Starbucks Is a Case Study in Liberal Politics

Evidently I'm a little late: I had no idea Starbucks is liberal. "Flaming liberal," as my friend's husband, who works for Starbucks, confirmed. The entire concept of a "liberal business" is rather laughable -- and is, for those of you who don't know, the reason Starbucks ran into a bit of trouble earlier this year. Apparently their concept of full health benefits for all employees -- even if the employee only works one shift a week -- went south.


I didn't know any of this when I read Michael Gates Gill's How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Child of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else last week. I read it on the way home from a family trip -- while my husband drove. It didn't take long for a spirited conversation to ensue.

There are two main angles of this book -- one is Starbucks' political bent, and the other is the book's message: that hard work, humility, and respect comprise the underpinning of a happy and satisfying life. Put another way: Money and prestige can actually harm one's ability to find happiness. I will blog about this second point later this week.

While I loved (and wholeheartedly agree) with the author's message, I had to chuckle at Starbucks' environment. Starbucks has been enormously successful, of course. I never thought about why it was; but having now immersed myself in its mission, there's no question its success is due to the way they treat their customers -- whom they prefer to call "guests." (Here's the onset of the liberal underbelly: creating terminology that has a feel-good ring to it. In fact at one point, Crystal, the author's manager, even stresses the importance of feeling good.) When Starbucks' "guests" come in to the store, they're not viewed as just another ching-ching in the register; they're talked to as if they're guests as a party. The employees -- excuse me, "partners," they're called (more liberalness) -- ask the guests about their lives, and the guests are all too willing to share, as people often do.

Despite my caustic attitude, I concede the concept works. In fact I know it does because I once managed a cafe in New Jersey and the mission was roughly the same. People loved to come in to purchase their lunch to go not just b/c the food was great but because the owner and I chatted at length with them about their lives. Most people come to public spaces like Starbucks not because they can't make a decent cup of coffee on their own but because they're social animals. They like to chat, be around like-minded people, talk about themselves -- and have people show a vested interest in them. In many cases, places like Starbucks replace what people can't get at home.

This was certainly the case for author Michael Gill. Starbucks filled a void that was lacking in his personal life. Starbucks became his life, so much so that a simple move from 93rd and Broadway in Manhattan to another store in suburban New York prompted the author to write parting poems for his co-workers and even the customers. Feeling good at work replaced his loneliness at home -- and Starbucks was happy to oblige. Moreover, "partners" at Starbucks insist on treating one another with kid gloves, as though one's emotional stability is so fragile it will break at the slightest misstep. (My friend's husband told me of the time he said something self-deprecating -- he was being funny; he's a perfectly confident person -- and the higher ups at Starbucks quickly assured him that he is too wonderful, as in, "Don't say such things about yourself!") Whether this hyper-concern for confidence building, or getting too close for comfort, was part of the reason the company floundered this year, I don't know. But I wouldn't be surprised. A dynamic like this is about as sound as sleeping with one's boss.

Bottom line: Starbucks is a case study in liberal politics -- and it took a nose dive specifically because of its socialist tendencies.

Just like Obama's popularity.

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