Buying blue

by Eszter Hargittai on December 14, 2004

I was interviewed for a Chicago Tribune piece about the new Web sites that have spurred up encouraging people to buy blue.[1] The idea is to get people to spend money in the stores of companies whose political action committees and employees support Democratic candidates and causes. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s completely unclear whether: 1. people’s purchasing behavior is that connected to their political ideology; 2. the blue side will use the compiled information more than the red side (after all, the information can also be used to boycott companies instead of supporting them). Regardless, it is certainly interesting to see where people are channeling their political frustrations.. and how quickly news has spread of these sites.
[Accessing the article requires registration. Bugmenot may be worth checking.]

fn1. I’m glad to see that the reporter quoted me in the right context, which is not always a given. Unfortunately, she got my departmental affiliation wrong. My primary appointment is in the Department of Communication Studies.



Bruce Cleaver 12.14.04 at 7:12 pm

…and 3. whether or not a Law of Unintended Consequences bites would-be boycotters.


abb1 12.14.04 at 7:16 pm

Boycotts don’t work.


Giles 12.14.04 at 7:38 pm

Unintended consequence one. Moral hazard.

Companies main aim is to make money. If a company feels it will make a bigger profit by saying it supports the Democrats, it will do so. Problem is that while the Democratic Party may think that it is gaining the support of “business”, the company does not sincerely support the Democrats. So if it starts issuing policies that don’t appeal to Business people its not going to get honest feedback from these bribed companies. Result is that the message over time becomes increasingly unattractive to the business community.

Unintended consequence one;- sends out the message that Democrats are a) divisive b) dependent on “bought votes”.

But my main question is why? The Democrats raised more money than the Republicans this year and still lost. More importantly (I think) Kerry didn’t spend all his cash implying that his problem was having too much rather than not enough funds. Why does anyone think that raising even more money is somehow going to help?


Matt Weiner 12.14.04 at 8:58 pm

Giles, I don’t think either side worries about using (political rather than commercial) muscle to get donations. I believe I remember DeLay or Gingrich saying that companies that donated to both sides were going to have to stop that after the GOP took over Congress. Pecunia non olet.

That said I think your other concerns are right, and this is not the most efficient way to get Democrats back in power.


JRoth 12.14.04 at 10:57 pm

“Effectiveness” of boycotts aside, I don’t think any of the above commenters have caught on to the central issue – and Eszter only hints at it in using the word frustration:

Angry Dems don’t want to give their cash to companies that turn around and give it to the likes of Bush and DeLay. We (more “we angry Dems” than “we BuyBluers”) don’t see any reason to support companies who work against our interests. Why is this so hard for people to understand?

Whenever I hear someone argue that boycotting – or avoiding – a given business over a moral issue is pointless, ineffective, counterproductive, or even somehow immoral, I wonder which of two bakers they would patronize: Bull O’Connor’s Firehose o’ Flavors or Coretta’s Cupcakes? Put in those terms, it’s a no-brainer. But somehow, we’re supposed to look past the sins of corporations, lest we somehow subvert the free market by considering any factors other than price per pound.

There is a visceral repulsion at supporting businesses that support all of the sickening things that the Republicans are doing to this country. I don’t care whether they give less money to the Other Side; I just care that they don’t give MY money to the Other Side.

Funny related story: when I was young, foolish, and conservative, I would discourage people from buying Domino’s Pizza (run by an anti-abortion zealot). People would ask, “Oh, because of the owner?” and I’d say, “No, because it’s crap.” But I don’t really have a problem with the former reason, either.


Giles 12.15.04 at 12:15 am

Jroth, you make an interesting point but I think that you also illustrate the problem at the core of the Democratic party.

The first question is why would you think that a) business owner should vote democrat and b) if they don’t they should be persuaded to?

It seems likely to me that a) business owners normally, every where in the world, vote for the low tax right wing. B) since they are only a small percentage of the electorate their votes aren’t worth fighting for.

The problem I think lies in the Democrats are still “third wayers” – they still think that with the right policies they can appeal to anyone. By contrast a genuine left wing party whose primary concern was (poor) workers would recognize that this policy line puts them in inevitable conflict with business owners – so they’re only compromising themselves by either trying to woo business, or even worrying that business doesn’t vote for them.


Lisa SG 12.15.04 at 2:49 am


Did you go to the sites? Many business owners do not vote for the so-called “low-tax right wing.”

In any case, I have long favored sending my money in the direction of good companies, by which I mean not necessarily companies that donate democratic, but rather companies that treat their employees well and do not drag down the entire salary structure of the U.S. with their low pay and benefits. The companies that tend to treat their workers well, interestingly, do tend to donate to the democratic party. One example: Costco, whose founder insists on paying a living wage to his workers and who refuses excessively high compensation for himself. Every progressive should cancel any memberships they have in other price clubs–especially the ones associated with Walmart–and immediately join Costco. That’s one thing we could do today to make the country a slighly better place, and at little to no cost to ourselves.

I think that we should expect companies to be moral institutions, and should absolutely punish them if they are not. There are enough progressives in this nation to do these companies harm. The righties already know their financial power well–from getting the Reagan series cancelled, to promoting companies owned by right-wing religious folk, they’re already doing it. Why would they be doing it, if there’s no point? And who else, frankly, is going to hold immoral companies accountable?


Giles 12.15.04 at 3:43 am

“we should expect companies to be moral institutions”

That to me is a vision of hell – if you imbue companies with “moral” responsibilty, you give them moral power. I’d prefer a world in which companies just made things and profits but otherwise stayed out of the rest of our lives. The last thing I want is for the ceos’s of companies to try to pretend to be our mothers. Makes me shudder.


Boffo 12.15.04 at 3:55 am

I’ve found the arguments surrounding the boycotts rather muddled. Is it to punish “red” companies? To make “blue” companies stronger? By emphasizing campaign contributions, the sites seem to make a more specific argument: To shift campaign donations away from Republicans and to Democrats. If so, then these boycotts are a poor way to go about it.

Firms make donations for two reasons: To get favored candidates elected, and to gain access among those who win. While the first may be driven by ideology (or at least by policy positions), the latter is much less so. In fact, the single best way to shift donations to Dems is for them to win back the majority in the House and Senate. In a post I put up a week ago, I gave some figures comparing donations before and after the ’94 GOP victory. Whereas before there was parity overall and the Dem incumbents received the largest share of donations, after the election it swung strongly to the GOP. Among open seats, the GOP held a big advantage before and after. In other words, business PACs prefer to elect Republicans, but if the Dems are in the majority they’ll gladly donate to them as well.

Boycott as an expression of outrage? Sure, if it makes you feel good. But as a way to leverage campaign donations for Dems? A highly inefficient and almost certainly ineffective strategy.


rps 12.15.04 at 4:42 am

There’s really nothing else I can do right now, so I might as well buy blue and boycott red. I don’t really care how effective it is. Spite alone is a good enough reason not to give Republican-supporting companies my money.


JRoth 12.16.04 at 3:35 pm

One followup to Giles, on companies as “moral institutions.”

First of all, ever since conservative activist judges read an anti-slavery amendment as bestowing personhood on corporations, we have the right – responsibility – to treat them that way. The notion of the “death penalty” for corporations who do harm is one I endorse – if the American people can bestow personhood on a business, then we should have just as much right to rescind. Horrifying? Potentially, yes. Give up your claim to the 14th Amendment, and I’ll give up my claim over your existence.

Aside from that rather radical (absurd?) stance, it’s no use, giles, pretending that companies can be anything other than moral actors. Just as no reporter can be “unbiased” in his reportage, no company can avoid making decisions with moral impacts. The thought of CEOs dictating employees’ personal lives is old-fashioned and, indeed horrifying, but of course it’s also contemporary reality. When WalMart chooses to place health insurance beyond the reach of all but a few employees, they are making a profoundly (im)moral decision, one that resonates deeply into a society that will have to pay dearly for emergency care for ailments that should have been prevented, had the victims had the means to address them.

It’s like Libertarians pretending they can act without impacting others. We’re all in a society together, and it does no good to act as if we’re not, because we find the implications hellish.


Val Ann C 12.17.04 at 4:41 am

Given where I live, my one vote has no impact in a presidential election. However, I am aware of the influence of every spending choice that I make. It’s not just about buying blue or red. It’s about supporting local merchants and farmers. Choosing products that have less environmental impact. Deciding if I will spend more for “made in the usa”…if I will do business with the PRC. Choosing recycled paper products. Buying second-hand instead of new. Buying decisions make one’s individual imprint on our culture and environment.

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