In 1812, Federalist domination of the Massachusetts senate loomed. Governor Elbridge Gerry, part of the opposition Democratic Republicans, knew he had to do something to prevent his party from losing their controlling majority. While campaigning, gladhanding, and doing some actual political legwork might have secured the state, Gerry was clever, and probably the type of man who read the fine print very closely. Instead of actually trying to get enough votes to win as things existed in the status quo, Gerry signed a bill that redrew district lines, in such a way that his party benefited.
While the Federalists won some local positions, his unorthodox gamble paid off, and the senate stayed in Democratic Republican control. The odd, unnatural shape of the new district lines reminded writers at the Boston Gazette of a lizard or snake, and so the term “gerrymander” – a portmanteau of Gerry and salamander – was born.
More than 200 years later in the US, we’re still at the mercy of the strange rules of district redrawing, and as politicians have gotten more abstract with their interpretation of national law, we see some weirdly shaped and positioned districts (especially on a congressional level).
The point of gerrymandering is to create districts that ultimately serve the best interests of your party. This can work in different ways; lumping all like voters together so your party has majority and wins where they otherwise wouldn’t, or lumping all opposition voters together so they can only win a small area compared to your constituency’s larger area. There are also some practical reasons to redraw district lines, usually to group geographically disparate rural citizens together, or to include suburbs in an urban area that they might technically have stake in.
But typically, “gerrymander” has a negative connotation. It’s often done when a party’s rhetoric or message or um, jeux de vie, isn’t favoring well in the current political climate, but they still want to remain in power to shift the climate back in their direction.
It’s a little dubious. It’s a little scummy. It’s a willful bending of the rules to game the system in your favor.
Seems crazy; politicians can rewrite the rules however they want to their own benefit? Must be illegal, right?
Despite two Supreme Court cases challenging it’s legality, gerrymandering is still a legit thing to do, so long as it doesn’t violate the Equal Protection Clause or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Individual states can enforce their own local gerrymandering rules (Florida does, and several others have review committees), but it’s not Federally mandated.
For a long time, I’ve lamented Big Beer’s sales tactics. It’s difficult for me to reconcile my brewer-born appreciation for their ability to create so much of such a consistent product (I can’t even produce five gallons of lager consistently), with their arguably unscrupulous behavior once the beer has left the brewery and lives in the limbo of the three-tier system.
I used to almost keep the two separate in my mind, like I could magically appreciate the people and the process while simultaneous lament how the product is being sold. All these mental gymnastics because I didn’t really understand what Big Beer was doing.
I do now. Contrary to popular, evangelical belief, it’s not the result of some evil, conglomerate cabal hell bent on robbing the consumer of choice and plunging the world into a second darkness of flavor blandness. It’s not some cosmic conspiracy to corporatize humanity and leave us trudging about in a dystopian world where all the trees have been chopped down and our waking reality looks exactly like the inside of a Walmart.
It’s a lot more boring.
Many in the industry liken “Big vs Craft” to some kind of war, with fronts and soldiers and fierce battles over territory based on some loose ideology of mutually (but differently) defined “freedom.” It’s not a terrible analogy, but does add a little more gravity to beer than I think it sometimes deserves.
This isn’t a war, per se, but rather modern political posturing and postulating. “Big vs Craft” is more like a campaign for the presidency of beer, a trading of legal and social blows to rise to the top and occupy the position of leader of the brewing free world (if we kindly ignore China and Snow, for now).
Look at the tactics. Buying a competition brewery? Redrawing the lines of your portfolio to overlap your competition, and include certain consumers to better your business. Offering incentive programs to distributors to only carry your brands? Redrawing the literal lines of what beers are on the shelves, to better position yourself to improve your company’s standing. It’s financial and economic gerrymandering, being done in the face of an opposition party that is winning by more traditional measures.
It’s important to remember, that as much as we don’t like it, it’s all perfectly legal. Unlike our favorite sports, business is a game with mutable rules; if you’re losing by a lot in the second half, you can turn around and win by basically playing an entirely different game, or the same game, with wildly different rules.
We should also note that it’s not exactly a one-sided affair, either: the Brewers Association’s long drawn-out and awkward attempts to define a whole sub-sector of the industry was political gerrymandering, too. The entire impetus behind modern American beer being trumpeted by the BA is local, independent, relatable. They’re attempting to draw their own district lines, partly to keep up with their opponents, partly because it actually works.
As with our current democracy, the citizen (or consumer) is not considered when these invisible lines are drawn. You, as a beer drinker, are a dollar that must be wrangled. Big Beer thinks that if they can’t win your dollar on taste, they’ll win it by buying a portion of your palate, and then by not giving you any other options. The BA wagers that they’ll win your dollar on taste anyway, but if they can’t, they’ll try to win it with emotional and humanistic appeals.
You’re being chopped up and divided without your express consent. You’re being marketed to, hard, fast, and relentlessly, from both sides. Gerrymandering is first and foremost about keeping and consolidating power, or, in this specific sense, market share. As much as you might want to believe they do, no one fighting over your dollar cares about you.
They care that you buy, and little else. I’m hoping consumers are finally starting to see the business side of beer for what it really is: a meticulous and calculated attempt to get you to purchase, just like every other business ever.
Perhaps it’s just me, but the luster of beer wears dull. The movement begrudgingly approaches doughy middle age, and consumers feel the pressure on their wallets and waistlines. Even smaller breweries feel the squeeze of like competition in the ever-growing sea of choice. Talk bubbles or market saturation if you must, but the zeal and sales cannot continue to climb forever.
As a fine patina sets in and the youthful exuberance fades, I have a sneaking suspicion that the game of beers will start to look a lot less like a righteous war or crusade, and a lot more like the classic Red vs Blue, mudslinging, carpetbagging mess that is our political system. Such is the nature of modern capitalism, and probably why, as they say on the internet, “we can’t have nice things.”