Why Voting For Obama Was Like Buying Starbucks Coffee

President Barack Obama’s poll numbers have been on the wane in recent weeks. Turns out this may have more to do with how we see the world than it does with the president and his policies.

Getty Images

In my recent book, Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks (University of California Press, 2009), I show how consumerism has oozed into every corner and crevice of American life and how we increasingly treat everything as a purchase. We seem to think that anything of value in life can be bought as easily as a frappuccino, and that if it doesn’t work right away, we can move on because there will always be something better to buy—even a president.

When it comes to politics, the consumer model has taken over just as our faith in politics and politicians has eroded. But this doesn’t mean that we still don’t want big solutions to big problems, problems like global warming and racial inequality (or at least personal distance from these matters). We just don’t believe these things will be taken care of through the ballot box or legislation anymore. If government can’t save the day, then we think our purchases can, and what makes this path even more attractive is that buying doesn’t call for much sacrifice at all.

Why worry about the political process when marketers tell us that we can pick up a grande latte or a new pair khakis and change the world? Even if the world doesn’t turn out better, we still get the things we want and look better for trying—and of course, there is always another product out there to try. 

Companies like Starbucks have taken advantage of our declining political commitment, yet persistent desire for solutions. On its beverage cups, it promises to help save the planet, and on its posters it promises to aid small farmers in underdeveloped nations from Latin America to Asia.  Mostly it sells, what I call, innocence by association to YOU. It tells you that you are no longer a part of the problem because you buy from a company that cares.  On one of its cups, it makes this proposition quite clear. “YOU,” it reads, “bought 228 million pounds of responsibly grown, ethically traded coffee last year.” (And it doesn’t mention that it is Starbucks that certifies these beans as “ethically traded.”)  After talking a bit more about what the company it has done, the cup concludes in bold letters, “Way to go, you.” 

I finished writing my book just as Obama was taking office. I thought—hoped—that his historic election and the mass mobilization of voters behind it might mark a change from citizenship through consumption to citizenship through ongoing political engagement. I thought maybe Obama would revive our faith in politics and our trust in politicians. And I thought maybe he might be able to break the political model of innocence by association and consumptive citizenship. This model is based on the notion that ideas are bought and sold like goods, not to change things so much as to make us look better. When they stop doing that, we move on to another product.

But over the last few months, it seems we have learned just how little has changed.