Everything is political these days. Every single decision.
Consider: Republicans boycotting “Hamilton.” Democrats boycotting Yuengling. Five weeks after the end of a bitter presidential election, it hasn’t ended at all: It’s merely reached a new phase in which the things we buy are seen as surrogates for the people we voted for.
Last week, the cereal company Kellogg announced that it would cease advertising on right-leaning news site Breitbart. The site “did not align with our values,” Kellogg’s said. A responding Breitbart statement called the decision “as un-American as it gets,” and demanded a boycott. In a flash, Frosted Flakes became a “liberal” breakfast, and pantries became battlegrounds.
On the same day, a news article went viral alleging that Chip and Joanna Gaines, popular hosts of an HGTV design show, attended a church whose pastor opposed same-sex marriage. Liberal viewers began debating whether they should watch the show, which until then had been a soothing apolitical retreat for aficionados of shiplap wood siding.
Consider: A new app, Boycott Trump, allows users to weed out businesses that have even loose ties to President-elect Donald Trump’s empire. KitchenAid, the popular appliance maker, is on the list – they’re scheduled to sponsor a golf tournament at a Trump course. Nike is, too; the company has a flagship store in Trump Tower. “If you want to support Trump, you are embracing every statement he’s made and every regressive policy to come out of his administration,” explains Nathan Lerner, whose organization, the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, created the app.
Boycott Trump has a counterpart in the conservative American Family Association’s Naughty or Nice list, which offers shopping guidance based on which retailers are “Merry Christmas”-friendly. Avoid PetSmart, the list suggests. Choose Banana Republic over the Gap.
Setting aside whether these boycotts are effective in terms of sales (a product that becomes the scourge of the right is bound to become the darling of the left), one wonders whether they are effective in terms of our national future. In this fractured, limping mess of a country, whose inhabitants are struggling to not punch one another’slights out, much less to have a civil conversation – if we can’t even eat the same cereal, then where does that leave us?
A brief time-lapse of America’s tectonic divide: Forty years ago, at the time of the presidential election in 1976, only about 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide counties,” in which one candidate had won the county’s vote by more than 20 percentage points. The vast majority of the country, according to demographic data, lived in politically diverse locales, where liberals and conservatives worshiped, dined, bowled, shopped and attended school together. Four election cycles later in 1992, the landslide county proportion had increased to 38 percent. In 2012, it was nearly 50 percent, and today, just four years later, it’s increased 10 more percentage points. Now, 60 percent of Americans live in landslide counties.
Or, to put it another way: Democrats and Republicans are essentially foreign exchange students in one another’s homelands.
“We used to have crosscutting political identities,” says Lily Mason, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s government and politics department. “Your political opponents were not necessarily racially different than you, and you might have shared some interests.” Now, Mason says, more people have what’s known as a “mega-partisan identity”: Their political beliefs are the umbrella that covers every other aspect of their identity. Republicans largely share the same race, Zip code and hobbies as other Republicans, as Democrats do with Democrats.
“It was once considered impolite to bring up politics at dinner parties because it could start a fight,” Mason says. “But now it’s probably just fine, because you didn’t invite someone to your dinner party if they believe something different from you to begin with.”
Mason brings up all of the news articles that ran before Thanksgiving offering advice on how to get along – for one day only – with relatives who didn’t vote the same way as you.
“Those dinners used to happen all the time,” she says. “But now the holidays are the last frontier of having to get along with other people.”
The country isn’t merely polarized; it’s now “affectively polarized,” a social science term meaning that people don’t merely disagree with one another; they actively dislike one another. A 2014 Stanford study revealed that partisans discriminate against opposing partisans “to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race.” They dislike each other freely, they dislike each other frequently, and – rather than being tempered by the social mores that make racial or religious discrimination frowned upon – they dislike each other with pride.
In the middle of this very real rancor and divisiveness: Frosted Flakes.
As trite as the subject matter seems, products have always been a way for people to politically identify themselves, even if the consumers weren’t doing so intentionally. A recent data analytics survey by the advertising technology company Viant discovered some of the more unlikely differences in the ways that Democrats and Republicans shop: Democrats are 97 percent more likely to watch scary movies, and 140 percent more likely to buy Ajax detergent than Republicans. Republicans watch 68 percent more romantic comedies, are 70 percent more likely to drink Coke Zero, and are 41 percent more likely to own dogs.
Many of these apparently random distinctions actually have logical explanations. Take the dog example, says Rick Bruner, Viant’s vice president of data and analytics. Democrats are more likely to live in small urban spaces without yards. It’s not that liberals don’t like dogs; they just don’t have as much room for them. Therefore people in, say, Missoula are more likely to buy dog food than people in, say, Manhattan. Geographic differences can also help explain why conservatives and liberals might buy different kinds of cars or different kinds of clothes.
What’s a little unusual about the latest round of consumer boycotts is how intentional they are. They are not because of geographic happenstance. They are because of a concerted effort by people trying surround themselves only by products and entertainment that support their belief systems.
Is KitchenAid a better brand if you live in Missoula vs. Manhattan? No. It’s only a better product in that buying one or boycotting one may give you a sense of political self-worth.
“What is interesting to me is that self-expression now becomes the primary way that people engage in politics,” says Bill Bishop, whose book “The Big Sort” outlines the cultural divisions between Republican and Democratic America, and whose research provided some of the landslide county data. This self-expression-as-politics has been bubbling for a while. Social scientists began predicting it in the 1970s. Those researchers speculated that people would “have less trust in authority and standard ways of engaging in civic life,” Bishop says. “They would vote less, but protest and boycott more. Now we have an app for that.”
I boycott, therefore I am.
“But I think we’re already separate,” Bishop says. He follows up a few minutes later with a two-line email, illustrating how many kinds of products, for no logical reason, are already identified as liberal vs. conservative.
“How many HRC voters go to Appleby’s, for example? What, a liberal is going to say, ‘I’m boycotting camo clothing’?”
So here we are, eyeing each other suspiciously, stuck. In America, we do not live among people with diverse political opinions. We don’t read the same news – sometimes, we don’t even deal with the same set of facts. We cannot bond over television because for the most part we are not watching the same shows; we cannot bond over shared interests because we don’t share any. When we come across someone who disagrees with us, we swiftly unfriend them on Facebook.
And so we separate ourselves further: geographic silos, informational silos, behavioral silos, consumer silos.
The one thing that social scientists know about bridging ideological gaps between people is that familiarity helps. Contact helps. When someone spends time with an ideologically opposing person, but discovers that they have other things in common, that helps.
And that is the opposite of what is happening.
“You’re creating a bubble that you’re already in,” says Mason, the U-Md. professor. “You’re making it stronger and more opaque.”
There are precious few things that all of us can agree on – the joy of a good sneaker, a good breakfast, a good movie – and instead of tending these cultural bridges, in the event that we one day decide to cross them and visit one another’s bubbles, we are burning them down.
Which is not to say that people should not engage in boycotts based on their strongly held beliefs. Or that people should put up with Facebook friends whose views are abhorrent. Or that every Republican should be forced to spend a semester abroad in San Francisco.
But we should be aware that cereal is not just cereal. It’s one of the last points of contact we share in the country. We should be aware of how divided we are, and know that we can dig ourselves further in, or we can dig ourselves out. Either way it will be long and laborious and happen by the spoonful.