This fall, I have found myself dwelling on ‘backlash,’ in no small part because the political and economic environment of recent months (and years) has seemed consumed by rhetoric of the ‘fear of backlash’ or the ‘threat of backlash’ or the ‘consequences of backlash’—it has been enough to give the interested observer a case of whiplash. However, as just such an individual, I am equally struck by how, for all of the attention lavished on the idea that Americans will soon react to debates about Congressional inaction, gun violence, NSA privacy misdeeds, budget impasses, sequester cuts … (and the list goes on), how little citizen/voter ‘backlash’ there seems to have been. For example, in March of this year in response to the federal sequester expenditure cuts, Republican Senator John McCain (AZ) predicted that there soon would be a significant hue and cry from the military and from those in the business community closely aligned with the armed services protesting those budget reductions (Ward 2013). However, no organized protest of any magnitude ensued and the cutbacks remain on the congressional bargaining table for this year’s budget negotiations.
More recently in Virginia, political pundits asserted that Tea Party darling and GOP candidate for governor, Ken Cuccinelli, was the victim of a political backlash directed at the national Republican Party in response to the October partial federal government shutdown, when he was found trailing Democrat Terry McAuliffe by 9 percentage points in polls leading up to the recent November state election (Burns 2013). Perhaps Cuccinelli’s eventual loss was evidence of the cited electoral backlash, although it is hard to ignore the fact that the final outcome of what became a hotly disputed race separated the winner from the loser by only 2.5 percentage points. Few predicted this contest would be so close (2013). With an alleged political scandal and a significant ideological divide marking Virginia’s recently concluded gubernatorial campaign, the relatively small difference between the eventual winner and loser hardly seems like a major backlash, if such it was at all, to me.
In short, predictions citing electoral ‘backlash’ on various grounds abound in the current media landscape (a quick Google search makes this clear). However, I am beginning to wonder if the term means what I had understood it meant:
- Some sort of consequence
- Exacted by a particular citizenry
- In reaction to decision(s)/action(s)
- By identifiable political or economic actor(s)
In essence, those predicting electoral backlash view it as a mechanism for ensuring accountability to the affected populace. In so doing, electorate action re/de-stabilizes some existing or desired ‘state’ of the social world. In this sense, such citizen action at the polls is a discursive social structure that disciplines individual and collective behaviors (Foucault 1977) through its panoptic ability (Bentham as cited by Foucault 1977) to serve as a social corrective (or disruption) when the rules of the social field (Bourdieu 1998) and power relations are in contest.
Toby Ditz, an early American historian, has demonstrated how attending to backlash as an analytic lens on power reveals “instabilities in the dynamics of gendered power” in 17th and 18th century United States (U.S.) society. Ditz’s account outlined how “instabilities” shaped and changed the social order of the time as individuals and collectives responded to real and perceived dangers of “manliness under threat” (Ditz 2004). The Johns Hopkins University scholar argued that voter backlash, as a form of resistance, is a potentially important measure of social response to existing power relations.
Shifting back to the contemporary moment, we now appear to be confronting a different situation: what happens when such a backlash does not occur? More specifically, what happens to our democratic processes if we can no longer count on the fear/threat/consequences of backlash by the citizenry at the polls to serve as a corrective to political behavior otherwise collectively considered unacceptable? As evidence of this anomaly, I point to reports of the historically low approval ratings Americans now offer of Congress as an institution. But that standing seems to have had little impact on the recent political tactics of individual Members, safe in gerrymandered districts, concerning issues such as immigration and judicial appointments post-government shutdown. These positions and emphases remain unchanged, or, as in the case of immigration, some Representatives have actually imposed new barriers to bipartisan negotiation.[i]
The point here is not to lament the possibly insurmountable chasm between and among the individuals currently serving in the U.S. Congress. Instead, I want to suggest that analysts examine critically what backlash means as a political accountability mechanism in practice today. I suggest we reimagine the concept as a necessary ‘risk opportunity’ that in some cases may exist outside of electoral politics, but which may nonetheless create a possibility for collective dialogue to contest existing power relationships. Accountability in this context would manifest in the actions of the affected community through the changed contexts and/or relationships that enable or stymie the potential for dialogue. In our current heated political environment, perhaps a realistic step toward open exchange of perspectives is to create additional spaces where people can safely agree to disagree. To illustrate, I point to a recent example of how Starbucks entered the gun rights/gun control debate.
On September 18, 2013, National Public Radio reported Starbucks’ corporate decision to request that guns no longer be carried into its coffee shops. The decision, communicated by an open, public letter by CEO Howard Schultz addressed to “Fellow Citizens,” was published in select, major newspapers across the country.[ii] The executive’s letter essentially expressed Starbuck’s political disinterest in the gun control debate. However, Schultz took note of recently staged “Starbucks Appreciation Days” organized by gun rights advocates at various of the firm’s locations and shared his concern that these events erroneously created the impression that Starbucks supported ‘open carry’ laws. Open Carry Demonstrations are reportedly on the rise across the country (Lithwick and Turner 2013) and the Starbucks Appreciation Days became one such site of protest. Escalating tensions between gun control and gun rights advocates had marked these events at the company’s shops immediately prior to Schultz’s letter. This increasing rancor generated corporate concern for the safety of staff and customers in their stores, and detracted from the environment of “public space” that Starbucks strives to create in its locations. Importantly, the corporation’s letter and decision did not ban firearms in its stores where individuals are legally permitted to carry them. Starbucks’ employees will not ask gun-carrying patrons to disarm or leave when the law allows customers that privilege. Instead, the CEO’s letter was framed as a sincere request from one (corporate) citizen to another (private) citizen to leave their firearms in the car when planning to enter onto Starbucks’ property.
Commentators reporting on this story speculated about the coming economic “backlash” against Starbucks by gun advocates in response to this request, including negative comments on the Starbucks Appreciation Day Facebook page and predictions of mass customer defections to Dunkin’ Donuts (and other vendors). [iii] However, two weeks after Schultz’s letter was published, commentator Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe investigated actual public reaction and discovered overwhelming and cross-demographic support for Starbucks’ position as reflected in a Quinnipiac University Poll. Even more than the evidence cited by Jacoby, I was particularly struck by his assessment:
The lack of an anti-Starbucks backlash isn’t about brand loyalty and it doesn’t reflect hostility to guns. It suggests to me instead that Americans appreciate the civility of Schultz’s request, and instinctively sympathize with the right of a private company not to be turned into an ideological battleground against its wishes (Jacoby 2013).
This is Jacoby’s judgment, of course, but he does point to an interesting possibility for creating a different route to a civil discourse concerning political choices. In this case, despite Starbucks’ professed political disinterest, the firm nonetheless civilly and respectfully engaged in a direct political discussion with specific members of the communities of which it is a part. Despite expressing a desire to remain neutral in the gun control debate, by requesting that individuals refrain from pressing an otherwise lawful claim on its premises, Starbucks engaged in a political act. While the company’s request was limited to creation of a space that could exist apart from competing political mobilization efforts, its initiative appears to have elicited a de facto decision by the broader body politic, including especially those most exercised about the issue of guns in our culture, to respect certain boundaries when a share of its members are otherwise engaged in policy advocacy efforts.
I am not suggesting that Starbucks holds the key to ending the divisiveness marking the national gun control (or any other policy) debate. In fact, this example changes nothing in policy terms, and it represents only a baby step in creating a neutral space for a collective dialogue that could ultimately contest existing power relations. However, without creation of these sorts of places, civil civic dialogue has little opportunity to materialize. In this case, the competing stakeholders’ apparent consent to Starbucks’ action reveals that when individuals are unmediated by lobbies and interest groups, they can collectively agree to create a literal, physical ‘common ground’ in which conversation concerning even extremely contentious political issues may occur. Even if that shared place is just café spaces free from warring demonstrations and protests aimed at persuading those targeted that some sort of economic or political (or both) ‘backlash’ awaits those who disagree with the favored positions of those protesting. This is welcome physical evidence that contradicts the pervasive media rhetoric that says the “political partisanship (evident in Washington and state capitals) mirrors the public[iv]” and that implies there are no spaces for people to explore opposing views without being subject to the rancor and catcalling of advocates of specific perspectives.
This request could have gone really wrong for Starbucks. The company risked the possibility of significant economic backlash for asking to remain apart from advocacy group efforts concerning a divisive political issue. Indeed, recent events had suggested that relatively small actions viewed by advocates as contesting second amendment rights could quickly elicit both economic and political forms of backlash from that group (Lithwick and Turner 2013). I cannot help but wonder, however, what would happen if more companies took this sort of direct approach to requesting that their properties be permitted to serve as apolitical zones of potential political conversation? How might we expand the bounds of public, community discourse if more corporations, as members of their community, asked to be treated similarly? Might we collectively begin to demonstrate to Congress a ‘common ground’ that its members claim it is no longer possible to find? Might we ultimately reconstruct the social field such that some political discussions can actually have the space to encourage dialogue between and among citizens (corporate and private alike), rather than simply between interest groups and elected politicians alone?
With the national political process locked in a stalemate that appears no longer to be subject to any sort of backlash accountability claims by ‘the people,’ but rather to be dominated by extreme partisans and interest groups filtering communication in the political landscape, we must consider other routes to construct public discourses that might shift the social arrangement of power such that we can rebuild the space for civil discourse that has collapsed in the face of polemicized, partisan rancor.
Perhaps we can locate a space for community discourse, one latté at a time.
2013. “Decision 2013: Virginia general election results.” The Washington Post, November 5, 2013.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Practical Reason: On the theory of action. Cambridge: Polity.
Burns, Alexander. 2013. “POLITICO poll: Government shutdown backlash boosts Terry McAuliffe.” Politico.com, October 7, 2013.
Ditz, Toby L. 2004. “The New Men’s History and the Peculiar Absence of Gendered Power: Some Remedies from Early American Gender History.” Gender & History no. 16 (1):1-35.
Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline & punish: the birth of the prison: Random House of Canada.
Jacoby, Jeff. 2013. “A Cup of Civility: A Majority Supports Starbuck’s Request on Guns.” The Boston Globe, October 6, 2013.
Lithwick, Dahlia, and Christian Turner. 2013. The Alarming Rise of “Open-Carry” Demonstrations. Slate Magazine, November 13, 2013.
Ward, Jon. 2013. “John McCain Predicts ‘Real Backlash’ Over Sequester.” The Huffington Post, March 01, 2013.
[i] Historically low approval ratings of Congress cited in: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/10/22/congress-has-lowest-approval-rating-ever. For Judicial appointment battles, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/01/us/politics/senate-republicans-block-2-obama-nominees.html?_r=0 . For recent immigration politics, see http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2013/11/09/house-majority-whip-mccarthy-says-no-immigration-reform-in-2013/.
[iii] See these links for additional coverage: http://nation.time.com/2013/09/18/heres-your-vanilla-latte-but-would-you-leave-the-glock-at-home-next-time/ and http://www.businessinsider.com/starbucks-ceo-howard-schultz-writes-letter-asking-customers-to-no-longer-bring-firearms-into-the-stores-2013-9
Eli is a Ph.D. candidate in Virginia Tech’s ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Cultural and Ethical Thought) program and serves as a history instructor and graduate teaching assistant. For her dissertation, she is exploring opportunities to expand corporate social responsibility into areas of social justice through the lens of state-based immigration reform. Eli holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cultural Anthropology from James Madison University, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Management with a dual concentration in Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior. Prior to returning for her PhD, Eli was most recently the Leadership Development Director and MBA Director at Radford University.