By now, nearly a week into the latest presidential non-controversy we all know that “Black Beans Matter." I would be lying if I said that this had previously been a matter of serious debate in my own household. I like them; my wife is indifferent. Coconut water, or "the other liberal juice," as I like to describe it, is the Goya food product that is the most serious threat to our domestic felicity. Whether this has national security implications as well remains to be seen.
What is the 2020 presidential election about? Boring guff like which septuagenarian draft dodger is more likely to convince our NATO allies not to allow China to gain a foothold in Europe? Please. It is about brands.
This is true in the quite literal sense that after months of lockdown, racial unrest, rising crime, suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse, and a horrifying if curiously little-discussed surge in reports of children being sexually exploited on the internet, we are mostly talking about brands: Aunt Jemima of blessed memory, the Washington Redskins (hail Chief Zee!), and most recently, the above-mentioned Hispanic food company. Come November, one expects to see one of the president's less important children, perhaps Tiffany or Eric, in Georgia or Oklahoma fully nude save for a loincloth and a layer of chlorochrous body paint, getting back at the unpatriotic libs for casting aspersions on the Jolly Green Giant’s asparagus. By then one expects the only brand not enlisted in the new culture wars to be something like Morton Salt, notwithstanding the two or three C-list celebrities no doubt on the verge of being canceled for making anti-Semitic remarks about the trademark umbrella girl.
Why do we have these arguments, and what are they actually about? I suspect that in some ways it was inevitable that consumer capitalism, the fundamental organizing principle of our civilization, would be the primary means by which we engage in political debate. Spare me the gas about Tocqueville and civic republicanism: In this country whether you enjoy Chick-fil-A, NASCAR, and Coors tells us far more about your politics than the inchoate views about policy that most Americans actually hold.
This suits corporate interests just fine. At the end of the day it does not matter what you think about rainbow logos or CEOs praising the current administration. Nor does it matter, apparently, whether the rest of the country is plunged into the worst employment and housing crisis in living memory. Goldman Sachs is still going to bring in record revenue. Jeff Bezos is going to keep getting richer.
This brings us to the other, more important sense in which the upcoming election is about brands. The fact that "brand" has become the preferred term for referring to the augmented reality versions of ourselves we construct on the internet is revealing. We are a consumer society, and we not only "market" ourselves but respond to the behavior of others as if we were evaluating products for sale. This includes politicians, who not only participate in the actual brand discourse but communicate with us at the level of YouTube influencers or, as the case may be, aging sports stars hawking Medicare supplemental insurance on daytime television. The Donald Trump presidential brand is as identifiable as Coca-Cola, if somewhat less popular. What about Joe Biden™? It's something of a mystery flavor, but if you really hate orange you are going to peel the wrapper off and try your luck regardless. This is what democracy looks like.
Here is where we find ourselves a few months ahead of the next election, arguing about whether it is a good idea to dump cans of beans down the drain because the CEO of a privately held corporation said something nice about the man currently living in the White House (as, indeed, he had about the guy before that). It is tempting to call it a distraction, but I'm not so sure. The choice between Trump and Biden is, at the level of the individual voter, roughly as consequential as the decision to buy Coke or Pepsi from the corner store on the way home from work. Neither is going to affect the market share of the respective products, much less the overall fortunes of their parent companies.
I, for one, am not feeling thirsty.