“Republicans buy sneakers too.” ~ Michael Jordan
Should we refuse to buy beer from breweries whose politics don’t seem to align with our own?
That’s the question that was raised on twitter over the weekend when a handful of “beer personalities” stumbled upon the fact that certain Ontario-based breweries had donated to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. At a time when Doug Ford is helming this party and appears to be taking an axe to all manner of social service, educational, and healthcare funding, the perceived association of breweries with the PC party was not something to which the twitterati took kindly. Tweets flew mentioning the breweries by name, demanding an explanation for these donations, and even calling for boycotts of the offending companies.
As it turns out, the outrage-machine that has become twitter appears to have failed to vet their sources and, the database used to induce their rage (The National Post’s Follow The Money campaign donation database) actually only lists data up to 2017—meaning none of the donations discovered by angry tweeters actually even went to Doug Ford’s current iteration of the PC party. It’s not clear to me if this means the boycott is still on or if the torches and pitchforks have gone back into the rhetorical shed for now, but the skirmish got me thinking: Why are we so concerned about the political affiliations of brewery owners, especially when we typically don’t seem to be that concerned with the makers of other commodities?
On twitter, I dared to venture a response that political donations from breweries weren’t a new phenomenon and that beer companies very often donate to political parties for strategic business reasons. I was, perhaps predictably, quickly met with a straw-man argument regarding a hypothetical neo-Nazi brewery and, for daring to suggest not all breweries share a collective political agenda, it was implied that I’d probably personally support said fictional Nazi brewery if only they made good beer. Good ol’ twitter. Perhaps we might call this hypothetical beer Godwin’s Law Barley Wine?
And sure, while the inevitable fallout of mixing politics and beer has rightfully come under increased focus in a post-Donald Trump world, this isn’t a new phenomenon — even here in Canada. Today is, by coincidence, the four year anniversary of the day I shared the news on facebook that Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery had played host to a Stephen Harper campaign stop as he was trying to win re-election in 2015. I made a joke on facebook that Amsterdam beer might “taste a little more evil” for a while (disclosure, in case it wasn’t clear: My personal politics skew left. My wife once worked for a Liberal MPP, I have volunteered for the Ontario Liberal party, and my lawn featured a large sign in support of my local Liberal candidate during the last provincial election), but my comment was decidedly tongue-in-cheek: Amsterdam had allowed their local Conservative Party MP to book their space for a campaign event and, when it turned out that Harper wanted to make the event into a stop for his leadership campaign, Amsterdam had allowed the event to happen. I was never a fan of Stephen Harper, but I know Amsterdam previously received help from the MP in question and, it seemed to me that, if the Prime Minister of Canada wants to patronize your business for a publicized event, it makes sense to let him –regardless of politics. And yet, the comments that followed that post four years ago were much the same as the shock and outrage that surfaced on twitter this weekend at the idea that a brewery *gasp* might not have left-leaning political views (memorably one commenter doubted that Harper had ever even had a beer before, hilariously echoing Homer Simpson’s assessment of Nixon)
Then, as now, I was a little bemused at not only the notion that it is impossible that a brewery, or rather its ownership, could ever be remotely right-leaning, but also that it is shocking that a brewery might see some advantage to having a favourable relationship with their local politicians — regardless of party affiliation.
There does seem to be something off-putting to beer drinkers about knowing our favourite brewery might not align with our politics. Like no other industry, we seem to make assumptions about the people who make our beer. I don’t often see equal outrage on social media related to the politics of the people who make our clothes, our electronics, or even our food. Admittedly, my activity on social media is mostly related to beer, but beer seems to hold a special, idealized place in our collective social-justice-warrior hearts. Maybe it is because the act of enjoying a beer seems so firmly rooted in the concept of a shared experience. Anyone who has been pulled in by the vaguely romantic notion of craft beer — local artisans making quality products in our backyard, the thriving community hub where we drink beer and bring our babies and our running clubs and our yoga mats on Saturdays— recognizes that a lot of the fun and draw of the industry is really about socializing and connecting with like-minded people. I think fondly about my local brewery and the people there. I don’t get the same warm and fuzzy feeling about the brand on the label of my jeans.
And perhaps that’s why the collective twitteratti took it so hard this weekend to learn of donations, both real and imagined, of some Ontario breweries to the province’s right wing party.
Now, before I go on, it is probably worth noting that, yes, actually, craft beer drinkers do seem to skew liberal. In a survey from November 2018, DataQuencher polled 1,500 Americans on political affiliation and drinking habits. The results showed what those who identify as conservative actually do drink more macro beer than those who identify as liberal. 81% of conservatives buy macro and 65% of liberals do. Similarly, 59% of liberals said they buy craft beer and only 39% of conservatives said they do.
Also, I will admit that, as a rule, it’s not usually a good idea to publicly align your business with any one political party or figure, especially when the political figure is an exceptionally polarizing one like Donald Trump or Doug Ford. Myriad US breweries have faced a serious backlash for instances where owners have spoken out in favour of The Donald and, here at home, Barley Days Brewery in Picton faced understandable wrath when they jumped on the ridiculous Doug Ford bandwagon to champion his absurd “buck-a-beer” shenanigans.
Still, forgetting the demographics of the typical craft beer drinker, and removing the outliers like Ford and Trump (remember: There is still no available evidence that any Ontario brewery has donated to Ford and, regardless of what you think of Canada’s political landscape, I think we can all agree that it’s not quite so bad as our federal government caging refugees, posing for thumbs-up photos with babies orphaned by mass shootings, or actively stoking white supremacist support), it’s a little odd to me that we take umbrage at beer companies simply working with or donating to politicians, regardless of how anyone feels about the party. Because I’d suggest that donation to a political party is quite a different thing than openly championing said party’s policies and agreeing whole-hog with their platform. And therein lies the unfortunate reality of both business and politics that is apparently lost on those idealistic tweeters: donations aren’t necessarily endorsements, and are instead often simply efforts to gain access.
Yes, donations, like the real and imagined ones folks recently got riled about, get businesses a foot in the door with decision-makers and, frankly, when 2018 donations are made public, you probably will see that some companies you like have in fact donated to Doug Ford’s party — and whatever other party might have some sway and will listen to them. When the government is proposing sweeping reform to retail alcohol policy, for example, having donated recently can mean a brewery owner gets a seat at the table when the conversation about those changes starts happening – or they can have a politician’s ear when they need assistance with their business. Consider a hypothetical: two breweries call on their local politician for help with a zoning issue that is holding up expansions of both of their respective breweries. One of those breweries donated to that politician’s recent election efforts and one did not. Which brewery do you think that politician’s staffer will prioritize when he or she is booking meetings?
Yes, it’s all a little greasy-sounding and it is influence peddling and it lends itself to an argument in favour of election donation reforms—and I’m here for that conversation—but for now, unfortunately, this is simply how things work. This is why you’ll find that most medium to large businesses make strategic donations, often to to every major party, and they will typically follow a pattern: two matching donations to the major parties trailing in the polls and a larger donation to the party that is more likely to actually win the upcoming election.
The other option would be to stay neutral—not attempt to peddle influence and simply trust that the people who are at the table will represent your interests. And while that’s perhaps an admirable notion, it’s short-sighted and, this year if you’re a brewer it means, for example, you’re gambling the future of your industry and the success of your business on the hopes that logical, progressive, and strategic ideas will simply be organically put forward by the party of Doug Ford…
Good luck with that.
The truth then is that it really shouldn’t be shocking that craft breweries have donated to politicians across all party lines. It would, to me, be shocking and short sighted if they didn’t. A savvy business owner should recognize the importance of being at the table when decisions are made that affect his or her business and the best way for a brewery to do that in Ontario is with donations (Indeed, the lack of an alternative method in the form of cohesive lobbying efforts is probably one of my biggest beefs with the brewing industry in this province and is a conversation for a dozen more blog posts). Because don’t forget: Breweries are businesses. As much as we love all these thriving community hubs where we go to drink, they ultimately exist for the purpose of selling beer and, often, in order to continue to sell that beer as profitably and effectively as possible, there breweries’ owners need occasional access to politicians—even the ones with which you might not agree.