The best thing you can do for your community is to divorce yourself from the culture wars that are currently raging in American economic life.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve almost certainly noticed the bizarre way in which the push and pull of American politics has colonized traditionally apolitical spaces of life. Case-in-point: The knock-down-drag-out brawl between the increasingly monolithic American left and American right has gradually taken over things as simple as where you get your sandwiches.
For years, to name an obvious example, Chick-Fil-A has been mutating into a dog whistle for the right. About five years ago, Allen West, the retired Lieutenant Colonel turned conservative commentator, posted a clickbait story about a police officer who was turned away by an overzealous barista at Starbucks. This was right after the murder of Eric Garner. Some young barista refused to take the officer’s order and made a snide comment about how “all cops are bad.”
Alan West seized on the occasion and launched into a broadside against Starbucks, writing, “Here is one more reason why you should get your coffee at Chick-Fil-A.”
If you found that anecdote tiresome, you are not alone.
In very much the same way, about 10 years ago, Chick-Fil-A became the focus of a massive media blitz after Dan Cathy answered a direct question from a reporter. He was asked, “Do you support marriage equality?” – it was 2012, and every public figure of any stripe had to field questions of that sort, as a rite of passage, it seems. Cathy responded with “We are very supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We intend to stay the course. We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”
Rather than the usual, “Dan’s gonna Dan,” a firestorm ignited. Several groups called for a boycott of Chick-Fil-A. Several mayors vowed to block the building of any new Chick-Fil-A restaurants in their cities. Mike Huckabee declared a certain weekday in August to be “Chick-Fil-A day,” and encouraged all Christians to patronize Chick-Fil-A as a show of support. Several LGBTQ+ advocacy groups staged their own “Chick-Fil-A day,” encouraging gay couples to go to Chick-Fil-A together, fill up the restaurant at a certain time, and publicly make out in their booths.
Within the last few months, Burger King has tried to frame itself as the anti-Chick-Fil-A, launching a new “Burger King Chicken Sandwich,” expressly marketed to those who disapprove of Chick-Fil-A’s socially conservative leadership. Burger King vowed to donate a portion of the profits from every chicken sandwich to LGBTQ+ advocacy groups – specifically on Sundays, when Chick-Fil-A is typically closed.
All of this is to say, our political tug of war has taken over realms of life you would generally think of as apolitical. Your chicken sandwich is now, for some reason, a cog in the culture war machine.
Now, this is a deeply malignant trend in and of itself, but it becomes significantly worse when you consider the way that the invasion of the culture war into every corner of the economic sphere threatens to further decimate the very modest foothold that local businesses, local ownership, local production has managed to maintain in the American economy. The culture war is killing localism.
This is disastrous, because localism is vital. The unstoppable march of globalization has made the average American community so radically dependent on imports that we could not sustain ourselves if we suddenly lost the ability to transport goods across vast distances. In other words, most of our communities are no longer even basically self-sufficient. Thus, it is imperative that we re-localize our economies. That means that most people, most of the time, need to get most of their goods and services from local producers or through locally-owned businesses.
“Whether Culture War Consumption Habits run from left-to-right or right-to-left, the end result is the same: You ditch your local provider whose cultural politics revolt you in favor of a Big Multi-State/National Corporation Who Caters To Your Values. The trend is malignant from both directions. They’re both killing us.”
But localism isn’t just about staving off the potential disasters that come when local communities allow their self-sufficiency to wither. It’s also about restoring dignity to the community itself. Localism works toward rehumanizing your city. Whereas the weekly trip to the grocery store tends to isolate you from other customers, herding you into cramped aisles and through the checkout line, a trip downtown to the scattered storefronts selling homemade candles, self-roasted coffee, farm fresh beef cuts and sweet potatoes and beyond thrusts you into the life of the city. You meet the members of your community face to face, beyond the boxed off picket fences of your suburban enclave. The drudgery of shopping gives way to the joy of community as you become friends with the guy who sells you produce, the lady who makes your Christmas cards, the dairy farmer who sells you whole milk. Shopping locally is about strengthening your community to the point that it can support itself without relying on imports, yes. But it’s also about strengthening your bond to your local community by choosing to become dependent on the farmers, vendors, and artisans available to you therein. Localism is vital; it’s also beautiful.
The culture war’s vice grip over our shopping habits sabotages this re-localization process, though. Of course, it’s not immediately evident in the Chick-Fil-A versus Starbucks versus Burger King scenario, since those are all multi-national corporations but it should be immediately obvious when you think about, say, your local farmer, or shop owner, or restaurateur.
A couple of years ago, my wife and I were headed to a popular local ice cream shop here in North Carolina. We invited our friend – whom I will call “Alexis” – to come with us. She declined our invitation rather ceremoniously, texting back (in ALL CAPS) that she would not be patronizing this particular ice cream shop because she refused to support the owner, a man whom I will call “Butch,” who is apparently a bit infamous for sharing his politically conservative takes on current events through his personal Facebook page.
Alexis sent us a long line of screenshots (which she for some reason had in her possession already) posting in favor of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, immigration restrictions, the death penalty, and other things from the Right-Wing Greatest Hits Reel.
So we went and got ice cream alone. Butch was there. We talked about baseball.
To recap: Our friend Alexis refused to patronize her local ice cream shop because the owner of the shop was on the opposite side of the culture war. I assume she patronizes the Ben and Jerry’s in Raleigh instead. This is emblematic of the way that the culture war breaks our communal bonds and harms us. It sabotages nearly all attempts to re-localize our shopping habits by aggressively laying on the pressure to “vote with our dollars” in a way that props up “woke businesses” and puts businesses run by people we deem regressive out of business. So: “Starbucks has a generous benefits policy in place for the partners of their LGBTQ+ employees – therefore, it’s good to patronize Starbucks.” But the owner of the local coffee shop is a lifelong Republican, and probably a tad homophobic, so you should steer clear of her business – “Vote with your dollars.” Put her out of business. “Ben and Jerry’s publicly promotes a large group of progressive social causes, so you should reward Ben and Jerry’s with your patronization.” But your local ice cream shop, run by a somewhat unpleasant right wing loud-mouth, is best left to rot.
We could do this all day: The Girl with the local honey stand at the farmers market is a conspiracy theorist who believes that the COVID vaccine changes your DNA, mutates you, turns you into something other than human. I told her, back in May of 2021, that I had just gotten my first shot and would be getting my second shot within a few weeks, so I would let her know if I grew any tentacles. According to the all-consuming logic of the culture war, I should be looking for a different source for my local honey – one that didn’t traffic in regressive and clearly errant beliefs. The man who runs the local General Store believes that the COVID vaccine is a preparatory measure meant to pave the way for the Mark Of The BeastTM. That’s ridiculous, obviously, but by the all-consuming logic of the culture war, I should be looking for somewhere else to buy my goods – I should switch over to Trader Joe’s instead of the local General Store.
The hamster wheel never ends: I should be getting my produce from a multi-state grocery chain that dutifully donates to NPR. I should be buying my meat from a large conglomerate whose selling point is their “cruelty free” practices, and have my “cruelty free” meat shipped in from seven states away.
This trend cuts the other way, too: The Allen Wests of the world want you to loyally patronize Black Rifle Coffee Company, which brands itself as a bastion of conservative values, and boycott the coffee roaster who lives in your downtown district but has a CoeXisT tramp stamp. Whether Culture War Consumption Habits run from left-to-right, as I have catalogued above, or right-to-left, the end result is the same: You ditch your local provider whose cultural politics revolt you in favor of a Big Multi-State/National Corporation Who Caters To Your Values. The trend is malignant from both directions. They’re both killing us.
All of this is to say that what the culture war has done, essentially, is give massive multinational operations of the world an unqualified vote of support. What the culture war has done is apply an immense degree of pressure on local consumers to patronize exclusively businesses that publicly rep the faux-Progressive or faux-Conservative values that the corporation boards already hold, to punish wrongthink by voting with your feet. That means that if you allow the culture war to take over your shopping habits, what’s probably going to happen is that you are going to pull out of any meaningful relationship with the locally-owned businesses in your area and instead cling to massive corporations who tick all the right political boxes but siphon money from your community and choke out your local economy.
Don’t do that. Don’t let the culture war kill your community.
Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.
James G Hanink
Thanks for the important connection with localism!