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When political polarization reaches the pocketbook

The week that Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s former president, took office, the most intransigent faction of the outgoing party, Kirchnerism, circulated a “K micro-militancy manual” to instruct its acolytes on how to resist the incoming government. Among the various resistance techniques described therein, those that used consumption and private choice in usually neutral spheres, such as the market, to undermine the legitimacy and resources of the ruling party and its supporters, stood out. The initiatives listed included intervening with drawings and phrases or tearing the newspapers that were typically found in Buenos Aires bars, staging mock protests or awareness-raising theatrical performances in supermarkets, boycotting businesses owned by supporters of the new government, or — on the contrary — buying products aligned with Kirchnerism, such as the newspaper Página 12.

The private and consumer arena that Kirchnerism itself and its leftist allies associated not only with apathy but even with the alienation of passion for public interest and politics was suddenly projected as a new and enthusiastic trench.

This unexpected extension of the partisan conflict to the world of consumer goods, products, and services is not a privilege of center-left populisms. The Brazilian far right, for example, did not miss the opportunity and mobilized sympathizers and militants to benefit businesses whose owners publicly adhered to Bolsonarism. The order of the day was to eat hamburgers at Madero chain restaurants or shrimp at Coco Bambu restaurants, buy clothes and fabrics at Havan stores, decorate the house with Sierra Moveis furniture, and go for a walk at Barra World shopping mall in Rio. The owners of these companies exceeded the expression of individual sympathies to the point that they came to be investigated by the federal police for conspiring and supporting an attempted coup d’état whose beneficiary would be the former president, now disqualified from running for election, Jair Bolsonaro.

On the opposite side of the street, Lulistas and sympathizers of progressive options shunned musical rhythms considered bolsonaristas such as sertanejo and pagode, associated with right-wing groups such as agribusiness, truckers’ unionism and favela control militias strongly infiltrated by police and security forces. The right-wingers did the same, for example with theater artists and musicians who defended democratic positions contrary to the authoritarianism promoted by the state in the 2018-2022 interregnum. This politicization of private spheres even splashed certain brands of chocolates propagandized by influencers critical of Bolsonaro, such as Felipe Neto.

Studies after the 2022 election campaign on the different expressions of the affective polarization that divided Brazilians reveal that at least 20% of citizens (one in five) were not willing to buy products or brands that favored a candidate contrary to their wishes. Political scientists Felipe Nunes and Thomas Trauman call this invasion of the Brazilian table, cupboard, and home by partisan criteria “calcification” of political polarization, an undeniable expression that partisan antagonisms have jumped to the level of feelings and everyday life. In political science literature, this phenomenon has long been known as “political consumption”, a practice that even in Latin America has been practiced for decades. It is worth remembering the protests at the doors of Argentine banks in the period after the 2001-2002 corralito, the harangues against filling gasoline at Shell and Esso service stations by former President Kirchner in the mid-2000s, the exercise of individual power in supermarkets to denounce inflationary price increases beyond the agreements by those who from the Brazilian central government were called Sarney’s prosecutors (by the former president in the second half of the 1980s), or the campaigns on the Internet and at the doors of Zara stores in Brazil in the early 2010s for the use of slave labor.

This proportion of politicization of everyday spheres by a fifth of the population is in line with what previous research conducted in Brazil and other countries in the region reveals about the faces of so-called “political consumption”. For example, the use of purchasing power by consumers to pursue political or ethical objectives. This practice aims to “citizenize” or politicize relationships with companies and organizations to influence them to follow values and defend policies favorable to the desired model of society.

Surveys conducted by the consulting firm Market Analysis reveal that already at the beginning of the 21st century, a significant number of Brazilians rewarded corporations or brands for their social, environmental, or ethical behavior. In 2000, they accounted for 26%. This percentage declined during the country’s economic boom under the PT government to between 12% and 22%. Yet as the country became more polarized in terms of political parties, but also as its economy worsened, this tool of political participation by other means shot up again, reaching 29% before the pandemic. At the beginning of 2024, the percentage reached just over 32%, i.e.: one in three Brazilians rewarded (in the previous twelve months) a company or brand for its political or socio-environmental positions.

These forms of reward include buying products, speaking well of brands and companies, and recommending them to third parties. However, political consumption also involves punishing these agents when they engage in behavior perceived as undesirable. This boycott takes different forms: stop buying, speak ill of brands, associate them with negative events, and even disseminate information — regardless of whether it is reliable or not — to damage their reputation and public image. Brazilians started the century with 19% of citizens embracing these actions. This percentage fell in the following years, but — as it happened with the political consumption of awards — the economic crisis and the affective polarization triggered its growth, recovering the lost ground. In 2019, almost 24% acknowledged having boycotted a company. A year later, that percentage was lower: almost 19%, which was still double the average percentage of previous years. At the beginning of 2024, 22% punished a company or brand (in the previous twelve months) based on its values, actions, or omissions with repercussions considered negative for society, public ethics, or the environment.

In Argentina, after the brutal crisis of 2001, 43% of adults in urban areas had boycotted brands, products, or companies. However, ten years later, after the boom of frustration against harmful practices against the public interest and without the mobilization from the top of power against any particular organization, that percentage dwarfed to 10%. Mexicans also started the new century ready to splash their market and daily relations with politics: 28% exercised punitive political consumption in 2001. Almost ten years later, that percentage had moderated somewhat to 21%.

The boundaries between what is passive of being politicized and what remains neutral to partisan polarization have been blurred or are becoming increasingly tenuous. This should not surprise us at a time when polarization contaminates family relationships, separates friendships and conditions love or intimate bonds. As partisan sympathies or antipathies regulate affections and stiffen worldviews, models of society, and prognoses about the future in such opposing ways, it should not be surprising that every aspect of life becomes a trench. It is how affective polarization shapes our daily lives and — naturally — our food, living room, wardrobe, and entertainment.

*Translated by Micaela Machado Rodrigues from the original in Spanish.


Otros artículos del autor

Fabián Echegaray es director de Market Analysis, consultora de opinión pública con sede en Brasil, y actual presidente de WAPOR Latinoamérica, capítulo regional de la asociación mundial de estudios de opinión pública:


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