As any Monday morning would warrant, I spent the first half hour or so of yesterday’s workday de-cluttering my inbox, freeing it of Google Alerts, reminders to book my next gel manicure on Groupon, and links to 2014’s hottest BuzzFeed listicle courtesy of my mother. This morning, though, as Gmail appeared before my eyes for the first time in several days, I immediately noticed something was different.
All of the usual suspects were present and accounted for: Amazon, Starbucks, Seamless, SoulCycle. Their marketing emails were as flashy as ever, but all with a clear message: vote.
With Tuesday’s election already breaking records via early voting, and massive turnouts expected for day-of, brands are wasting no time cashing in on political participation as the latest consumable fad.
“If you can wait in line for our bowls, then you can wait in line for the polls,” read an email from $17 salad purveyor Sweetgreen. (The email’s subject line? “Make your voice heard.”)
While it’s particularly disturbing to have a Cobb Salad try and evoke my political self, what’s even more disturbing are the ways this crazed marketing rally is painfully indicative of the current attitude around voting and political participation.
Recent years have seen a host of unprecedented chaos. Socially, politically, environmentally — people are eager for answers, and their skin is beginning to tingle with the sensation that broad change is a necessity if we are simply to survive the coming decades. This said, one can understand why “voting” would be the first recourse for the majority of Americans. We have long been taught it is our most valuable political tool, an outlet for the “voice” that Sweetgreen speaks of.
Yet, the deeper truth in Sweetgreen’s delicately-crafted marketing correspondence has nothing to do with my voice, and far more to do with my ability to consume (flavorful salads, but also empty political rhetoric).
Of every encouragement I received to vote in recent days and weeks, not a single advocacy of my political participation included person, cause, or platform I should vote for. Perhaps I need to expand my lunch choices, but there is also something to be said for the swaths of “vote like your life depends on it!” discourse, paired with a total lack of anything to vote for.
While some states have more hotly-contested races and critical ballot measures worth discussing, the larger effects of this election are inconsequential. Talk of a “blue wave” suggests that the main goal of anyone left of Republicans is simply to outnumber the right; to make some assertion that “we are here!” But what do we want? Who do we want? If we are to succeed, our answer can no longer be “anything but.”
Accompanying these renewed cries to get out the vote is a disturbing sense of elitism and blame, sharply pointed at those who are refraining from voting, or are unable to do so. “Vote or kill yourself” has essentially been the tagline of the ravenous voters, feral with the belief that if enough people fill out ballots, Mike Pence himself will fire the first shot of the revolution.
This condescension blatantly ignores that so much of what requires our political effort involves groups who have been systemically kept from voting: undocumented immigrants, transgender and non-binary individuals, incarcerated individuals those as well as those with criminal backgrounds, and more. It also ignores the realities of voter suppression, currently a major ongoing issue in Southern states.
When voting is portrayed as a product to consume, or a peg on which to hang blame, it’s no wonder that it’s incapable of articulating real demands. When the action voting is the entirety of your political platform, you allow your potential to be reduced — and reduce the political potential of those unable to vote.
Furthermore, we must look beyond voting as our sole means of political participation. Come Wednesday, how many will toss the thought of politics away, considering their job done? Who will be left fighting in the streets and singing demands for real change? It seems fair to assume that many of those people will not be sporting “I Voted” stickers on their lapels today.
Voting should not be discouraged, just as I would never discourage anyone from sampling Sweetgreen’s Curry Cauliflower Bowl (now in season). Yet, we must refrain from glorifying the task and instead look upon it with a somber sense of reality, lest we simply fall into the trap of becoming a people for whom politics are made to consume, rather than a people who make the politics in question. Voting is a right, not a quaint little treat. It is a task on a checklist, not an end goal. The sooner we as a population become capable of articulating our demands and not letting brands spoon-feed them to us, the sooner elections might reflect real potential — an amuse bouche for the next steps of our political project.