Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

The most interesting things on the web, handpicked each day. Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

Politics

Frothing at the Latte

Politicians use stereotypes to lampoon and persuade. But what if they’re actually right? Our writer hits the road to answer that burning question: how well does a latte identify political preferences?

Two weeks before the 2004 Democratic caucuses in Iowa, a political advertisement aired on Des Moines television stations, paid for by the Club for Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee. The television spot featured a white-haired couple demanding Howard Dean “take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.” Fun fact: The Club for Growth’s president, Jonathan Baron, served previously as Communications Director for former U.S. House Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-Texas) and as Communications Director for former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle. Though short-lived, the ad garnered a considerable amount of attention on blogs and in politically minded books.

But that’s not why the ad intrigued me in those lonesome, tension-fraught days following the election. I was despondent about the outcome, but the ad caught my interest for a single, highly personal reason: My feelings were hurt. Why? I drink lattes. A lot of them.

Besides the hurt feelings, what I found compelling—and charged with intrigue—were the ad’s salt-of-the-earth types speaking in the shock-jock, insult-comic patois purportedly common amongst the very people they were supposedly mocking—snarky pseudo-sophisticates like yours truly. If the ad was accurate, the good news would be that one way you can spot freaky, left-leaning people is by looking for frothy milk in their coffee mugs. I’m not sure what it means to be part of Howard Dean’s freak show, and am unsure why freakiness is associated with froth and whip, but I assume it has something to do with an objection to the infusion of air into milk, as doing so is an unnecessary and therefore decadent means of giving decorative panache to milk and espresso—the implication being those who did not acknowledge this were Neville Chamberlain characters failing to confront the evil of panache. But living a fully pragmatic life devoid of unnecessary excess is a dull endeavor. So why the hate? Why all the frothing at the latte?

Clearly, a study was required. The following spring, I traveled to D.C. for some on-the-street opinion polling action. The idea was simple: Given that the ad originated within the unique universe of the Washington, D.C., beltway and its environs, I reasoned it was probably more reflective of that freak show than anything happening in Vermont. But how to go about it? First, I needed territory that attracted lefties and mimicked the consumption patterns listed in the Club for Growth ad.

You can’t just walk up to strangers and ask if they are members of a latte-loving freak show and expect to get an honest response. Often referred to as Berkeley East, Takoma Park, Md., is a planned commuter suburb of 17,000 people who filled their lawns and windows with “War Is Not the Answer” dove signs long before the Iraq War became unpopular—residents here often vote for Democratic presidential candidates by a 2-1 margin. Takoma Park is more ethnically diverse and slightly wealthier than the national average. There is a large gay population and 70 percent of residents over the age of 25 have a college degree. It is a place of rainbow flags, thrift shops, and small, proud signs announcing that you are in a nuclear-free zone. And finally, Takoma Park is hometown to Goldie Hawn, the actress who shared a stage with the Dalai Lama and brought the world such films as Private Benjamin, Wildcats, and The First Wives Club. Yes, if Satan is looking for friends and good tofu, he’ll be doing so in Takoma Park.

I knew if I was going to find the perfect latte-drinking liberal, such a person was as likely to be in Takoma Park as anywhere else in this country, but you can’t just walk up to strangers and ask if they are members of a latte-loving freak show and expect to get an honest response. People are too smart to answer yes to that kind of question. Taking the Club for Growth ad as the definition of ideological purity, I designed a simple (slanted) poll that would identify the perfect liberal and his/her characteristics:

  1. Do you describe yourself as religious (Y/N) and either: a) liberal or b) conservative?
  2. If you were stranded on a desert island, would you prefer to be there with: a) Dr. James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, b) Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, c) Jesus Christ, d) Angelina Jolie, e) Brad Pitt, or f) George W. Bush?
  3. Is the following statement indicative of a liberal, a conservative, a Democrat, or a Republican?
    We are a very busy bunch of people who are raising our families, doing our jobs, contributing to our communities through volunteer service and we don’t have access to the loud speakers that the other party has, but we’re the kind of people you turn to when you need help. We’re the ones who come over to your house with a hot meal when your wife is in the hospital. We’re the ones who take care of your kids when you’ve got an emergency in your neighborhood.—Source (not shared with participants): Karen LaBarr, Republican fundraiser, when asked to describe her party during the post-election National Public Radio interview
  4. Which of the following do you enjoy:
    • Taxes
    • Government expansion
    • Lattes
    • Sushi
    • Volvos
    • The New York Times
    • Body piercing
    • Hollywood
  5. Define: “fundamentalist,” “middle America,” and “liberal.”

I then headed down to the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-Op, which I theorized would deliver the perfect liberal in great quantity. The perfect liberal would be someone who wasn’t religious, wanted to bed a movie star, interpreted community service as being indicative of their political ideology, and liked lattes as well as government expansion, sushi, Volvos, The New York Times, and body piercing. Furthermore, the perfect liberal would have a negative association with the word “fundamentalist” and make derisive comments about “middle America.”

Installing myself next to a rack of organically grown herbs outside the co-op, my methodological approach was simple: I would quiz the first 10 people who would let me near them. I excluded parents with any child under the age of four and the two police officers who drove slowly past not long after I arrived.

The results are as follows:
 

Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-Op, Takoma Park, Md.

Surprisingly, each of the first 10 people I approached were willing to speak with me—starting with a 56-year-old business owner named Bruce who identified himself as a non-religious, conservative Bush supporter. Bruce was unmoved by the desert island question and rejected all of the given options, instead taking it as a positive opportunity for “solitude.” When I read him the LaBarr quote he said it was neither a conservative nor a liberal thing but, rather, that “nice people do nice things” before expressing an affection for both sushi and Volvos and associating the word “fundamentalist” with “intolerance.”

Bruce was interesting, but before he could do any more damage to my study, I sent him on his way, as he was clearly insane. I consoled myself by noting he had expressed apathy, not distaste, for lattes.

Over the next hour, the results got messier, as six of the 10 people I spoke with described themselves as religious, a term that prompted much discussion. Two preferred the word “spiritual.” One qualified her response saying it was a broad question and she didn’t much like it.

Nine of the 10 were liberal, but only five identified the LaBarr quote as being a liberal thing, four saying it was applicable to anyone and one, a 32-year-old lawyer, cagily saying it “sounded like something a conservative would say.” Two expressed qualified favoritism for government expansion in the realms of environmental protection and social programs, five liked sushi, four read The New York Times and three professed admiration for body piercing, but there was no discernible pattern in the responses. It was infuriating.

Kate wanted to be stuck with Brad Pitt on a deserted island because “I believe in simple pleasures and there’s no need to stress when stranded.” The most shocking result was that six people wanted to be stuck on an island with Jesus Christ—two thought he’d be the most interesting while the others said it was because of their religious faith. Those who chose him because of faith were African-American as opposed to Peter, a white, latte-loving lawyer, who thought Jesus would be interesting but put Angelina Jolie at a close second. “I’d have to know more about her before I’d invite her onto the island,” he lied.

Explaining her choice, one woman said: “Jesus was the most radical dude ever.” She was in her early 40s and draped over a 59-year-old man named Joseph, who was decked out in earrings, sunglasses, and gray hairs trimmed neatly against his skull. They responded to a joint polling survey as they “shared a brain” and identified themselves as spiritual, “extra-liberal,” and lovers of (vegan) sushi, The New York Times, and body piercing—although Joseph was “trying to get some things to bond back together.” To them, the LaBarr quote was a liberal thing and the phrase “middle America” meant “overweight,” an answer that earned Joseph an approving squeeze and a laugh from his companion. I asked if they liked lattes. Yes, I was thrilled to learn, they did.

More latte-lovers followed. They included: Kate, a bike-riding, 30-year-old white woman who wanted to be stuck with Brad Pitt on a deserted island because “I believe in simple pleasures and there’s no need to stress when stranded” and Frances, a 47-year-old white woman who worked in the Clinton administration. She joined Bruce as one of two people who departed from the given options on her island companionship question. “If I have to be stranded and die, I want it to be with a lover and a poet. Pablo Neruda.”

Aside from their responses to the stranded island question, both women sounded a lot like Joseph; latte-lovers were schooling like tuna. I had hopes that both Frances and Kate might be as unabashedly liberal as Joseph, but both disappointed by interpreting the LaBarr quote not as indicative of their own ideology but rather as being descriptive of, in Frances’s words, “people everywhere, a community.” Even in this idyllic liberal community, I was failing to find someone who was irreligious, wanted to bed a movie star, interpreted community service as being most indicative of their political ideology, and liked lattes as well as government expansion, sushi, Volvos, The New York Times, and body piercing.

With two surveys left, my hopes rested in Lyn, an African-American executive director of a nonprofit and his friend, Kristle. Kristle, also African-American, and a 34-year-old accountant, associated “middle America” with Iowa, but ended up as a religious liberal who wanted to be on an island with Jesus and thought community service was a liberal act. Lyn’s answers were virtually identical. Both were confused by the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and had to ask me which word was seen as descriptive of the Bush administration.

Summary: Of the nine people I spoke with who identified themselves as liberal, six of them were latte-drinkers.

 

* * *


But no study is of any value unless it has a comparison point, and for that I needed a different population. A place with a populace that would show me how important lattes and sushi and the other answers were in determining political behavior, thoughts, and deeds. I needed a place as stereotypically religious as the co-op was agnostic and as conservative as it was liberal. I needed a place where God-fearing conservatives gathered within their own tribe at a place that paired politics and consumption.

Less than 10 miles from the Takoma-Silver Spring Co-Op, in a giant strip mall in Silver Spring, Md., is Potomac Adventist Book & Health Food Store; according to Christian Retailing magazine, by size and sales, it’s the largest Christian bookstore in the world.

A life-size bronze statue of Jesus washing the disciple Peter’s feet marks the store’s entrance. Inside, commerce and Christianity converge in racks of books ranging from inspirational self-help to fictionalized retellings of the biblical book of Revelations. The magazine display includes Vegetarian Today, Practical Homeschooling, and Today’s Christian Woman. Sandals known as Sole Gear are imprinted with Bible verses and the admonition to “Soak Up the Son.” They are a few steps from both the music and children’s sections, where Veggie Tales characters like Larry the Cucumber wait to remind viewers to love their family. The same message is repeated in book after book: Be nice, love your family, don’t be self-centered, Christ is coming back. Posters in the bathroom advertise recently published books by Seventh Day Adventist presses.

Operated by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the store follows church doctrine in respecting Old Testament dietary laws demanding abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. More importantly, Seventh Day Adventists don’t drink, or sell, caffeinated products. No tea. No caffeinated sodas.

No coffee.

If anyone was going to generate results contrary to those I found in Takoma Park, it was this store’s customers. Silver Spring is five times the size of Takoma Park and home to the Seventh Day Adventist’s world headquarters. If liberalism was about the latte, then a place that refuses to sell coffee should make this clear.

Getting any data on this topic proved harder than anticipated as I struggled to find anyone willing to speak with me. For every person who would, another said no. There are several possible explanations for this. Perhaps it was because we were in a strip mall where people go to shop quickly, not for idle chat. Or perhaps it was because inside the store there was a gauntlet of people selling self-published pamphlets and tiring out already tired and cranky, uncaffeinated people. Either way, I stood next to Jesus and Peter for almost two hours trying to get a word in with the locals.

Again, the results are as follows:
 

Potomac Adventist Book & Health Food Store, Silver Spring, Md.

Everyone I spoke with identified him or herself as religious. Nine saw themselves as conservative and everyone wanted to be with Jesus on the deserted island. This was thrilling: data as hardcore and predictable as hoped for. One man insisted I note that he wanted to be there with Jesus, Rick Warren, James Dobson, and—based on the length of his handshake and follow-up questions—me. One woman admitted she wanted to say Brad Pitt but felt obligated to choose Jesus.

Things fell apart when we got to the Club for Growth ad. Four of the 10 liked government expansion and The New York Times. Sushi and Volvos even garnered a couple votes.

Four liked lattes.

Not just coffee, mind you, but a stated affection for foaming milk and espresso. Perhaps topped with a dandy dash of cinnamon.

Then I asked him to define the word “fundamentalist.” His response: “Someone who obeys the rules.” Within this subset of caffeine-consuming conservatives, liberals were described as “people who promote poorly placed freedoms,” people who “care about the welfare of a community,” and people who are “open” and “free.” A bus driver said he didn’t really know what it meant but said it had positive connotations. Jackie, a 27-year-old social worker who looked like the kind of person who could be described as “spunky,” but would hate you for it, said the community service quote made her laugh and that it sounded like “a good group of people—no one I know.” She associated the word “fundamentalist” with Christian, “middle America” with “white people” (she was African-American) and “liberal” with “free.”

Jared, a 20-year-old Seventh Day Adventist and employee of the bookstore with a big smile and the beginnings of a goatee, took a break from corralling grocery carts and told me he wanted to be on an island with Jesus because “he would just walk you off the island.” He associated LaBarr’s community service quote with “one of those nonprofits that come in and do stuff quietly and don’t make a big deal out of it.”

Then I asked him about the word “fundamentalist.”

His response: “Someone who obeys the rules.”

A liberal?

“I know it when I see it,” said Jared.

I wanted to tell him that one way to spot a liberal was if a latte was in the vicinity, but even that wasn’t as effective as it used to be. I wanted to tell him the world had gone all topsy-turvy and insane, but 20 is awfully young to have your world turned on its edge.

Summary: Everyone I spoke with outside of Potomac Adventist Book & Health Food Store identified as conservative, but four of them like lattes.

Given that the entire reason for the study was to determine how well a latte might be used to identify political preferences, this was higher than expected and a little disappointing, but 70 percent of the Takoma Park liberals preferred lattes. That’s 30 points higher than what I found at the Adventist store. I didn’t like admitting it, but the numbers tell the story: If a person is drinking espresso and foamy milk, that person is statistically more likely to be a person who cares about community and promotes poorly placed freedoms.

 

* * *


Back when the Democratic nomination for President of the United States was still in doubt, Tom Buffenbarger of the machinists’ union endorsed Hilary Clinton at a rally in Pennsylvania, dismissing Barack Obama supporters as “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust-fund babies.” Later that day, Obama captured the majority of votes from the least-educated and lowest-income voters in Wisconsin. Curious as to whether or not Buffenbarger’s comment made sense, Urban Spoon, a website normally devoted to restaurant reviews, crunched some numbers. They plotted state-by-state voter behavior against each state’s per-capita number of Starbucks—their (admittedly dubious) assumption being that Starbucks is the leading indicator of latte-drinking. Also weighing Prius and Birkenstock sales and per-capita income, they looked to see if states with higher numbers of Prius drivers voted for or against Obama with higher or lower frequency than those states with low numbers of Prius drivers. They found no correlation in all but one category: the number of Starbucks. States with a higher percentage of Starbucks slightly favored Obama: “The correlation coefficient relating the number of Starbucks locations to Obama voting is 0.31.” (A correlation of 0.5-1.0 is deemed a strong correlation.) Statistically sensible? Not really. Causally plausible? No. But true or not, Pennsylvania, a state with below-average Starbucks ownership, voted for Clinton, so maybe it does reveal something. Maybe T.S. Eliot was right—we’re measuring out our lives with coffee spoons.
 

Addendum

McCain, who huddled with advisors at his desert compound in Sedona, Ariz., said nothing in public. A nine-car motorcade took him to a nearby Starbucks early in the morning, where he ordered a large cappuccino.
The Los Angeles Times (August 22, 2008)

At least it wasn’t a latte.
 

Steve McNutt lives in Iowa City, Iowa, and has taught writing at the University of Iowa, where he received an M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing and a Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Culture. He is a former Provost Scholar, Iowa Arts Fellow, and Peace Corps Volunteer whose work has been listed as notable in the Best American Essays anthology and appeared in the Iowa Review, the Burnside Review, the Des Moines Register, Annals of Iowa, Lost, Perceptive Travel, and on WSUIs (Iowa) Weekend Edition. More by Steve McNutt