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Friday, January 27, 2017

Politics and Beer in the Age of Trump

I started this blog during an interesting moment in American history. George W. Bush had just finished the fifth year of his presidency. The Iraq war had settled into a slow-rolling quagmire, and Bush had just lost a high-profile battle to privatize Social Security. His poll numbers dipped below 40% and kept falling through the remainder of his presidency. Conservatives weren't happy because their president was flailing; liberals weren't happy because he was still the president. A couple years earlier, I had helped co-found a politics blog that was attempting to overturn GOP dominance in Oregon. It was a grim time for all, a moment of political trench warfare. This blog was actually born as an antidote to politics, a place to write about something uncontroversial and fun.

Adolf Hitler's painting of the Hofbrauhaus
in Munich

Partisan, elective politics is necessarily adversarial; it's a zero sum game of winners and losers. Beer, by contrast has always, or at least as far back as we can see, been a beverage that created community. It brings people together in a social space and its lightly alcoholic nature raises their moods and puts them in a convivial space where they enjoy it together. From the very start I tried to keep this blog out of the realm of politics--for my own mental health--and have been noting for over a decade that "politics divide, beer unites."

In an ideal world, these two realms work symbiotically. We spend the day in our halls of politics fighting about the issues, but retire in the evenings to a pub for a pint together. We know that political choices are usually binary (we cut tax or don't, we enact health care or don't), but that they exist in a larger context of healthy community. We disagree, we fight, but we're family. The context of the battles is our ultimate unity--nation before party. And beer is one of the tools we have of affirming that unity. In a good pub, we're all on team beer.

The world, unfortunately, is not always ideal. There are moments when politics becomes the context for everything else, when it is our divisions and not our commitment to unity that define us.* This is especially true of wartime--the history of beer is punctuated by enormous changes that resulted from bombs, invaders, or resulting famine. But it is also the context of moments before war. Revolution-minded colonists met in New England pubs to conspire against a distant king. Hitler rallied support to a nascent political party in Munich beer halls.

During times of instability, everything becomes a matter of politics. That zero-sum nature of politics can consume countries. When two or more factions agree that their issues are more important than unity, nothing remains free of the division. We may wish pubs were still neutral spaces where we could transcend our grievances, but the best we can hope for is a crowd of fellow-travelers.

Something remarkable and dark is happening in the US right now. We are at an inflection point in politics where that context is in question. For over fifteen decades, we have been secure in our sense that unity outweighs political difference. Things like beer and pubs (and pop culture, religion, business) were safe refuges. But whether you support newly-elected President Trump or oppose him, there's a feeling now that maybe things have flipped. Maybe our political differences will define everything else. Maybe something as benign as beer can no longer be uncontroversial. Maybe our breweries, pubs, and blogs can no longer pretend to be neutral--in 2017 we're either pro- or anti-Trump.

I think we don't know yet. We don't know whether the President will challenge the norms and laws that protect our democracy. And, if he does, we don't know whether our system is strong and stable enough to prevent him from violating them. The last time a president violated the law (Nixon), the ultimate result--it took a few years--was a greater sense of unity and a renewed commitment to the institution of government. The mere presence of a transgressive figure like Trump is not enough to undermine our sense of unity as a nation.

I don't know where we're headed. I really don't want to sacrifice the world of beer and the physical spaces of pubs as refuges of camaraderie and community. But we have entered a moment when it seems like everything has political valence. It is certainly conceivable that we'll have to take sides as beery folk. I'd love this to be my last post on politics on this site for the next four years--and still hope it will be. We'll see.

Interesting times, beer fans. I hope we look back and laugh at how much we were overreacting at the start of the Trump presidency. Be well--

* "Politics" is a vague and broad term and can mean something as anodyne as holding an opinion on public policy. It is often used to point to social justice--"the personal is political." I use the term to mean the actual activity of electing officials and enacting law. I think it's important to recognize that while a vaguely general political view may not be adversarial, a partisan political view is. By definition and design. Americans often shy away from this truth, thinking that there's some way to adjudicate public policy without a fight. There isn't and never has been. The question is whether that fight exists in the context of a larger commitment to unity or democracy or government, or becomes the context itself. In the latter case, the resolution leads to (sometimes civil) war.


  1. enjoyed your article -- thanks!

  2. I am sure that political operatives and congressional aides still gather after work at Martin's Tavern in Georgetown for some non-partisan mingling, to enjoy some friendly beers, and to talk about how much they hate their bosses. It is a timeless ritual and an important part of how our nation is run.

    As much as political pundits and leaders want to drive wedges between us, beer binds us together. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need beer to provide common ground. We can hope. But, man on man, how about that guy down at Twelve Rounds Brewing in Sacramento? He made a comment on Facebook about last Saturday’s worldwide demonstrations and stepped squarely into a big, steamy, stinky pile of politics. Tough to get that stuff off your shoe. If you sell people beer for a living, these days you need to get a political vasectomy.

    Beer is the beverage of choice in the DMZ of our political landscape. I hope it remains so.