Think about the car you drive. What does it say about you? Chances are you'd have no trouble saying, whether the answer is that you're sensible or adventurous or manly or outdoorsy or quirky. In fact, you could probably give me a model or two that matches up with each of those characteristics, couldn't you? And what if I asked what kind of cars liberals and conservatives typically drive? You know that too.
That isn't just a feature of our polarized time, when everything seems so politicized. It has its roots in the 1960s, when the advertising industry realized that they weren't selling products, they were selling ideas about who we wanted to be—and to appear to be. Even before Woodstock or the Summer of Love, rebellion was being fetishized and commodified by Madison Avenue (see, for instance, this ad for Rice Krispies recorded by the Rolling Stones), enabling us to make a statement of identity every time we whipped out a credit card. Every corporation today that produces consumer products understands exactly the kind of person they want their customers to believe they are becoming when they buy those products. Some of the most successful are the ones that have managed to create the firmest associations of identity with their products (think of Apple—just by buying a MacBook you can allegedly make yourself youthful and creative).
But things do seem to be reaching a new level when ordering a chicken sandwich (or eschewing that sandwich) becomes a way to stick it to the other side and stand up for what's right. In case you haven't heard, Dan Cathy, the president of Chik-fil-A, recently made some comments on a radio show reiterating his fervent opposition to gay marriage. The company has long supported socially conservative causes, and their restaurants are closed on Sundays. But apparently some people hadn't heard, because Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel lent his support to an effort to keep the company from opening a restaurant in a Chicago neighborhood, and Boston mayor Tom Menino sent the company a letter saying they weren't welcome in Beantown.
But it wasn't just gay-rights supporters indulging in some culture-war opportunism. Mike Huckabee organized a "Chick-fil-A appreciation day," Rick Santorum packed up the kids and took them out for chicken sandwiches, and Sarah Palin—remember her? She hopes you do—rushed to the chicken chain's defense as well.
I was glad to see that a who's-who of liberal commentators—Glenn Greenwald of Salon, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, the influential blogger Digby—immediately condemned Emanuel and Menino. They argued that while anyone has the right to not eat at Chick-fil-A or even protest the company, the idea that local governments would punish a business for the opinions of its president is profoundly offensive to freedom of speech. Before long, Menino backed off, perhaps after considering the First Amendment and the kind of principle he'd be espousing. But the fact that few liberals came out in support of Emanuel and Menino's initial response didn't stop conservatives from continuing the campaign to make Chick-fil-A the new favorite restaurant for all right-thinking right-wingers.
There's no denying that all of us, no matter what our beliefs, are painfully conscious of the information we project to the world with the clothes we wear, the sports we enjoy, the music we listen to, or the food we eat. We're social animals, and we are continually sending and receiving messages about affinity and identity, allowing us to understand who's in which tribe (and keep in mind that anti-consumerism is no less a statement to others than a Louis Vuitton purse).
But here's the thing: When it comes to the political implications of our consumer choices, conservatives seem much more guided by what they're against than liberals are. Specifically, they're against liberals, and pissing them off seems to occupy no small part of the conservative imagination.
Maybe some liberals who drive Priuses are smug about their contribution to the battle against global warming. But conservatives have reacted to that by deciding that any fuel-efficient car—even one made by an iconic American automaker—must be little short of a communist plot. Aside from a few ironic trucker hats, urban hipsters generally ignore rural America, while rural American conservatives respond with a hundred country songs about how great it is to be country, and how those coastal elites can go screw themselves. (This too has its roots in the 1960s—Merle Haggard's 1969 anti-hippie hit "Okie From Muskogee" created an entire mini-genre of "backlash" country songs telling liberals where they could shove it).
Menino and Emanuel were terribly wrong, without question. But it wasn't until Chick-fil-A started looking like something for which a couple of liberals had an active dislike that so many high-profile conservatives started proclaiming their love for it. Just as conservatives discover a passionate hatred for their own policy ideas (an individual health insurance mandate, cap-and-trade) once liberals embrace them, all it takes to turn a product into a culture war emblem for the right is a couple of displeased comments from liberals.
On Monday, Public Policy Polling released the results of a survey it took in Florida. Chick-fil-A's favorability/unfavorability rating among Democrats was a middling 37-32. Among Republicans? A spectacular 76-7. Might be a good time to buy their stock.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.