How brunch became political

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A brunch set-up with waffles and mimosas.
Brunch has always been a contentious meal. Now it’s a meme used to call out centrist indifference. | Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Going back to brunch” is a meme used to mock political complacency and centrist indifference.

On the night of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told her millions of Instagram followers that even if Democratic nominee Biden were to win the presidency, as he eventually did, some things were going to have to change. “I’m sorry, you’re not going back to brunch,” she said. “We’re not going back to brunch.”

The Congress member’s Instagram Live was an effort to reflect on the future of the Democratic Party, and to remind her base that “there is no going back after November.” Political vigilance may be exhausting, but this was the new normal voters must adapt to — regardless of who occupies the White House.

The joke among progressives and leftists online has long been that as soon as Biden clinched the presidency, many voters and politicians — derided as “Brunch Democrats” — would dust off their hands and indulge in overpriced mimosas, as if the political order were magically restored overnight.

“Obama wants us to go back to brunch after Trump is out. That would be a disaster,” read one headline from Jacobin, the socialist magazine. “Nobody on the left is going back to brunch. Not for a long time,” wrote New York magazine’s Sarah Jones.

It’s no longer enough, nor is it even in vogue, the joke implicitly argues, to solely resist President Trump; one must resist the political mechanisms that made his presidency possible.

As a uniquely American, often expensive, and typically alcohol-soaked meal, brunch has become a stand-in for complacency and centrist indifference, for the insular mindset of Trump-era liberal activism.

Now that Biden has been elected, the idea of “going back to brunch” highlights a widening political chasm within the Democratic Party, as centrists and leftists clash over ideology and messaging, or the lack thereof. For those whose livelihoods are not tied to policy decisions, it’s possible that activism doesn’t feel as urgent in a post-Trump world, and that parts of the status quo work just fine.

Centrist “brunch” Democrats are invoking Obama-era politics of unity and compromise, believing this rosy vision will appeal to moderate voters. Meanwhile, progressives are arguing that voters and activists should push Biden and congressional Democrats toward the left, and not back away from policies like Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal to appease a subset of swing voters.

The Trump presidency has facilitated brunch’s metamorphosis into a political and cultural touchstone. It’s not just a leisurely weekend activity but a shorthand for the political choices Democrats are forced to make under a Biden administration. Will they choose the known comforts of brunch (made available to a few), or will there be the potential for greater structural change?

A woman carries a sign at a Women’s March, which reads: “If Hillary was president, we’d all be at brunch.”
Cyndy Sims Parr, Creative Commons
A woman holds a sign at the 2019 Women’s March, which reads “If Hillary was president, we’d all be at brunch.”

The merits of brunch as a meal have long been debated, existing probably since the portmanteau was coined in 1895 by writer Guy Beringer, who advocated for a leisurely weekend occasion to incentivize sleeping in on Sundays and skipping church. In 2014, one writer angrily proclaimed in the New York Times that “brunch is for jerks,” while another retorted in New York magazine that “brunch has done nothing wrong” and that “it’s time to shut up” about a universally contentious meal. But what was traditionally missing from these arguments was the politics of brunch, not the validity of its existence.

During the Trump era, the politics of people who frequent brunch joints — typified through white gentrifiers and young professionals capable of splurging on a $20 cocktail and eggs Benedict — came under heavy scrutiny. Progressives’ distaste for the brunch crowd, specifically Brunch Democrats, can be summed up in one outdated slogan, originating from a Women’s March of yore: “If Hillary was president, we’d all be at brunch.”

Charged as tone-deaf, the slogan is a succinct display of privilege (it was usually espoused by a white woman), suggesting that political engagement and activism is reactive, and thus only necessary under certain conditions. Who is this “we” the slogan refers to? Not all Americans can afford to be at brunch — certainly not those without disposable income and weekends off.

Calla Walsh, a 16-year-old server and activist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, saw this trope play out in real life. On November 7, shortly after the Associated Press and NBC News called the race for Biden, Walsh received a text from her manager to come into work since the restaurant was receiving a record number of brunch reservations.

“It was almost poetic that this was happening, that dozens and dozens of people were coming to brunch with their Biden pin on,” Walsh told me.

Walsh, a high school junior, formerly worked on the Ed Markey campaign as a digital fellow, and despite not yet being of voting age has developed staunch progressive politics. Brunch is a fun and fine occasion to spend time with others, she said, but the idea of “going back to brunch” is damaging for the country’s future. “If we don’t address the problems that got Trump elected in the first place, we might be facing someone a thousand times worse in 2024,” Walsh said. “especially if part of the population just chooses to go to brunch and disengage.”

Walsh worried that most Americans would be content with what she characterized as Biden’s surface-level liberal values and respectability politics, and not thoroughly scrutinize the policies he could enforce that might hurt vulnerable people. “People will still be suffering under a Biden or a Trump administration,” she concluded.

In the early days of the Trump administration, when voters were simultaneously disturbed and galvanized by his presidency, the #Resistance began to mobilize. One of its slogans — also the title of a Pod Save America episode — was “protest is the new brunch.” The phrase, which was plastered on social media and protest signs, appeared to cater expressly to a white middle-class mindset, suggesting it was now hip to care, to make signs, and to go out and protest Trump.

Political engagement is crucial to our democracy, and there was great strength in the mass mobilization response to Trump’s policies. Yet there’s troubling subtext in “protest is the new brunch.” Painting activism as a hobby in dire times, rather than a persistent and necessary duty, is superficial, if not downright classist.

The conflation of brunch as a political symbol and meal is why Ken Albala, a professor of history at the University of the Pacific, believes brunch is in its dying days. “It’s gone out of fashion, as it was seen as aspirant upper- to middle-class and very white,” he told me. “The reason people dislike brunch is the same reason why we find Karens annoying. It represents something very superficial and very politically unengaged.”

A brunch diner usually wants to appear liberally minded, Albala added, but given their class status, they aren’t necessarily committed to social change. “They enjoy that privilege, the life and the suburbs, and that leisurely lifestyle,” he said. (This tension similarly exists in a patron’s decision to dine out during the pandemic, which some see as a selfish choice, not a necessity.)

Admittedly, brunch is not solely enjoyed by America’s white coastal gentry: Queer folks have brunch traditions to bond with friends and chosen family. People of all ages and ethnicities (I’m among them) indulge in boozy brunch as a social, even professional activity. It’s common for restaurants, predominantly on the West or East Coasts, to offer brunch specials and capitalize on how the meal has become an informal event.

“Brunch is almost always out. You can’t have it at home,” Albala told me. “It’s the going-out part and being seen, the eating of fancy foods you wouldn’t ordinarily indulge in, and I think people like how brunch allows you to transgress and drink in the morning.”

The performance of brunch no longer seems acceptable or appropriate in a hyper-political world, when protest is the moral alternative. Why choose to be seen at brunch when you can be seen demonstrating solidarity at a rally? Of course, reality is much more nuanced: You can hold progressive values and enjoy brunch every so often. It’s a meal, not an all-encompassing expression of one’s politics.

But social media makes it easy to demonize brunch by flattening photos and narratives into a choice. You can choose brunch or protest, not both. In late May, Cincinnati photojournalist Nick Swartsell captured a scene that highlighted the dichotomy of these two choices: A group of eight young white people are dining outdoors, while behind them, a group of Black Lives Matter protesters walk by, fists raised. Comedian Ziwe Fumudoh tweeted out the photo, which went viral, writing: “there are two americas: one fights for black lives and the other fights for brunch.”

Hundreds of thousands of people retweeted or favorited her tweet, agreeing that it was “shameful” and “out of touch” for people to be brunching during a mass protest movement. “The distinction could not be more clear,” one user responded. As recently as 2015, though, Black Lives Matter protesters were criticized for walking inside predominantly white brunch joints to briefly call attention to police brutality. “The fact that people are negatively responding to the #BlackBrunch and not the illness of racism and the myth of American progress, disturbs me more than anything,” one organizer told the Washington Post.

In a Twitter thread, Swartsell said the photo was not his best work, as it did not capture the nuance of the scene. “Lots of people are assuming what the folks dining are thinking. What their politics are. What they did moments before and after the photo was taken. Stop. Focus on real issues. There are many, many at hand,” he wrote.

Yes, brunch isn’t one of those “real issues”; it’s only a few hours on a weekend. The death of brunch would not, in and of itself, solve any systemic issues, and as with many debates about class aesthetics, the risk is seeing a change in performance with little political value. What matters are the actions Americans choose to take beyond the meal. But perhaps it’s still too late for brunch’s redemption, said Albala, the food historian. Just like how America has changed from the Trump era, Albaba thinks the coronavirus and shifting social attitudes will affect the lure of brunch. “I’d be willing to bet brunch is never going to come back, at least not in the same way.”

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