Partisan Purchasing

08.22.14

The Awful Apps That Let You Vote With Your Wallet

Does the CEO of your pasta maker support gay marriage? What about the Koch brothers? Buycott, BuyPartisan, and other new apps offer you the chance to find out—if you must know.

Your social conscience: What a drag.

Before the modern information age, there was a sort of justified ignorance. With no political data on the products you purchased, corporate activism largely consisted of memorizing a list of behemoth companies that acted against your ideals. But now a slew of political apps are trying to change that. They inconvenience—er, empower—individuals with information to make partisan or ideological purchasing decisions.

Buycott, released last year, allows users to subscribe to various campaigns, from mandating GMO labeling to directing users to products that actively support the Koch brothers. 2nd Vote, a conservative app, creates a rating of companies based on where they stand on abortion, gay marriage, the Second Amendment, corporate welfare, and the environment.

And then there’s BuyPartisan, which launched in beta in late June and is focused on campaign finance information. Scan a barcode and up pops a list of donations made by the company’s PAC, CEO, and board of directors.

The heads of the apps compare the information they provide to the act of voting.

“Every dollar I spend is a vote,” said Ivan Pardo, the founder of Buycott. “There were a lot of people who thought that voting at the ballot box wasn’t going to bring about change quickly enough, and I thought that voting with their wallet…might be an alternative form of political expression.”

Added Matthew Colbert, the founder of BuyPartisan: “We’re trying make every day Election Day.”

Voting is a civic responsibility and a necessary act of citizenship, but it’s also an inconvenience. Imagine importing that experience into every single purchase you make. When is a box of cereal just a box of cereal?

Information can be heavy. Too heavy.

“What, Cheerios are Democratic? Oh, great, I have to throw out a year’s supply in the pantry,” quipped Mark McKinnon, cofounder of No Labels and a contributor to The Daily Beast. There would be, he said, an “anxiety that comes with not conforming to the ideological norm.”

“You’d think our society was partisan enough without apps telling us that the car we are driving is Republican, the cereal we are eating is Democratic, and beer we are drinking is libertarian.”

A sobering CollegeHumor video reflects on the social consequences of every single activity in your daily life. A group of friends gathers to mull over what to do with a day off. College basketball? Exploitive labor practices. McDonald’s? Obesity. Chicken? Animal cruelty. Quinoa? Carbon footprint. Tofu? Genetically modified soybeans. And so on.

“We could kill ourselves,” concludes an irritated member of the crew. “Just end it all, have freedom from all social judgment, the terrible awareness that came with the age of information, a return to before, when there were no Upworthy videos reminding you of how your every selfish act orphans a child a world away.”

He is warded away from the idea. Suicide, after all, would lend tacit support to the gun lobby, in addition to added energy costs for cremation and the hubris of traditional burials.

There’s another criticism of these apps: They’re facilitating the continuing trend of nationwide dichotomization. America is getting objectively more partisan, and more and more people are sequestering themselves among their ideological and partisan lookalikes.

“You’d think our society was partisan enough without apps telling us that the car we are driving is Republican, the cereal we are eating is Democratic, and beer we are drinking is libertarian,” McKinnon said.

But the political apps’ founders counter that they are mere functions of an already polarized society, not drivers of polarization.

“We’re a reflection of society,” said Colbert, noting the demand for apps like his. (Millions have downloaded the three apps, most of them Buycott.) “You can’t look at the fact that Congress has an 8 percent approval rating and say that BuyPartisan is the cause of that.”

And there is another counter-argument: that by providing information to consumers about companies and their ideological preferences, economic pressures might force companies not to pick sides.

“We’re trying to tell [companies] that we’re tired of [purchases being] polarized. Let’s get out of it!…We’d hope that this would lead to more neutrality,” said Chris Walker, the executive director of 2nd Vote. “My hope is that it becomes less polarized, that people will see that it’s not worth engaging on a broad level…[and] disengage from the culture wars that are going on.”

BuyPartisan, Colbert said, is a “nutrition label for your conscience” that allows consumers to “find out whether they’re buying products that matches their values…What I was always taught was that the way you combat ignorance and intolerance and partisanship was through education and information.”

A laudable social goal! But wait, which products in this grocery aisle support “nutritional labels for your conscience”?

There’s a deep cynicism both in the creation of these apps and criticism of the apps. The brokenness of the political system drives the former, and helplessness drives the latter.

It’s a cynicism weighed down by the terribleness of the world, and not only that, but also our conscience’s desire to act in our own way to alter minutely (if at all) the course of enormous actors.

And there’s no app to lighten that load.