“The working class is loyal to friends, not ideas.” So Norman Mailer wrote in Armies of the Night—in 1968. In the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, Mailer’s diagnosis of American division—drafted in the midst of a seemingly endless war and increasing civil unrest—still echoes in American politics today:
The sons and daughters of that urban middle class, forever alienated in childhood from all the good simple funky nitty-gritty American joys of the working class like winning a truly dangerous fist fight at the age of eight or getting sex before fourteen, dead drunk by sixteen, whipped half to death by your father, making it in rumbles with a proud street gang, living at war with the educational system, knowing how to snicker at the employer from one side of the mouth, riding a bike with no hands, entering the Golden Gloves, doing a hitch in the navy, or a stretch in the stockade, and with it all, their sense of elan, of morale, for buddies are the manna of the working class: there is a God-given cynical indifference to school, morality, and job. The working class is loyal to friends, not ideas.
Today, those divisions exist in different forms. Within twenty-first-century America’s renewed emphasis on craftsmanship and artisanry, the urban middle class has found a new token of its economically elevated status and supposedly refined taste: the craft beer. Now competing for space in refrigerators against the throng of organic condiments and crave-curbing cans of La Croix, beer has emerged as a product capable of conveying the exquisite palette of its drinkers and providing them with auspices of sophistication useful for delineating their refinement and distinction from the working classes.
The urban middle class has found a new token of its economically elevated status and supposedly refined taste: the craft beer.
Whereas in past decades the market for beer consisted of a simple bifurcation—domestic or imported—recent decades have seen a drastic stratification of the beer aisle. This has led to large-scale supermarket renovations, a revolution in US distribution, and the construction of entirely new storefront businesses catering to hop-crazed twentysomethings who now regard beer drinking as not only a leisurely activity but also a way of life. Tippling the stuff is now a gastronomic pursuit worthy of themed parties and its own tourist industry; important and existentially fulfilling enough to justify large allocations of one’s annual income, yet also chic, and fresh, and personalized, and corporate-free enough to pass as a perfectly acceptable habit for a college-educated, socially and environmentally responsible person all too aware of the real bad stuff done by greedy and faceless corporations existing in a distant and ontologically distinct sphere—rather than being made up of individuals who are in fact their peers.
Lost in the melee of mint-chocolate-chip stouts and stiff tripels, the American domestic beer has fallen from middle-class culture’s collective grace. Shelved next to the artist-designed labels of their small-scale counterparts, these simple, logo-centric cans and bottles look increasingly dated, philistine in both appearance and taste. They now serve as an object of disdain—the beer industry’s equivalent of chain food—condemnable for their homogeneity, their mass production, and their distinctly anti-local status. (If one drinks a Busch Light in St. Louis, does that count as supporting local?)
Forgotten are the days when, from their refrigerated perch back home, these beers tantalized the mind’s eye of the American worker caught in that sluggish hour between four and five in the afternoon. Once a hallmark of the American barbecue, cans of Budweiser are now stocked by grilling urbanites strictly for ramming up the backside of a chicken before it’s placed over the flames. Wry craft-beer advertisements prompted by marketers’ attempts to connect with unconforming demographics have replaced those single-entendre slogans of the past like “This Bud’s for you.” The very pronunciation of mass-produced domestics bespeaks the public’s contempt. Names like Busch are now commonly spoken by contemptuous yuppies in a mocking, southern drawl. Once a national staple, domestic beer is now a marker of a particularly unsavory way of American life.
The aim, then, is to call the snarky, supercilious sneer directed at Bud Light–wielding sports-bar regulars for what it is: elitist snobbery.
The ascendency of the craft beer is, admittedly, a perfectly understandable market phenomenon. It appears to satisfy a genuine appetite that was not accounted for within the consumer landscape. As with all products, however, there’s a degree of consumer compulsion that goes on within the industry: arguably very few people found themselves lamenting the dearth of banana-bread-inspired brews at their local corner store before the craft movement hit. By marketing premium beers that cater to sophisticated, socially responsible connoisseurs, these companies create consumptive emblems contributing to the cultural wedge between America’s mutually inscrutable urban middle and working classes. While frankly a minute issue within the greater economic scheme of things, the case of craft beer illustrates the degree to which market-based stratification facilitates cultural and social division. By emphasizing the importance of meeting the needs and desires of even the most idiosyncratic of consumers, these types of industries encourage penned-in and insular mindsets. As our society continues to define human beings primarily as consumptive entities—beings whose identities rely more and more on what they ingest, use, and take in—consumer stratification and political division are beginning to overlap. Consumers in the marketplace and constituents in the polis now blur together into one consumptive unit, defined by adherence to neither ideas nor principles, but by memberships and loyalty programs to brands—both commercial and political alike. Think of the parallels between the demographic studies carried out by corporations as well as political campaigns. Thirty years ago Neil Young aptly captured this connection with a dual address in his song “This Note’s For You,” before Miller and Bud fell from middle-class grace:
Not singing for Miller
Don’t sing for Bud
I won’t sing for politicians
Ain’t singing for Spuds
This note’s for you.
American democracy is now computed by the sums of its public’s commercial choices, which have an alarming way of conveying one’s political preferences while also exposing individuals to exploitation by big data companies working in the service of the highest bidder, whether it’s Walmart or a gubernatorial campaign.
The aim of these observations is not to propose an abolishment of variety within markets in favour of universal products as ubiquitous and free of partisanship as a national flag. Nor, I should clarify, is this a time-tempered, throwback glorification of classic American beer brands. These reflections on domestic beer are rather an attempt to examine the subtle instances in which the stratification of consumer bases correlates with the atomization of society. The aim, then, is to call the snarky, supercilious sneer directed at Bud Light–wielding sports-bar regulars for what it is: elitist snobbery predicated on a comparison between our highfalutin consumer choices and their base and ignorant ones. Even if you dispute the supreme summertime refreshment that only an ice-cold, no-nonsense domestic lager can bring, is it really all that difficult to understand the simple, front-porch pleasure found in a can of Old Style? Can we finally call out those who liken the taste of Miller High Life to piss for being the stone-tongued, mindless pretenders that they are? Rather than buying into lifestyles fabricated by advertising firms contracted to sell the next great IPA, why not recognize one’s consumer decisions as few among many; choices that, despite being thoroughly researched, environmentally responsible, and economically prudent, have less to do with the formation of identities than consumer culture lets on? It seems a good deal of incredulity is in order in American society today, though it appears that it’s often wrongly directed at the opposite camp, rather than the commercial and political entities that delineate those camps. Given the current political climate and corporate toxicity, surely both deserve a little less singing.