Here's a story out of Minnesota that makes identity look pitifully ridiculous as a means of politically organizing. As I've written about a few times before, identity can be a useful tool to get people to recognize certain problems, but, and that's a big "but," in the past several decades it's supplanted other means of understanding the problems Americans face to the point where you have to wonder if it isn't part of a larger conspiracy to get people to shut up about the fact that they're getting screwed over on a regular basis.
The short version of what's going on in Minnesota is that Target, the megastore corporation, donated $150,000 to a PAC, MN Forward, that's running ads for Tom Emmer, the Republican candidate for Minnesota governor. Emmer is a rightwing homophobe who doesn't support anything gay-friendly and likes a homophobic rock band. So people are saying Target is supporting homophobia, Change.org has a petition for Target, and some people are calling for a boycott of Target.
So the corporate overlords released a statement in response. Here's the relevant part:
Target supports causes and candidates based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business interests. In fact, Target's Federal PAC contributions year-to-date are very balanced between Republicans and Democrats, and we work collaboratively with legislators and officials at all points on the political spectrum.[...]
Target is proud of the diversity of its team, and we greatly value the wide range of perspectives offered by all of our team members. It is this diversity that creates our unique and inclusive corporate culture while helping our company remain relevant and competitive.
Reading that with some skepticism, they're saying "We're not discriminating by selecting a group of you to screw over, we're trying to screw everyone over."
Target's donation to Tom Emmer is about hurting real people
Best Buy, it was revealed this week, also made a donation to the same PAC that Target did. A spokesperson explains why:
Best Buy's $100,000 donation was not readily known until campaign finance reports were released Tuesday morning. At the same time, Best Buy brass sent an e-mail to employees explaining the donation.
"Best Buy's contribution to MN Forward provides support for candidates with policies that focus on issues encouraging job creation and economic growth," the e-mail stated.
Now, usually when I think of "job creation and economic growth," I don't think of Republican policies (or, at the moment, many Democratic policies). Moreover, when people with vastly different economic interests from me start talking about the good of the economy, I'm naturally a bit skeptical.
So I went to Tom Emmer's website to check out those wonderful economic policies Target and Best Buy were supporting, and here's a bit of what I found:
Minnesota's tax system has become more regressive in recent years. We have become far too reliant on income taxes to supply our state's coffers. Over 40% of state revenues come from them, the sixth highest in the nation! The top 10% of income earners pay more than half of Minnesota's income taxes - the top 1% of income earners pay over 25%, while earning only 15.6% of total income. Raising income taxes will only result in high-income earners leaving the state. This would be a disaster. To recover the taxes paid by one household in the top 1%, Minnesota would have to attract over 400 new households with an income ranging from $53,000 to $67,000.
Translation: the only way to get tax dollars out of rich people is to not tax them. It's interesting that he uses the word "regressive" and then proposes a sales tax later on the same page, since sales taxes are highly regressive. And unless it's big, it's not going to cover everything. He doesn't mention which programs will need to be cut once tax revenue is reduced, but does say there will be cuts:
A healthier fiscal future demands that we get our spending under control now. The elimination of wasteful government spending starts with the elected officials who are the watchdogs of the state taxpayer dollar.
That's all fine and dandy, but I'm guessing there are valuable programs out there that he doesn't personally use, so he'd be more willing to cut. He did specify some of the programs he wants to cut to Minnesota Public Radio:
Emmer has specifically said he wants to eliminate five agencies -- the Department of Human Rights, the Bureau of Mediation Services, the Housing Finance Agency, the Office of Enterprise Technology and the Metropolitan Council.
Eliminating those agencies would cut $232 million in state spending -- just 4 percent of the state's projected $5.8 billion budget deficit in the next budget cycle.
The Department of Human Rights is an obvious choice for a rightwinger - they just get in the way of upstanding white citizens trying to have some fun. The Housing Finance Agency is also there, probably because neither Emmer himself nor the execs at Target see high-priced housing as an immediate problem. Why don't those poor folks just sell one of their vacation homes, etc.
According to that Minnesota Public Radio article, 85% of the state's budget goes to education, social services, and local governments. That's where his cuts will have to come from (after he gets rid of the Department of Human Rights and state housing subsidies).
How does having an uneducated and homeless population "create jobs"? It's an article of faith among conservatives that you can cut spending without hurting business, because whatever damage done to the population will be more than made up for by the tax breaks (it's bizarre, since that idea has been tried in Free Trade Zones in third-world countries for decades and hasn't produced results, while first world countries have high tax rates and spend that money on developing infrastructure and an educated, healthy workforce). And that's right on his campaign website:
Our state's future relies on a blueprint for economic development built on private initiative and the entrepreneurial spirit. Strengthening our economy through business retention, relocation, and development in the private sector must be our priority. We must help create jobs by supporting tax incentives, streamlining permitting, and reducing mandates.
Now, Target is already headquartered in Minnesota. They don't need an incentive to go there. So why would they need regulations to be lifted and taxes to be reduced to stay there? Or are they just trying to get more money out of a state they're already happy with and to get away with more things that would be considered crimes right now?
In other words, the economic and business interests cited by Best Buy and Target are basically about getting the rich people who run those businesses (as well as shareholders) some more money, who cares how much the population of Minnesota has to suffer. Honestly, I wouldn't expect them to have any other goal, but it's important for the rest of us to understand that their economic interests are in direct opposition to our own.
Is feudalism OK as long as it's gay-friendly?
It's easy to wonder how much attention this donation would have gotten if Tom Emmer weren't a homophobe but still held the same views on the state's finances. The fact that both Target's and Best Buy's PR flacks assumed that "It's business, not personal" is a valid excuse for their donations to MN Forward shows that, at the very least, their highly-trained communications people assume that we're fine with losing housing and social services as long as it's not because we're gay.
In Target's defense, backing Emmer could have been more about getting corporate welfare for their company, and the anti-gay stuff didn't even appear on their radar. Which is a shame, because it really should have. Maybe they donate to politicians who support their business needs? Fine. But, at what point do we say, "this person may be good for the bottom line but they want to hurt people and we can't support that." While Target didn't know about Dean's "kill the gays" bile, the certainly knew that Emmer wants to stop gays from marrying, and they want ahead and gave him the money anyway.
"Corporate welfare" would be much more benign than what Emmer is advocating. He doesn't want to just hand money over to Target, he wants to make sure that it comes from people's housing and that deregulation comes along with it. That's not "fine," and the shame is in those policies, not in the fact that Target didn't notice his other opinions on the gays.
But notice Baume's specific choice of words when it comes to why opposing same-sex marriage is worse in quality, not degree, from wanting to make poor people go homeless:
but they want to hurt people
Opposing gay marriage equals "hurt people," but taking away people's housing subsidies does not.
Now, I'm not saying that Baume is heartless or doesn't care about people losing their homes, and I'm not really picking on him here because he wasn't the first and won't be the last person to say something like that. What I am saying is that we have a knee-jerk "That hurts me!" reaction to when a political candidate says "I support traditional marriage," but we don't have a knee-jerk "That hurts me!" reaction when a political candidate says "I support corporate business interests."
Why is that?
Because, for the last several decades, we've become more concerned (and rightly so) with ensuring that various classes of people aren't discriminated against. And while that's led to some civil rights advances on several fronts, we've taken it too far and started to ignore the ways we get hurt that aren't discriminatory. When the goal became "equality," and not just for LGBT people but for everyone, then so long as we're all equally fucked over then we accept it as our lot in life.
Complaints about discrimination are futile when it comes to most economic issues. How can we argue that there's discrimination when the minimum wage is too low or when housing subsidies get cut for everyone? There are connections to racism, but they're too abstract for many people to become a potent political force. We can talk about classism, as in discrimination against people of lower economic classes, but that's not really what's going on either since treating poor people the same as everyone else does absolutely nothing to solve their problems.
We're left with nothing in the identity politics paradigm, so these issues become invisible. Sure, pulling housing subsidies is cold-hearted, but it's not discriminating against any group of people specifically so it's not going to lead to calls for boycotts.
A suspicious person would wonder how such a pro-corporate worldview would become endemic (with the opposition to liberal identity politics usually being conservative identity politics, as in: "White, straight, Christians are oppressed and deserve more than they have") and would look to who would have an interest in distracting people from analyzing and being passionate about economic issues.
Is oligarchy OK as long as it's gay-friendly?
None of what I've written even touches on the basic democratic issue here: won't such a huge donation to a candidate skew the election in his favor? Even if Target had given money to a gay-friendly candidate, there is a problem here with them reaching out their tentacles into the democratic process and thwarting the will of the people.
Consider the ad MN Forward is running on Tom Emmer's behalf, that Target and Best Buy paid to get on the air:
If you can't watch it, the entire ad is based on the idea that "government spending" is a cause of unemployment, and promises that Emmer will reduce spending. Now, of all the bad things someone could say about government spending, "it causes unemployment" is not one of them. Government spending puts money out into the economy, which leads to job creation. Yes, there are limits, and inflation and bond ratings can become problems especially for state governments, but deficits just plain don't cause unemployment.
But it's a slick message. Polls show that people's top concern for the following election is the economy, and why wouldn't it be? Unemployment is out of control, and with America's generally weak safety net, that means working class people are suffering. They're looking for someone with a solution.
And that ad presents Emmer as that someone with a solution. After decades of conservative indoctrination, lots of people have free-floating fear around deficits, so linking the two issues as this ad does is a powerful message. It's not true, and we're being played for suckers, but it posits Target's and Best Buy's economic interests (lower taxes and deregulation) as positives for the people of Minnesota, even though they're not.
Now, try fighting against that messaging. The people with an interest in defeating that ideological message (not just defeating Tom Emmer himself) tend not to be in charge of corporations and don't have $150,000 or $100,000 to donate to PACs. That is the reason people were angry after the Citizens United decision: people with an interest in helping the poor or working classes don't, by definition, have the money necessary to run a campaign to re-educate people after folks like those at MN Forward lie to them.
That's a lot of power in the hands of any group of people, whether they have our best interests at heart or not. But is that the reason Randi Reitan here is boycotting?
Her decision not to shop at Target is noble (I hope she finds local suppliers and non-corporate stores to fill her Target needs), and of course I'm fully supportive of anyone who chooses to stop shopping at any big box store.
But resistance is futile here. In the next couple of years, if that, there will be a few more corporations making embarrassing donations, but they're not going to stop because a few people are paying attention and boycotting. The potential financial gains that come from controlling the government are far too great. And eventually this behavior will be normalized, and we'll gradually accept political donations as normal. If someone complains about a specific candidate getting a donation from a specific corporation, the corporation will say it's just business, not personal, and people will by and large accept such an explanation.
Heck, going after big donors might be the new way to retaliate against politicians we don't like, just like some do with media figures they don't like, but the game will be fixed against us from the beginning. How many calls to advertisers have led to pundits actually being taken off the air?
The solution to this isn't going to come from personal lifestyle changes; rather it'll require the force of law to fight against it. Whether that can happen with a government deeply beholden to corporate interests (as it was well before Citizens United), we'll see.
It's the entire lie behind "voting with your dollars": another barrier was just put between the people and the power they're supposed to have in a modern democracy, not another means to power. Add in the fact that Target is the only option for many people after local businesses have been destroyed, and that most people don't follow the corporation's activities closely enough to know why they should boycott it, and you have impotent people flailing their little arms at a behemoth that doesn't need to care, "maintaining their brand image" be damned.
Reitan says towards the end:
What's important in life is people. I love the people in my life. I love them more than anything I could buy at this store. I'm going to boycott Target until they make this right.
How can Target "make this right"? I'm looking around and people aren't offering much in terms of solutions. Change.org has a petition (I'm sure Target is quivering in fear) with this title:
Demand Target Stop Donating to Anti-Gay Politicians
In the explanation for the petition:
Send Target a message now, urging them to explain this donation, and to adamantly condemn the type of fear-based politics that folks like Tom Emmer and You Can Run But You Cannot Hide profit off of. Simply put, Target should know better, and they should do a better job of following their political contributions to make sure they're not funding anti-gay politics.
So they can keep on donating so long as they donate to gay-friendly candidates?
That works out quite nicely for a corporation, when you think about it. Sure, Republicans are all anti-gay right now, but if they just support the pro-corporate candidates who aren't too anti-gay (just against gay marriage, but never say anything crazy), then they're fine. It's OK for their bottom line - they can still work for their tax cuts and to deregulate their businesses so they can serve us poison to eat, damage the environment, and take resources away from our schools, but if those policies have a rainbow attached to them, then corporations are fine.
I think they make out quite well in that deal.
Moving away from identity politics
The standard liberal response to these sorts of criticisms comes in the form of "coalition-building." Sure, there are issues and they're separate, but we have to start working together, and then we'll get things done! Go team!
It's inadequate, of course, because human beings don't function that way. We're generally tribalistic, and helping others if we don't see our interests tied up in theirs (or a way to exploit the aforementioned others in the process) is unlikely to last more than a few days. Most of us have too much on our plates to actively learn about issues that we don't think will benefit us personally.
Instead, we need to move away from organizing around identity and start organizing around ideology. Instead of supporting, say, employment protections for LGBT workers because LGBT people need help, we should ask why we'd support employment protections in the first place.
Is it to protect everyone's right to work? Then job creation isn't just a related issue, but the same issue. Is it to make sure that resources are fairly distributed? Then ensuring a strong safety net isn't a related issue, it's the same issue. Is it to ensure that employment decisions are made on merit? Etc.
Right now it seems to be "ENDA's on that list of LGBT issues, and I support LGBT people, so I'll support it." LGBT is a little island, and other identities are their little islands, and we care about each other generally, which is nice, but isn't enough.
Organizing around ideology would help alleviate a lot of the confusion we Americans have around these issues, especially since it would call on us to define our ideologies, justify them, and learn their limits and their goals. That would already be a big step ahead of where we are right now.
So is Target's donation to MN Forward bad because it usurps democracy? Is it bad because it supports an anti-same-sex marriage candidate, and marriage is good for X reasons?
That's what I'm talking about - learning why it is we believe what we believe and organizing around that, instead of "Tom Emmer said some nice things about that homophobic rock band and opposes same-sex marriage, so he's our enemy. And the friend of our enemy is also our enemy." That's more atomizing, and more easily exploitable, than an ideological understanding of the problem.