When Is It OK to Talk Politics at the Bar?

For decades, "don’t talk politics or religion behind the bar" has been a common maxim for bartenders. But do these uncertain times call for a new rulebook?

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Dec 29 2017, 9:00pm

When you're young and you take your first job behind a bar, if you're lucky enough to be in the company of wizened lifers, smirkingly amused by your greenery, you're quickly inundated with a confounding mix of bar arcana and cliche. While you're learning how to tap a keg and clean scuppers, you're also picking up notes on the aesthetics of faced bills and the magical import of odd-numbered garnish. Some of the unwritten rules of the bar stood out by way of the conviction in which they were imparted, by the uncharacteristic sobriety with which they were treated.

"It really was one of those hard and fast rules," says Tyson Buhler, head bartender of Manhattan cocktail church Death & Co and former American World Class representative. "'Don't talk politics or religion behind the bar.' I was always taught that how someone aligns politically is their business."

This was a maxim I'd heard before my first bar job. I recognized it from movies and television, and vaguely suspected hearing my relatives who owned or worked in bars echoing a similar sentiment. I heard it again and again as I was hired to represent different drinking establishments over the course of an early, staggering career as a young bartender.

Not everyone has had the same context.

"No, I never heard that," says Giuseppe Gonzalez, proprietor of Suffolk Arms in the Lower East Side. "My dad was a bar owner. These were old Puerto Rican bodega bars. Trump's 'locker room talk' would seem pretty safe there. It was a little bubble. Everybody either agreed with each other or at least had some sort of understanding."

Certainly, the idea that politics are something that should be eschewed around booze is not a historic one. The American Revolution was plotted in public houses. In the pre-industrial society of the time, they were centers of most civic function, where the community received its mail and argued philosophy. The Freemasons and the Marine Corps were founded in the same tavern in Philadelphia in the 18th century.

'Asking people to not talk about politics in a bar would be like asking them to not talk about sports or the rough day they had at work.'

Over the course of the next 200 years of American history, there were a lot of different sorts of places to get soused (ignoring the near decade we collectively lost our minds on the issue). Over that time, another philosophy rose in certain quarters—that bars should be places apart from the quotidian business of society.

"It's hard to make people understand that a bar is an escape from reality. That [bartenders] were trying to make sure that people feel that we're all on the same level, no matter what," says Pam Wiznitzer, National President of the United States Bartender Guild and creative director of Seamstress in the Upper East Side. "I don't care if you're for or against the President. I will serve you but I need to make sure that people around feel safe and secure and don't feel threatened. Anytime they feel as if someone is threatening their position, I need to take a stand."

The idea of the bar as an escape isn't diametrically opposed to the idea of the bar as a meeting place, but there is distinction.

"I learned to tend bar in DC and there's just no avoiding it there," says Jacob Grier, a freelancer writer and bartender at Wayfinder Beer in Portland. "Asking people to not talk about politics in a bar would be like asking them to not talk about sports or the rough day they had at work. It's one of the things I miss about the District: Politics is terrible in so many ways, but in DC you're surrounded by smart, engaged people, and the conversation reflects that."

Like most everything else, drunk talk is informed by its context. This can mean the geographic and social distance between bars in the Bronx and DC, but it can also mean two bars half a block apart.

"I do think there is a bit of grey area when it comes to this rule and what kind of establishment you're in," says Buhler. "There is something that feels OK about having a whiskey and a pint in a dive in the afternoon and talking about current events. There is a certain air of trust in those establishments. In so many places around the world, bars, taverns, pubs are the place to hash out these issues. At a more formal cocktail bar or restaurant it feels out of line partly because lots of people are there to focus on their drink or food and have an experience outside of their everyday life."

No matter where a bartender finds her- or himself; if there are customers, there is potential for political discourse to go awry. Part of navigating a night of service is identifying problems in order to maintain a room for their patrons. All of the bartenders I spoke to agreed that there was a line to be crossed from lively conversation to rudeness.

"I don't always engage but sometimes I'll make short statements—'I believe this.' But I'm always open-minded to other philosophies and viewpoints because I believe that the best way to understand the world around us," says Wizntizer. "I think it's really difficult to draw a line. The safety and security and mental health and well-being of your guests is the most important part of being bartender."

Of course all of these lines a bartender draws over the course of a shift are informed by their own political perspective, which as a general thing needs to be muted while standing behind a bar.

"The very first bartending gig I ever had in Portland was working the Oregon Democratic Party's election celebration in 2008, the night Barack Obama won the presidency," says Grier. "I was surrounded by these ecstatically happy people who all I assumed I was just as thrilled about this as they were, and I was completely out of place thinking, Hey, do you think his broken promise to oppose telecom immunity bodes well for civil liberties? That was indicative of the next eight years. People would casually talk in a bar about how great Obama is, but if you'd mention drone strikes or domestic surveillance, they would shrug that off. It was very easy to not let thoughts about those sorts of abuses intrude too much into their daily lives."

Anybody who has worked a busy Saturday night knows most people can't even be trusted to discuss bourbon or pop music, let alone the most sensitive issues that will undoubtedly affect generations.

What does all this mean in 2017? Over the course of a volatile election year, the edges of those boundaries can feel fuzzy. While all the bartenders I spoke with agreed that maintaining comfort for their guests is of the utmost import, if politics themselves are infringing on those comforts, how does a bartender gauge when to draw the line in discussion?

For instance, if you believe that political machinations have put into jeopardy the rights of a customer, discussions of those issues by somebody who does not can seem virulent. If a bartender asks guests to refrain from discussing those decisions, those who disagree can accuse the bartender of politicizing the situation or taking an inappropriate stand, even if their principal motivation was the potential comfort of other guests. Anybody who has worked a busy Saturday night in recent memory knows most people can't even be trusted to discuss bourbon or pop music, let alone the most sensitive issues that will undoubtedly affect generations.

"The threshold for tolerance has diminished significantly. All these people are getting woke to these injustices that have always been there. The difference is they're talking about it now," Gonzalez says. "People are more sensitive but they're also more offensive. I don't eliminate conversations at all, I just pay attention to when they're gonna turn bad. When you're a bartender or owner you're the host of the party. I live in my bubble in New York and we're built differently. We speak a certain way. We're used to conflict."

This has always been the challenge of the job. The host of party has always got to think on their feet and improvise, to navigate changing goalposts of social norms and political minefields with drunks stumbling through them. It seems that for service professionals, the more historic a political moment is, the greater the dexterity required to earn their keep.

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2017.