Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Why Do They Demonize Latte?

It seems to me that the most widely despised companies operating in the United States right now must be Volvo and Starbucks. Liberals, those much-maligned, elitist beasts, evidently spend their (our) days driving vehicles manufactured by the one and drinking lattes popularized by the other. When we're not sipping Chardonnay, but it is harder to tie that to a brand, and anyway it sounds more French and everyone knows that all things French are evil.
I have to ask: What are the sins of Volvo and Starbucks that cause them to be so demonized?
Volvo, so far as I know, is a Swedish automaker whose vehicles are known for their solidity and reliability. Is there something wrong with that? Or with people who would choose a car based on those qualities? I am admittedly about as far from a "car guy" as imaginable, but I have never known anyone to think of a Volvo as a particularly stylish or luxurious vehicle. Relatively expensive, maybe. Foreign, definitely.
Starbucks, standing in contrast, is an icon of trendiness, one of the most successful U.S. corporations of the past decade. This company has pulled off what I think is a rather amazing feat: Convincing coffee-drinkers to pay roughly 10 times more than they had been a few years ago for some flavored hot water. I will agree that the flavor in Starbucks's hot water is better than that in most; I enjoy a Starbucks coffee as much as the next liberal. But this is a story of capitalism at its most pure. Right-wingers around the country if not the globe should be singing the praises of the little company that could.
So we have two very different companies and sets of products here: One, sturdy, reliable and lackluster; the other, trendy and flashy. And yet both are associated with those of a particular political bent, and their products and consumers ridiculed in the same breath.
Thomas Frank, in What's The Matter With Kansas? focuses on the social chasm between not only liberals but old-fashioned capitalist-conservatives and the new, lower-class conservatives who dominate American politics in this era. His book is about the ways in which this group has been convinced to vote for candidates whose politics are antithetical to working-class economic interests.
And I suppose it is to these people that ridicule of a solid, sensible foreign-made car and a $4 cup of coffee makes sense. But again, they have missed the point. They are voting for candidates who want to privatize Social Security and turn everyone into an investor. Few stocks should be more attractive to this new investor class than Starbucks.
And because this same group tends to oppose abortion, the teaching of birth control in school and other measures that would help to lower the population, one would think that just a little analysis would lead them to support environmentalist positions. In that case, wouldn't they prefer the Volvo over what seems to be the car type of choice these days: Gigantic, fume-spewing Sports Utility Vehicles? But here we get into another class clash, which probably needs a whole separate analysis.
Suffice it to say for now that I feel sorry for Volvo and Starbucks. They are being unfairly associated with an elite that they had no part in creating.