Sunday, February 5, 2017

Game On: The Politicization of Everything

Steve reflects on Super Sunday...

Ah, is there any better day than Super Bowl Sunday to discuss the growing confluence of mass politicization, mass marketing, and our ever more consuming culture? I’m all in for the Falcons, and for the record, I loathed the Patriots long before Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft came out for Trump. Which brings me to my point: we are entering a world in which everything will soon carry the tinge of political association. Good? Bad? Well, it will certainly be as ugly as Clint Eastwood and an empty chair.

My point of departure: The New York Times reported this week on the plight of CEOs who were frantically seeking each other’s counsel about how to respond to the de facto Muslim ban issued by Donald Trump. To these titans of commerce, no option seemed good.  On the one hand, a statement condemning the executive order risked inviting the retaliation of the thin-skinned President. On the other, any accommodation – or even silence – would invite a backlash among consumers and employees.  The consensus seemed to be that it was best to issue a mealy-mouthed statement that daintily implied a modest lack of support for the ban and then pray that the internet found other CEOs to pounce on.

A few CEOs, however, stood out from the pack. The relentlessly social-minded Howard Schultz of Starbucks condemned Trump’s order, and quite predictably, a “Boycott Starbucks” movement coursed through the social media of Trump supporters. However, in a delightful turn, the liberal instagramoscenti spread word of the boycott, and urged friends and followers to go order another venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato with an extra shot to show their support.

Welcome to the politicization of everything.

I heard that L.L.Bean’s granddaughter is a big Trump supporter – cancel my duck boots!!!  My knees wobble for the caramelized apple panna cotta at Nougatine, but non, merci! I’m not setting foot in a restaurant that’s located in the Trump International.  Hey, Uber, I hear that you lean right… fine, I’ll lean Lyft.

As a nation and as a culture, we are in the midst of spinning counter-clockwise down the toilet bowl of radical division and animosity, ever-accelerating as we near the drain. Perhaps our departure from our planet as a species will be a curious inversion of Noah’s Ark, in which the Lord warns of a flood, and Noah decides to pair off every homo sapien, one liberal with one conservative, and we will vanish from earth because no self-respecting Democrat would dream of having sex with a Trump voter.

As we all become more political aware and active – a good thing – we realize that “hearting” a cool anti-Trump post has all the impact of a Nerf ball heaved by a two-year-old. People are out there looking for ways to actually participate in the dialog and the protest. People are marching, people are calling their Congressional representatives, and people are going online looking for ideas about how they can actually make a dent. People are challenging others to join in.

So when people go online to look for ways to jump in, what do they find?  One of the first suggestions they will encounter is a product boycott. Did you hear that Home Depot’s CEO is a big Trump supporter?  Hey, I’ll drive the five extra minutes to go to Lowe’s.  A boycott – if swelled to mass proportions by social media – feels like something that would actually make a dent.  

And, in so doing, we make a very significant cultural jump.

Simply wearing your politics on your sleeve is nothing new… people have been sporting campaign buttons and bumper stickers for decades. We are declaring for a particular party in our news and information choices (I’m a Chris Matthews for my main course with a soupçon of Stephen Colbert -- just the monolog -- for dessert), and we already declare for charities that lean heavily (please give to Planned Parenthood!). So it’s really just a hop, skip, and a card scan to the next step.  

The whiplash of the Muslim ban, and the political preferences attributed to major corporations -- Uber and  L.L.Bean on the one side, Neiman Marcus and  Expedia on the other -- point toward a world in which companies must be prepared to declare their political stance or risk the consequences. The well-established tendency of Millennials to place far greater emphasis on quality of life over being a slave to work would play into this: they are far more likely to want to know the position their employer takes on political and social issues than prior generations. Trump’s de facto Muslim ban forced CEOs to come down on one side of the fence, the other, or – worst of all – split their crotches by straddling.

What’s certain is that with this President launching executive orders as frequently as if they were simply oversized tweets, we will see more issues like this one.

With a galvanized citizenry looking for active and tangible protest, the news of a company behaving badly – or well -- will fly through cyberspace faster than the Millennium Falcon on the Kessel Run. And, before we know it, more and more of the things in our day to day lives will start to take on a red or blue hue. There are already websites totally devoted to listing the companies that have affiliations with Trump, and now you can download the Boycott Trump App.

Thank you, God! I now have a moral obligation to abandon my long suffering New York Jets. Their owner – Woody Johnson – is a big Trump supporter.  And yes, that’s Johnson of Johnson & Johnson – let’s ditch those Q-Tips, too.

Geez, if I were a marketing manager at Citibank now, I’d slash my ad budget and hire an army of trolls to get the word out that Chase was one of the big financial backers of Trump’s inauguration.

Yes, folks, this ain’t Woodstock, back in the sixties when we tried to take on the military industrial complex armed only with dystopian Barry McGuire lyrics. This time we hit America where it hurts: market share.

It is, indeed, not too much a flight of fancy to imagine some senior executive at a big box retailer realizing that there is a killing to be made by selling “Red State Soap,” which promises that twenty-five cents out of the price of every bar will go to the Republican National Committee.  Miles or cash back? That’s so Twentieth Century.

Well, why not create the Tea Party Brand, and sell everything from onesies for your infant to dentures for Gramma, all with the promise that 5% goes to elect Trump-aligned candidates? Start looking for real estate for the Tea Party retail store, where every single sale sends a donation to the Republican Party. Can’t get to the mall? Visit, and sign up for TeaPartyPrime when you’re there.

Let’s not single out the Red Team… this is going to be a truly bipartisan undertaking. Why in heaven’s name would I want to walk around with a Levi’s logo on my butt when I can use that valuable ad space to communicate that I am a card-carrying liberal? Somebody, please, start manufacturing a line of clothing under the “American Liberal” brand name -- with 10% of the purchase price going to Democratic candidates who are vulnerable – and I will never be seen in a Banana Republic again.  (Unless, of course, Donald Trump succeeds in turning the United States into one.)

Before you know it, you’ll be charging all your expenses on your special “Blue” American Express Card – the one that gives Democratic Party Points for each dollar you spend, which you can redeem in contributions to your favorite candidate.  And don’t even try to use that “Red State MasterCard” in Starbucks.

While some of this may seem a flight of fancy, one fact is not. It was widely reported that traditional family get-togethers over the recent Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays were significantly impacted by the election, with family members cancelling plans to attend gatherings in homes across the ideological spectrum.  Within families, politics are known.

In the vision I am casting of Future Schlock, we will lose the ability to say “no one is allowed to talk politics at this dinner party.” These days, there’s no mystery about where you stand. It’s all over your social media. I see what you “like,” I see what you post, I see who you follow, and I see who follows you.  I can tell whether you hang out with a swarm of WASPs, a gaggle of L.L. Bean fleece, a pride of gays, or a murder of Jim Crows.  If it’s known that you voted for Trump, you can expect your increasingly militant dinner party partners turn to you during the smoked salmon appetizer and loudly ask you to explain your support for the Muslim ban to rest of the guests.

With the politicization of everything, everything becomes a symbol of whether we are “red” or “blue.” We will morph into a society in which it becomes increasingly required that we publically declare our affiliation, and required to defend our position. Could it possibly be that this would make our electorate more educated? More informed? Perhaps just a little more educated and wary the next time a bloviating demagogue announces his candidacy?

Last week I came across a post written by a player in the Washington think-tank world.

“Instead of criticizing the other side, talk about what you both love: this country. Express your concern and sorrow about what's going on, not your anger. Encountering your anger brings out your opponents' aggressive defensiveness; encountering your sadness may bring out their empathy.”

Unfortunately, the effect that this quote had on me was pretty much the opposite of what the author intended. It struck me as preternaturally naïve.  Showing a Trump supporter “my sadness” is going to “bring out their empathy?” May I introduce you to Steve Bannon, who joins us directly from the ninth circle?

The Trump presidency is triggering one of the greatest rifts in our history; no, not yet at the level of the Civil War, but it will soon reach the fevered pitch of the battle for civil rights, the Vietnam protests, and the Watergate scandal.  The period we have now entered is on that scale. Somebody take the threat level to Def Con Two. Set the flux capacitor to May 4, 1970. Shields up… this is going to get ugly, and if you try to sit on the fence, it’s probably just going to feel like somebody is grabbing you by the private parts.

Will we ever heal?

Some people think that we’ve finally arrived at Yeats’ widening gyre, that the center cannot hold, and that all the centrifugal forces pulling us further and further apart will overwhelm whatever gravity once held us together. Others make the case that the country has made it through worse divisions, and that we ultimately do come back together.

The experience of Vietnam is instructive. At the height of the polarization caused by the Vietnam war, families were ripped apart by intensely held beliefs. As Ed Asner bellowed to his son in the 1977 film The Gathering, “Are you planning on skipping out of the country? Better start by getting the hell out of this house!”

We heal, but there is a moment of reckoning first. Ultimately, we came back together as a nation because one side was right and the other side finally had to suck it up and admit that it was wrong. No, there should not be slavery. No, we should not have racial segregation. No, the domino theory is unfounded and wrong. No, Richard Nixon actually is a liar and a crook. No, we should not demonize our LGBT community.

In a particularly poignant scene later in that same film, Asner stands alone with his Scotch in his den, clutching a photograph of a son who has lived for years in Canada. “You were right,” a weeping Asner hoarsely whispers through the booze as he grips the photo. “You were right, and I was wrong.”

There is no Kumbaya, no Rodney King “can’t we all get along,” no “all you need is love” anthem that is going to bring this country together.

It is going to take somebody finally realizing that they have made a terrible error.  Once upon a time, when half the country thought that Vietnam was all about dominos and that we had to fight the commies in Hanoi or they would show up in Honolulu, half of the country had to stare into the face of the friends who were alienated forever in the emotion of passionate and even violent disagreement, and say “You were right, and I was wrong.”

What history does say, and what is encouraging, is that in all of those great battles – and under the weight of incredible sacrifice – the better angels of our nature ultimately prevailed.

So go out, boycott the bad companies, confront your neighbors, and somebody please steal my idea and start making tons of “American Liberal” jeans.  

If the best way to win is to politicize everything, so be it. If that raising of the stakes elevates awareness, and increases the level of information possessed by the average voter, I’m good with that.

We are only going to come together once we prove that one side was right, and the other was wrong.  

And in that battle – and only in that battle -- I am desperately rooting for the true Patriots to win. 

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