Starbucks has jumped into the political fray over the government shutdown with encouragement to sign a petition, wear badges, and follow a hashtag:
Because what’s most interesting about the “Come Together” campaign is what it aims to achieve from a systemic and meta-political point of view: It’s attempting to politicize previously un-politicized places. The coffee shop. The corner Starbucks. That zone of friends and family and familiar strangers, that place of light roasts and light jazz and assorted pleasantries.
This isn’t the first time, of course, that Starbucks has put its, er, cup-acious reach to work for political messaging. Last December, CEO Howard Shultz asked employees in Washington, D.C. stores to hand-write “Come Together” on cups—the better to encourage bipartisanship. Last month, Shultz penned an open letter asking gun-rights activists to stop bringing guns into Starbucks stores. (“Pro-gun activists have used our stores as a political stage for media events misleadingly called “Starbucks Appreciation Days” that disingenuously portray Starbucks as a champion of ‘open carry.’ To be clear: we do not want these events in our stores.”) And earlier this week, the store offered a promotion—of itself and of, more explicitly, “civility”: “If you come into Starbucks and buy someone else their favorite beverage, we’ll give you a free tall brewed coffee.”
This is what some political theorists refer to as “sub-politics”: politics that play out on a level below traditional political institutions. And Starbucks’ efforts suggest not just a recognition that a store can double as a political platform; they also echo, for better or for worse, what coffee shops were, hundreds of years ago: bustling intellectual marketplaces. Places that were about more than coffee and baked goods and anodyne exchanges—places that were, in fact, about debate, political and otherwise. Places that used their ability to bring people together to join them together in conversation.
I wonder how sociologists who tend to like and promote “third places” – spots between home and work where citizens can form relationships and discuss civic and political matters – would view these attempts by Starbucks. It is not that coffee shops and other such places shouldn’t host political discussions but rather that a large corporation is leading the political charge, not the people. How exactly does this work: can Starbucks sell more coffee/other goods through its activism/patriotism versus how can Starbucks not alienate some consumers (or they have to stick to more bland, bipartisan messages)? There is potential here for a long-term mixing of sacred American values in interesting ways: promoting the public good may be very good for business.
Two other side notes:
1. Is Starbucks really the American coffee shop? It is probably the most recognizable coffee shop brand…
2. Try to imagine other major corporations making such a push. McDonald’s? Coca-Cola? Disney?