The United States is the world's great shining beacon of apathy, a place so free and safe and blessed with material comfort that democratic elections are, in the best of times, a spectator sport for roughly half of all Americans blessed with franchise. According to disturbing evidence supplied by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, however, turnout for the 2004 election was the highest it's been since 1968, with 60.7 percent of all eligible voters, or 122.3 million citizens, casting a ballot. In disheartening contrast, only 78 million true patriots treated November 3rd like just another day to watch Ellen and shop at Wal-Mart.
Even more unsettling than the creeping tide of political engagement, however, is the growing taste for hyper-suffrage. It's completely understandable, of course. This is the era of cultural proliferation, where every year brings a new strain of Pepsi, another NBA franchise, additional cable channels. We want more choices. We tire of our favorites quicker. When the People's Choice Awards allows us to vote for something as trivial as "Favorite Celebrity Hair" on an annual basis, does it make sense that we only get to choose our Commander-in-Chief once every four years?
Hardcore balloteers aren't waiting for Congress to correct this flaw in the system: Having spent their only opportunity to vote with their vote until 2006, they're going to vote...and vote...and vote with their pocketbooks in the interim. Thanks to sites like Choosetheblue.com and Buyblue.org, you can now determine the ideological bent of sports teams, bedsheet manufacturers, airlines, grocery stores—and "vote" accordingly. If you hate President Bush and his Fortune 500 cronies and want to remind them that it's the people, not the corporations, who truly own America, you can stick it to The Man by swaddling yourself in a comfy waffle shawl robe from Bed, Bath & Beyond. If you're one of those values voters who gave Dubya the opportunity to inflict God's benediction on the world by any means necessary for four more years, you can stiffen your mandate by tipping big at Hooters or picking up the latest issue of Easyriders.
Voting with your pocketbook is hardly a new phenomenon, of course, but in the past, the practice tended to have a narrower focus. Colonists in New England didn't like the tax on tea, so they didn't buy tea. Farm-worker supporters in the 1970s didn't like the grape-growers' resistance to unionization, so they didn't buy grapes. Certainly there's an upside to upgrading the most trivial instances of commerce to principled acts of political engagement: It's a lot more fun to splurge on a Carribean cruise or a new computer than it is to finance some professional hand-shaker's latest deployment of state-of-the-art yard signs. Even better, the FEC has no power to squelch this form of political expression—you can spend as much as you want. You also don't have to worry about voting roll purges, provisional ballot challenges, or any of the other inconveniences of modern voting. Making your voice heard is as simple as whipping out your Visa card and charging up a little democracy.
In trademark capital-exploiting-labor fashion, Republicans appear content to let frustrated progressives create and maintain these new guides to politically correct consumption. But while the names Buyblue.org and Choosetheblue.com betray a liberal bias, these sites are ultimately just as useful to right-wing shopping activists as they are to those on the left. It's just everyone else, and maybe even a few Democrats and Republicans who aren't quite resigned to prix fixe governance, who may find them less than compelling. Indeed, since no business in America is crazy enough to bankroll the Greens, Libertarians, Socialists, or any other party besides the Coke and Pepsi of politics, sites like Buyblue.org and Choosetheblue.com give you precisely two options if you want to exercise your political will at the cash register: Brand A or Brand B.
Extending the calcifaction of contemporary politics to commerce is a stroke of genius—if you happen to be a voluntary simplicity advocate. If we can make shopping as unsatisfying as choosing between the top two candidates in just about any election, then maybe 78 million Americans will stop going to the mall too. But even if that doesn't come to pass, you have to marvel at the irony on display here: Instead of critiquing our oppressive corporate monoculture, these grassroots activists are doing their best to turn consumer choice into a strictly binary phenomenon.
And, thus, an effort to bring political expression to commerce actually inhibits it. The marketplace doesn't just offer more opportunities to vote; it also offers more issues to vote on, and more candidates from which to choose. Every day, you can cast your ballot for the bank that has the strongest ties with the community it serves, the discount retailer that treats its employees most fairly, the Christ-centered locksmith. Not every consumer is so engaged, of course—price, service, and convenience still win most of the elections where money changes hands. But why cede the power we consumers already have to make finer distinctions than contemporary politics typically allows?
Which isn't to say that Buyblue.org and Choosetheblue.com aren't perfectly calibrated for these times. The rise of the Internet has meant the death of plausible deniability: It's nearly impossible now to insist you had no idea that, say, your favorite fast-food chain was such a terrible corporate citizen, because the evidence is never more than a click or two away. Still, who's got time for a click or two? We want to be well-informed consumers, yes, but we're also really busy. A truly useful website would track the environmental records of companies, their affirmative action policies, their stances on same-sex unions—everything, in short, that might influence your vote at the cash register. But staying informed like that would take a lot of time, which means there's a huge opportunity for infomediaries willing to dumb down the process. In the age of Google, where easy expertise and snap judgements have replaced apathy as the national pastime, sites like Buyblue.org and Choosetheblue.com are wonderful time-savers: Welcome to the era of one-click democracy!