Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says U.S. political leaders have failed the country and made citizens lose faith in the nation and its future.
In his closing talk at the Starbucks annual shareholders meeting in Seattle today, Schultz continued his tradition of venturing well beyond coffee to address broader societal issues — a practice that has put the company in the spotlight on topics including race relations, same-sex marriage and religion.
With the country divided the buildup to the U.S. presidential election later this year, Schultz lamented the state of American politics, saying that the only way to restore the American Dream is for citizens to commit to optimism and morality in their own lives, since leaders don’t model or enact good values on their behalf.
Schultz, who said last year that he had no intention of running for president himself, began his talk Wednesday by saying that today’s political leaders have only caused “dysfunction and polarization.” He said that he feels pain about where America is headed and about “the cloud hanging over the American people.”
“Broken promises — void of truth and leadership — have led to a lack of trust and confidence not only in our elected officials, but in our institutions,” he said.
Schultz expressed nostalgia for the days where political leaders could inspire and comfort, instead of stirring up partisanship and despair. Without naming any current candidates, he held up President John F. Kennedy as an example of the kind of inspirational leader that he would like to see in modern American politics, saying that JFK had been able to comfort the nation over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. because he spoke directly to the people with truth and compassion.
“We all long for that kind of leadership and those heartfelt words more than any other time in our collective lives,” Schultz said.
In fact, he said, it was JFK who inspired a young Schultz to believe in the power of the American Dream, to believe that he could become anything that he wanted to be and that his future looked bright, though his station in life was humble.
“His vision of America was optimistic, even for those of us whose station in life was to live in public housing and hold blue collar jobs,” Schultz said of JFK.
Now that America is facing a time when its political leaders do not offer optimism about the future, Schultz says that citizens need to step forward in their stead.
“I’ve always viewed the American Dream as a reservoir, and it has constantly been replenished with the values, work ethic, and spirit of the American people,” Schultz said. “But sadly, our reservoir is running dry, depleted by cynicism, despair, division, exclusion, fear, and, yes, indifference.”
In the absence of leaders like JFK, Schultz called on citizens to “do everything we can do reclaim and reimagine the American dream to fill the reservoir back up not with cynicism, but optimism; not with despair, but possibility; not with division, but unity; not with exclusion, but inclusion; not with fear, but with compassion; not with indifference, but with love.”
It’s not about enacting any particular policies or political platform, Schultz said, but instead about changing everyday practices to bring back the optimism that Americans used to feel about our nation and the future.
Schultz ended his talk with a story his rabbi had told to him when he was a child about Jews during the Holocaust. Only one out of six were given blankets during a bitter winter as they were sent to live in concentration camps.
“That person who received the blanket had to decide: Am I going to keep this blanket for myself or am I going to share it with?” he said. “The lesson in humanity is that most people did share it with others.”
“Given what’s going on in the world,” he continued, “I ask you to share your blanket with others, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of their station in life or their politics. Let’s fill our reservoir back up with the true promise of our country and once again embrace what it means to be Americans.”