American boycotts have only proliferated since the early 1770s.
Every other week, it seems, brings a new pocketbook-protest of one sort or another.
Neither party has a monopoly on these efforts. Goya. The National Basketball Association. Chick-fil-A. Major League Baseball. The state of Georgia. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember who’s supposed to be avoiding which companies, leagues, and regions. One might consider scribbling a cheat sheet on the back of his hand to help himself remember which storefronts are safe to frequent and which a visit to would represent a capitulation in the culture war.
Many of these boycotts are what their critics call them: petty, divisive, and ineffectual. Responding to recent controversies, my wise colleague Jay Nordlinger advises:
Advice to friends (and others): Don’t let politics take from you what you love. Politics can be such a thief — of friendships, alliances, and even marriages. Don’t let politics be the be-all, end-all. Don’t be a “totalist,” as Bill Buckley would say. (End of sermon.)
It’s good advice, I think, but with a caveat. A totalizing, unbendingly dismissive view of the boycott as a political tool — which is not, I don’t think, what Nordlinger was advocating — seems to me as wrong as a reflexive and undiscerning predilection for using them. All boycotts are not created equal.
Certainly, there’s a kind of poisonous, us vs. them boycott that’s not meant to make a political point or effect change so much it’s meant to exclude and punish anyone whose politics diverges from your own precious (and correct!) perspective. The proprietors of Chick-fil-A hold the same position on same-sex marriage that Barack Obama did during his 2008 campaign? Boycott their chicken. Actors assume the rest of us care about their opinions about abortion, immigration, or transgender issues? Boycott every property in which they appear. It’s a silly and unproductive pursuit that punishes only the boycotter.
The frivolous boycott also undermines the more serious varieties. More comprehensible to me are those that target not a group or business that merely disagrees with you, but organizations that are setting out to lie about or harm those of your own persuasion. MLB’s decision to pull its 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta, Ga., comes to my mind.
Commissioner Rob Manfred provided no reasoning for the move beyond stating that “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.” How the Georgia bill restricted access to the ballot box, Manfred did not, and could not, explain. The state will suffer the economic consequences of Manfred’s decision, and Republicans and the phantom voter suppression in their bill will be blamed by many for those consequences. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that some people might want to show Manfred that the pendulum swings both ways. After all, Manfred’s decision was no doubt the product of fear of the mob that would condemn him if he didn’t take action — a mob encouraged by that great unifier of Americans, President Joe Biden. It stands to reason that Republicans might want to show him that the threats are not so asymmetrical as to incentivize him to lie about and penalize one side in order to placate the other.
That’s not to say that I would urge fans to deprive themselves of something they enjoy. That’s a choice everyone should make for themselves. It’s only to remind those tsk-tsking MLB’s new boycotters that they are neither the aggressors in this scenario, nor are they unreasonable in their thought process or demands.
Finally, there are boycotts undertaken with the aim of stopping a particular and eminently deplorable corporate practice. It speaks ill of our political culture that this kind of boycott seems to be the rarest, and oftentimes becomes enmeshed with one of the first two types.
Over the last few years, we have seen some outcry at American companies’ entanglement with the Chinese Communist Party. Rightfully so, as it is committing a genocide against a religious minority, threatens the sovereignty of its neighbors, and unleashed a deadly virus on the rest of the world. The National Basketball Association, which sponsored an abusive camp in the People’s Republic, and the Walt Disney Company, which included a special thank you to a Chinese agency helping to prosecute the Uyghur genocide in the credits of its aggressively mediocre Mulan reboot, are two organizations that have inspired a righteous backlash to their morally dubious activities. Obviously, a boycott is more than warranted in circumstances such as these.
The Disney example is instructive as to how these different categories can become confused. Left-wingers associate conservative criticism of and outrage at Disney with the first, most superficial kind of boycott. Conservatives view it as a combination of the latter two, owing to the company’s treatment of Gina Carano and its cozy relationship with the CCP. They can sometimes put too much emphasis on the political differences and not enough on the more grave moral issues with the company. Progressives are then inclined to rush to Disney’s defense, despite the fact that they should share the same concerns about the company’s abetting a genocidal regime.
The boycott is merely a tool, and its consequences are neither universally deleterious nor rewarding. Conservatives should think more carefully about when to employ this tool, and be ready to defend boycotts they do deem worthwhile from straw-man arguments against them.