Why you should care

Want to make a political impact every day? You can start with the brands of food you buy.

Have you ever wondered if your buying choices are in line with your politics? It’s enough to make you feel a little confused and even guilty. Is your favorite cereal helping to finance a party you don’t support? Does that cosmetic company lobby for something you don’t stand for? The way you spend your money has political consequences. Who needs to overthink this while shopping for dinner?

Not surprising, there are apps for that, designed to help shoppers make sure their purchasing aligns with their parties.

One app lets you track “campaigns” around issues you care about — from freedom of expression and LGBT rights to foreign policy.

Want to know about a company’s political donation record? BuyPartisan, developed by former Capitol Hill staffer Matthew Colbert, allows you to scan the barcode of any grocery item and find out how much money the company and its CEO gave to political parties in the past 10 years. The data, displayed in a pie chart, is sourced from nonpartisan, nonprofit groups who track money and lobbying in American politics.

Another app goes deeper. Beyond political donations, Buycott lets you set up specific “campaigns” around issues you care about — from freedom of expression and LGBT rights to foreign policy. So when you scan an item that conflicts with your campaign against EU laws, the message “You are avoiding this product” will pop up on your screen. The app’s main goal is “to help consumers vote with their wallets,” explains founder Ivan Pardo. “We want to peel back the layers of carefully crafted marketing and reveal the true nature of a product” to consumers.

Spoiler alert: Those using partisan consumerism apps for the first time might be surprised to know just how much politics go into their shopping carts. While some might be relieved to find out that their beloved Cheerios gives most of its political donations to Republicans or that Starbucks donates nearly exclusively to Democrats, other brands might hold bigger surprises. For example, not all the goods at Whole Foods are produced by Democrat-supporting companies. That Naked Juice Kale Blazer is actually Republican, and so is Newman’s Own olive oil, despite the fact that Paul Newman was a lifelong Democrat. Go figure.

Isn’t it a bad idea to expand the “Team Red versus Team Blue” mentality to people’s grocery runs?

The buyers who want to support independents have it the hardest, since few companies divide their political donations equally among parties. Coca-Cola is one of them, giving almost 50/50, and Kellogg’s gives a third of its political donations to Republicans, a third to Democrats and a third to others. So in order to consume without tipping the power balance, independent voters might have to balance their shopping cart by picking one item from each party.

If it all sounds like too much, it is. In a country as politically polarized as the U.S., isn’t it a bad idea to expand the “Team Red versus Team Blue” mentality to people’s grocery runs? And is a father really going to tell his child, “Sorry, Timmy, you can’t have that ice cream because these people started the war in Iraq”? Where does the picking of sides end, anyway? Of course these apps can make consumers feel more empowered in their daily choices — yay to that — but they might also drive political purists crazy.

“Buying partisan is a dangerous game that will divide America further,” says Michael Shank, associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington D.C., who thinks gerrymandered districts and partisan cable news are doing enough harm. “We don’t need another app to undermine some of the lowest levels of social capital in the rich world.”

Maybe these apps will end up having the opposite effect. Users with stronger brand loyalties than political alignments — of which there are many — might end up choosing to vote Republican because they just love McDonald’s.

Absurd, yes, but at least it’s well-informed absurdity.

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