Starbucks (SBUX) Chief Executive Howard Schultz gave an impassioned plea for civility in the run up to the November presidential election, calling it a critical test of Americans’ morality.
Schultz, who is outspoken, progressive, and often controversial on social issues, told an annual meeting of Starbucks shareholders in Seattle on Wednesday that he feels enormous pain at the harsh and coarse tenor of political discourse and growing cynicism among the electorate.
“There are moments where I’ve had a hard time recognizing who we are and who we are becoming,” Schultz said. He added: “We are facing a test not only of our character but of our morality as a people.”
Though Schultz stopped short of naming names, or saying who he supported, he made it clear that he felt that the tone of the current presidential primary races was unworthy of America. Just this week, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump threatened to reveal embarrassing details about rival Ted Cruz’s wife after a pro-Cruz ad, that was not produced by Cruz’ campaign, displayed racy photos of Trump’s spouse.
Schultz has often prompted heckles by wading into political waters. Last year, he launched a quickly aborted campaign to have Starbucks baristas and customers discuss the state of race relations in America. Two years before that, he found himself in the crosshairs of gun rights advocates when he asked that customers refrain from bringing firearms into Starbucks stores, even if local laws allowed it.
It’s also not the first time Schultz has bemoaned the discourse during the current election cycle: last month, he called the primaries a “circus.” In 2012, Schultz endorsed President Obama when he was running for his second term. He has yet to announce his support for any candidate in the current race.
The executive expressed fear for the future of the American Dream, one he said saw him rise from a boy living in public housing in Brooklyn, N.Y., to the CEO of a global $19.2 billion-a-year coffee chain.
“I’ve always viewed the American Dream as a reservoir, and it has constantly been replenished with values and work ethic and the spirit of the American people,” he said. “But sadly our reservoir is running dry, depleted by cynicism, despair, division, exclusion, fear, and, yes, indifference.”
Schultz said he rejected the idea that his outspokenness was inappropriate and potentially harmful to business: “It has been accretive to our financial performance, to attracting great people,” he said.
In fact, he took advantage of the occasion to poke fun at the “War on Christmas” crowd that had severely criticized Starbucks’ red holiday season coffee cups last year for eschewing winter scenes on them.
When Schultz pulled out a red cup at Wednesday’s meeting, the audience began screaming and cheering as he said, “It’s amazing, I pull out a red cup and you know what I’m going to say.”
“It’s just a red cup,” he said, noting that the controversy resulted in 8 billion social media impressions for Starbucks. The company went on to report record holiday season quarter results.