Left and the progressives together but, soon enough, this alliance will not withstand the rising issues of class and labour that will define the future of politics throughout the West.  


Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter.

joelkotkin