I’ve spent a good portion of my working life trying to convince skeptical and bored young adults that politics and government are relevant and important to their lives. Thanks to Donald Trump these sorts of civic appeals are now rarely needed. Indeed, the current crop of college students is approaching politics more with impassioned militancy than somnambulant indifference. Even before my crowd gets a word in our charges are off the leash, zooming around the civic sphere, marching for the cause, and machine gunning Twitter feeds with social activist slogans and calls to collective action.
This puts people like me in an awkward and ironic position. We’ve spent decades pleading with the youngsters to pay attention and now we face a sort of be-careful-what-you-ask-for situation. If you watch the undergrads rocketing around the political arena like unguided missiles, some distance behind you might spot a huffing and puffing middle-aged polisci prof giving chase and yelling things like, “before you start the revolution you should know that some of this stuff really isn’t THAT important.” And you know, some of it isn’t.
Case in point is the growing movement to make consumer spending an extension of politics by other means. Now I love a good boycott as much as the next pointy-headed waffle jockey. Using your credit card to stick it to the man if you’re a righty, or to the gender-neutral, third-person pronoun if you’re lefty, feels good. Besides, as far as political activism goes, it’s easy. Or at least it used to be.
Time was, being politically active with your wallet was fairly straightforward. If you wanted to smack the Bible brigade’s righteous snoot you just bought your glitter glue from Michael’s rather than Hobby Lobby, and went home smiling at the thought of anguished bottom-line tears falling during boardroom prayer meetings. If you were conservative you just didn’t buy anything from any guy with suspiciously good taste and a knack for interior decorating. And, well, that was about it. These days the boycotts are coming on so fast and thick it’s tough to keep track of it all. Food, drink, cars, clothes, consumable durables, businesses of every stripe and hue—pretty much all outposts of capitalism are on someone’s political no-no list.
This makes simple stuff like a trip through the drive-through an ethical tussle for the politically sentient, be they a college undergrad or not. Was it KFC who was anti-gay? Or was that Chick-Fil-A? Before we invest in that Big Mac, where does McDonald’s stand on school vouchers? Heaven forbid we unknowingly scarf chicken nuggets slathered in the sickening sauce of someone else’s political views. This is why entire websites are being dedicated to disseminating helpful checklists for the politically discriminating consumer. Grabyourwallet.org has a long list of corporate Trump toadies for the discerning liberal to avoid. The Gateway Pundit has an equally long list of businesses who bailed on Breitbart and who thus don’t deserve a conservative’s dollar.
We’re getting to the point where consumer decisions are starting to take on shades of declaring Crips or Bloods levels of loyalty. Tony’s getting a ride from Uber? Clearly a conservative. Katy has a Lyft app? Huh, didn’t know she was a liberal. Consumer politics has even intruded into that most sacred of American communal experience—Super Bowl ads. Budweiser ticked off conservatives with an ad tracing the immigrant story of its founder and the go-home prejudice he faced before becoming an all-American purveyor of down-market intoxicants. At least Aldolphus Busch was a European immigrant. 84 Lumber’s ad had immigrants with more of a tan coming through a Trumpian wall on the nation’s southern border. That pretty much politicized plywood and 2X4s.
Liberals meanwhile are putting the full billfold boycott to any business peddling items from the vast collection of Trump-branded kitsch and crapola. Nordstrom’s has tossed Ivanka’s shoes and any fella looking for a red tie long enough to dangle past his wing-wang should probably look elsewhere too. On the left’s list of merchants to cold shoulder is Macy’s, LL Bean, Dillards, Amazon, and Bed Bath and Beyond. It goes without saying that Trump hotels shouldn’t anticipate any conference action from liberal leaners for the foreseeable future.
I’ve got mixed feelings on this burgeoning consumer politics thing. I’m all in favor of boycotting Budweiser, but mostly because it tastes like the carbonated runoff from Betsy the Amazing Incontinent Mule’s travel trailer. I’m also in favor of boycotting Trump branded merchandise, but not because of its political implications. Nope, I avoid the Trump brand mostly because it’s gauche overpriced rubbish. You know, the sort of stuff that looks like it was designed to appeal to Persian pimps or the noveau riche crowd who think gold plated toilet seats are classy. Crap is crap, regardless of whose ideological bottom line it pads.
But hey, it’s a free country—at least for another day or two—and it’s your money (or at least your 24.9 percent APR Visa card), so do with it what you will. As for me, I declare neutrality, I am the Switzerland of consumer purchases, and will say no more. Except about coffee. I mention this because Starbucks has conservatives all a-twitter because they pledged to hire 10,000 refugees. Right wingers angrily reacted to this initiative by demanding to know why Starbucks wasn’t pledging to hire veterans instead. Starbucks pointed out that they already do—they’ve had a “Hiring Heroes” program for a while (they’ve hired nearly 9,000 since 2013) and been involved in military/veterans support long before hawking java took on political overtones.
Here is an instance of what might be termed the Starbucks paradox, the sort of political conundrum these boycotts can lead to. Should those of the right-leaning persuasion skip the Grande mango frappucino to teach Starbucks a lesson in extreme vetting? Or should they make it a Venti to show support for Starbucks and the vets? Advice to my conservative friends: Go to Starbucks, but make your purchase say something about your politics. Don’t get the mango frappucino because the only people you see quaffing such frou-frou libations are Bernie Bros and Birkenstock commandos. Instead, get the biggest cup of black coffee available. I’ll bet that’s just the sort of jacked juice SEAL Team Six slings down their necks before taking out the bad hombres. Sip proud, patriot.
Bottom line is that, as tuned into politics as I am, I can’t quite bring myself to join or endorse all the pecuniary picketing and bucks backing that’s going on, even if it is prompting the back row of my classes into some dim semblance of political awareness. I most certainly could never, ever bring myself to boycott any purveyor of the magic bean of consciousness. I don’t care if Starbucks baristas are all refugees or Medal of Honor winners. Shoot, I don’t care if they all have small hands, orange tans, squirrels on their heads, weep for victims of the Bowling Green massacre, and dutifully respond to Fox News’ muezzein-like calls to face Washington, D.C. and chant the morning alternative fact. In a time of high partisan passions, sometimes we need to keep things in perspective. Politics be damned, sometimes a cup of Joe is just a cup of goddam Joe.