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Culture and Consumerism vs the American Political System

Coca-Cola bottles are seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on October 8, 2020. (Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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April 3, 2021 1:17 p.m.

As Tierney Sneed explains here, big corporations are lining up in opposition to the voter suppression law in Texas as many have been over the last couple weeks in response to the legislation in Georgia. This broader trend has spurred a generally insipid and perhaps offensive debate about whether corporate America is now “woke” as well as a more interesting question about whether we should applaud a system in which corporate America tries to exercise a veto over the political choices of state governments. (Remember, it may not always be laws you disagree with.) But apart from loaded questions this phenomenon is an illustration of a broader reality undergirding almost all American politics today, which is important to focus on.

Why are corporations doing this?

The first thing to note is that this isn’t really left and right, though it overlaps with that division significantly. It’s more cosmopolitan urban America and one way of looking at this is that cosmopolitan urban America controls what we might call the commanding heights of cultural production in contemporary America. As such it exercises a strong hold over the reputations that are so critical to modern corporations, especially to consumer-facing ones. Indeed, this premise is really no different – although articulated differently – from a central claim and grievance of Trumpism: the belief that America outside the high growth cities and dynamic suburbs is getting left behind, scorned as backwards and at risk of being supplanted by new values and new people they reject.

But there’s another more specific, albeit complementary, way to understand this dynamic. Consumer-facing corporations are most sensitive and responsive to economic dynamism, disposable income and growth. Growth is an arrow pointing forward in time. Which is another way to say it focuses on the young. Put this all together and it means that in the domain of culture and consumerism blue America is already leaving red America in the dust. It’s not even close. Think of Nike, Apple, Coke, Pepsi, Google, Nestle, major league sports, really every corporation under the sun you might directly buy something from.

There is also the people who make up these corporations and are senior enough to exercise some influence over the companies’ direction. Again, under 50 rather than over, more likely to be in the orbit of the cities and for many brands more attracted to cultural currency.

But politics is different. In the domain of vote counting, blue America is in the lead as well, but only marginally. With a host of structural factors ranging from the electoral college and the senate to the concentration of Democratic voters in cities and gerrymandering it is possible for red America to dominate politics even while getting a bit fewer votes overall. A 65 year old in a declining mid-sized town has a vote that counts just as much as a 30-something with lots of disposable income in one of the country’s high growth metropoles. Indeed, because of those structural factors their vote counts significantly more.

In other words, the domains of culture and consumerism are significantly out of alignment with the world of politics, even as they both seem to be trending in similar directions.

A counter-reading might hold that this is really more an issue of voluble trend setters getting the attention of risk-averse corporate C-suites and being opposed by ‘silent majorities’ who think different. There is likely some of that. We can at least see a sliver of it when pollster consistently miss a very thin but sometimes significant sliver of Trump voters. But mostly I think we can trust corporate America to accurately gauge where the money, the future and public opinion is.

This disjuncture between consumer America and future America on the one hand and the American political system – both everyone getting a vote and architecture of the system itself – is perhaps the defining tension or dynamic in American life today.

Of course, corporate America’s deepest needs remain access to the levers of state power and finding ideological allies interested in killing regulations and keeping taxes as low as possible. Indeed, beyond this, as we saw in the early years of the Trump administration even the most trendsetting corporations rooted in the country’s most liberal enclaves still want to get close to power. Remember those awkward but smiley moments of Trump convening the CEOs of all the country’s tech giants around one table in 2017.

So we shouldn’t expect corporate America to become Democrats’ best friends. Because they’re clearly not. And in any case, as I noted above, it’s not really right vs left in any case. But this disjuncture remains a central if not the central tension point across the entirety of American politics today.

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