John Hickenlooper’s presidential quest is in full swing now, and the pundits (at least the ones paying him any attention) are trying to piece together just who he is and what he stands for. Apparently, so is he.
Hickenlooper is patterning his presidential run after his governorship of Colorado — somewhat centrist, pro-business. But he also seems to realize that he needs first to win a primary in a party that appears to be tracking almost absurdly leftward, and this is creating something of an identity crisis for him.
In the beginning, John Hickenlooper was a capitalist, and everyone in Colorado knows the story. Even he knew he was a capitalist back then; Michael Fields helpfully discovered an excerpt from his former wife’s book in which this exchange between Hickenlooper and someone named Irene took place:
“‘Hi, I’m Irene Chavez, and I’m a socialist,’ she said.
“‘Nice to meet you.’ He replied without missing a beat. ‘I’m John Hickenlooper, and I’m a capitalist’.
“‘Really?’ asked Irene with horror.
“‘Yes!’ said John unabashedly. ‘But I’m so glad that we’re working together!’”
So his capitalist credentials, it is fair to say, were well established by this point.
Well here we are in 2019 and our hero capitalist is now running for president. He appears on MSNBC’s Morning Joe where Joe Scarborough asks him, several times, if he would be willing to call himself a “proud capitalist.” Suddenly, Hickenlooper is reacting as though Scarborough asked him if he was in the habit of dressing up in bunny suits.
On a few subsequent TV appearances, including Face the Nation, he vacillated between rejection of the capitalist “label” and seeming slightly more comfortable with re-accepting the mantle, eventually settling on likening it to being called “nerd” and “not the first label I’d have chosen.”
Even for a guy who at times made equivocation a governing style, Hickenlooper’s ambivalence this week was enough to make John Kerry look firm in his convictions.
This didn’t go unnoticed. Howard Schultz, the former Starbuck’s CEO who is reportedly courting the idea of running on a centrist independent ticket, said on Twitter that “if even a successful businessman and entrepreneur like Gov. Hickenlooper can’t openly support capitalism in the Democratic primary, it’s clear this is Sen. Sanders’ party now.”
Just so. It is difficult to make of this anything less than joining in on the recently resurrected anti-capitalist fetish that is rapidly becoming the cool-thing-to-do in the Democratic Party. Hickenlooper attempted to redirect by deriding the competing terms of “capitalist” and “socialist” as mere labels and rejecting their use as such. Well, does that apply universally? “Husband” and “father” are labels too, are they not, as are “wife” and “mother”? So, for that matter, are “governor” and “brew-pub owner,” none of which, near as I can tell, he has rejected.
He also fell into the old canard of criticizing capitalism as “not working for everyone.” It is unclear if he was referring to the millions of his fellow citizens, even the poorest of whom live in relative luxury compared to most of the world’s population, thanks to capitalism, or the workers around the country who have lost their jobs due to minimum-wage increases, for which capitalism can hardly be blamed. In any event, capitalism clearly worked for him, so one is sort of left with the sense that he is possessed of the clues, which are somehow beyond the attainment of lesser folk.
Perhaps the criticism is more directed. If he was saying, simply, that there exists such a thing as a greedy capitalist, a stupid capitalist, or a cruel capitalist, well, that is on the order of saying that there exists such a thing as snow; and, of course, the exact same can be said of labor unionists, environmentalists, school teachers, or community non-profit directors. To point out such individual shortcomings ought not translate to indictment of the system.
Anti-capitalist sentiment is nothing new, it just undergoes cyclical repudiation. About 20 years ago Edward Luttwack wrote a book entitled “Turbo-Capitalism: Winners and Losers in the Global Economy,” in which he argued that capitalism could no longer work for the majority because the advent of the computer, the benefits of which would be available only to the few at the top and denied to the masses, who would be left behind in the technological wilderness. This was a rather persuasive and well-received book in 1999.
It was a few years before that, at the end of the Cold War, that the renowned socialist Robert Heilbroner basically conceded the fight. He wrote:
“Capitalism has been as unmistakable a success as socialism has been a failure. Here is the part that's hard to swallow. It has been the Friedmans, Hayeks, von Miseses who have maintained that capitalism would flourish and that socialism would develop incurable ailments. All three have regarded capitalism as the 'natural' system of free men; all have maintained that left to its own devices capitalism would achieve material growth more successfully than any other system. From [my samplings] I draw the following discomforting generalization: The farther to the right one looks, the more prescient has been the historical foresight; the farther to the left, the less so.”
This is the light by which Mr. Hickenlooper ought to take his guidance, though one fears it is a light which is being extinguished in the corner he has chosen.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.