Do Consumers Make Bad Voters?

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Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN and author of the forthcoming book, Just How Stupid Are We (Basic Books, 2008).

Before long we shall be past Christmas and it will be politics all the time: First Iowa, then New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina (or does South Carolina come before Nevada? Whatever). But before the Christmas lights are taken down and the metal trees are put away until next year, it is worthwhile pausing to consider what the season tells us about our politics.

Contrast for a moment the lines that form outside Wal-Mart on the day of a big sale with the short lines we are accustomed to seeing at polling stations in presidential election years. One would think that it would be the other way around. There are sales all year long, but only one presidential election every four years. What conclusion shall we draw?

The obvious conclusion is that we take shopping more seriously than we do politics. But I think this is too simple. As economists like to point out, the benefits of voting are less clear than the benefits of shopping. One person's vote is unlikely to change the outcome of any election, meaning it's quite rational for a voter to decide to stay home. Why spend a few hours trudging to the polls if one's vote is unlikely to matter? Meanwhile, a shopper who buys at a discount can measure in dollars and cents the advantages of purchasing an item on sale.

Nonetheless, it is not a stretch to surmise that our identity as shoppers may be stronger than our identity as citizens. Daily experience suggests as much. The average American today spends far more time thinking about what they shall buy than how they should vote. Most of us clip coupons. Few of us clip the papers for news stories that might be worth remembering later when we have to cast a ballot. While we know the price of a gallon of milk, most of us don't know that we have three branches of government or that there are 100 members in the United States Senate.

All this may be obvious. What is less obvious is the connection between our identities as consumers and voters. Could it be that the more we identify as consumers the less we identify as voters? In other words, is there a tension between these identities?

History suggests that this is precisely the case. Studies show that the more developed our consumer culture has become the less attention we have paid to politics. Surveys show that Americans in the 1950s, who grew up in an era when consumerism was just beginning to take hold, had a firmer grasp of political details than we do now in some respects. For instance, they understood the differences between the two political parties better than Americans today, according to Harvard's Vanishing Voter Project. And they voted in higher numbers.

One reason among many for our general indifference to the duties of citizenship nowadays is that in a world of abundant consumer goods there are many more pleasant ways to spend one's leisure time than boning up on politics, as John Dewey presciently observed in 1927 in The Public and Its Problems. Dewey, though an optimist, wasn't sure in 1927 whether voters would be able to overcome the natural propensity in a consumer's republic (to borrow Liz Cohen's apt phrase) to become educated voters. Today, sadly, we have our answer and it's not reassuring.

It is worthwhile recalling Dewey's warning:

Political concerns have, of course, always had strong rivals. Persons have always been, for the most part, taken up with their more immediate work and play. The power of "bread and the circus" to divert attention from public matters is an old story. But now the industrial conditions which have enlarged, complicated and multiplied public interests have also multiplied and intensified formidable rivals to them. In countries where political life has been most successfully conducted in the past, there was a class specially set aside, as it were, who made political affairs their special business. Aristotle could not conceive a body of citizens competent to carry on politics consisting of others than those who had leisure, that is, of those who were relieved from all other preoccupations, especially that of making a livelihood. Political life, till recent times, bore out his belief. Those who took an active part in politics were "gentlemen," persons who had had property and money long enough, and enough of it, so that its further pursuit was vulgar and beneath their station. To-day, so great and powerful is the sweep of the industrial current, the person of leisure is usually an idle person. Persons have their own business to attend to, and "business" has its own precise and specialized meaning. Politics thus tends to become just another "business": the especial concern of bosses and the managers of the machine.

The increase in the number, variety and cheapness of amusements represents a powerful diversion from political concern. The members of an inchoate public have too many ways of enjoyment, as well as of work, to give much thought to organization into an effective public. Man is a consuming and sportive animal as well as a political one. What is significant is that access to means of amusement has been rendered easy and cheap beyond anything known in the past. The present era of "prosperity" may not be enduring. But the movie, radio, cheap reading matter and motor car with all they stand for have come to stay. That they did not originate in deliberate desire to divert attention from political interests does not lessen their effectiveness in that direction. The political elements in the constitution of the human being, those having to do with citizenship, are crowded to one side. In most circles it is hard work to sustain conversation on a political theme; and once initiated, it is quickly dismissed with a yawn. Let there be introduced the topic of the mechanism and accomplishment of various makes of motor cars or the respective merits of actresses, and the dialogue goes on at a lively pace. The thing to be remembered is that this cheapened and multiplied access to amusement is the product of the machine age, intensified by the business tradition which causes provision of means for an enjoyable passing of time to be one of the most profitable of occupations.

In 1929 Dewey, joined by the economist Paul Douglas, tried to form a new third party to play to the voters' natural identification as consumers. Their League for Independent Political Action attracted little support, however. Perhaps someone should try again--or, more realistically, the Democrats should simply adopt consumerism as a platform. A party that represented the interests of voters as consumers might just succeed this time. We may not think of ourselves as citizens any longer. But we certainly do conceive of ourselves as consumers. Dewey may simply have been ahead of his time (as he usually was).

Say what you will about the notion of a" consumer's party," voters would know what their party stood for--an improvement on our two main parties, which often seem confused about the interests they are supposed to represent.

KMART shoppers! Hear this! On aisle four there's a bargain on health insurance. Get those policies while they last!

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/23/2007

Everything I say in the sentence you quoted is absolutely correct, and can be readily confirmed by every source there is for stock market levels, real wages, productivity gains, the GNP level, the inflation level, the unemployment rate,(--on a nationwide basis), and international prosperity. While it's certainly your option, if you choose, to bet all these excellent numbers are about to collapse, history tells us doing so is usually a very foolhardy course.

David Pinholster - 12/23/2007

"The stock market is near a record high, real wages are rising, high productivity gains keep coming, the GNP is leaping forward, inflation and unemployment are so low as to almost not exist... Prosperity worldwide is at record levels."
My God man, where is your data coming from? Our dollar is worth 19 cents in 1970 dollars. All the other numbers are based on our rapidly deflating dollar.
Both political parties spend money like there is no tomorrow and base all their financial projections on a dollar that looses value by the minute. Our "worldwide prosperity" is a house of cards.

James Livingston - 12/21/2007

This essay is perfect for my errant purposes because it builds upon every assumption of extant historiography—all of which I find dubious at best. For the time being, let me reiterate the assumptions that allow the argument and meanwhile ask you, Rick, but also your readers, how they would sound as questions. I supply the questions.

Here, then, are the assumptions without which the argument—the complaint—becomes incoherent and thus ineffective. I would emphasize that nowhere does Rick enunciate these assumptions. These are the devices by which I can make sense of his claims.

(1) Politics means electoral, policy-oriented, programmatically centered action. Or not. Think of current “identity politics,” but, more significantly, the antebellum reform movements that radically transformed American politics—temperance, anti-slavery, woman movement—which were animated by people without voting rights, that is, by women. Shouldn’t we shed the communitarian and/or Aristotelian notion that political action is the site of self-discovery and self-determination?

(2) The either/choice is between consumption (read: consumer culture) and citizenship. Is this choice so clear if we don’t treat assumption (1) as regulative?

(3) The omnicompetent citizens of the 19th century were the bulwark of “popular politics” (McGerr); they have been displaced or dissipated by consumers. Or they have migrated to Scandanavia, where voter turnout remains high. What was so popular about politics in the 19th century? Didn’t turnout rates reflect both Congressional control of policy and the solidity of the electorate guaranteed by slavery, Jim Crow, and the exclusion of women from the franchise? What are the consequences of assumptions (1), (2), and (3) in terms of sexual politics and gender history?

(4) Dewey and Lippmann agreed on the disappearance of the omnicompetent citizen cited @ (3), and the latter won the debate on the “Phantom Public” in the late-1920s. Did they agree? Or did Dewey see the eclipse of modern individualism—the demise of the self-made man—as the occasion for a new politics? And is it so clear that Lippmann won the debate? [My take on these issues can be sampled in Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy, (2001), chapter 2.]

(5) Cultural politics, the kind that characterizes our time, cannot help us change what we want to change. Why not? What do we want changed?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/20/2007

The stock market is near a record high, real wages are rising, high productivity gains keep coming, the GNP is leaping forward, inflation and unemployment are so low as to almost not exist... Prosperity worldwide is at record levels... It's likely that the great herd of ignorant swine who elect our leaders has been doing something right.

E. Simon - 12/20/2007

Was Gordon Wood deeply disturbed by the evidence of "gross public ignorance"? The Radicalism of the American Revolution describes an event that, in challenging all sorts of existing social conventions, discarded intellectualism itself along with the sense of any need for a class of elites that were always necessary for espousing it previously. The commercial sensibilities, the vulgarity - Wood has already accounted for these attributes whose "return" you seem to want to lament as if it were a modern phenomenon.

Bryan Mullinax - 12/19/2007

Interesting that your focus is on the Democrats. While they aren't the only ones who try to bribe us with our own money - they do seem to be the most blatant about treating people as idiots. "Free health care" indeed. The Republicans have their Bridge To Nowhere, but they usually tend to focus on direct things. Not the airy-fairy fantasies of the "progressives".

HNN - 12/19/2007

If this is paradise, I'd shudder to think what you conceive of hell to look like.

I happen to think we are neither in hell nor paradise.

I am, however, deeply disturbed by the evidence of gross public ignorance.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/18/2007

Your unspoken assumption is the United States has gone to hell under the current, ignorant electorate, but that case doesn't stand up very well.

We remain the most prosperous, healthy, happy people on earth. We have gone 35 years or so without being engaged in a war with heavy casualties, and there is none on the horizon. We are breaking down the frontiers of medicine and science in every direction, promising a much better world yet for our descendants.

If this inattention to politics has led to all the advances, maybe it is time to encourage everyone who has not yet done so to quit paying any attention.

P.S. "Editor" above, in post #116962, last paragraph, seems to be a coercive utopian with no faith in our form of government. He obviously wishes to make himself a commissar.

HNN - 12/18/2007

I congratulate you on your use of new technology!

Patrick Murray - 12/18/2007

When we lived in Staufen, West Germany, 1972-73,the national election was on Sunday--a day of rest. Church, vote, pastry in that order. Huge turnouts! When I grew up in Orange, NJ in the 1950s voting day was a holiday: banks, bars, restaurants serving liquor, schools, all were closed. Many people had the day off, my father (a lawyer) worked half a day. It was easier to vote in the 1950s, there were fewer options open. Can any of us imagine the reaction among the Christian Fundamentalists and the Captains of Capitalism to holding election day on Sunday and closing the stores? We are amusing ourselves to death, true, but I have to work on election day and stand in line for at least half an hour to vote. What if it is raining and you do not own a car?

Thomas cripps - 12/18/2007

Rick Shenkman's wryly apt piece on our indifference to what should be the precious right to vote is on the nose except for, I think, one awry inference he draws. While we know the price of a gallon of milk, he writes, we don't know that we have three branches of government .... [et seq.] We might more precisely infer that while we know the price of milk, we do not know the price paid for a member of congress or a judge.

E. Simon - 12/17/2007

I don't know. I think that without giving up on one form of polity and switching entirely to another one can acknowledge that there are elements in a society that would contribute to either. But in any event, I guess it's a bit sad to acknowledge that voters are generally incapable of making responsible decisions absent so much guidance, which I would not have assumed. Maybe that's more evident nowadays given the changing state in which the market for punditry finds itself currently.

Btw, this consumer will have to drasticly change computer set-ups, as I have been reduced to sending this via iPod, which I've never done before and hope to avoid doing in the future. Still, it's kind of cool though.

HNN - 12/17/2007

What you are suggesting is that we give up on citizen democracy and become a consumer's republic.

I am not ready to do that. But unless we begin a conversation immediately about this subject we shall slip willy-nilly from the one to the other.

That's the great danger. I do not think that voters who think of themselves as consumers can handle the responsibilities of citizenship.

To give just one example: Consumers are perfectly capable of deciding on their own which detergent they want to use. But voters have proven time and again that they cannot fulfill their responsibilities acting on their own. They must be members of a mass group (political party, labor union, etc.). They need to take their cues from people who have 1. studied the issues and 2. can tell them which candidates will best look after their interests.

E. Simon - 12/17/2007

Having recently been around the bend on the Obama/Clinton bit, I think one thing a politician could offer that a company can't - or at least not nearly as well, is authenticity. The relationship around this trend is hardly one-way; voters have become more and more used to sound bites - which, if that isn't the most mind-numbing example of marketing, I don't know what is. Also politicking as a form of grand strategy - how blatant and blatantly like marketing that's become. If politicians are going to work like this then why is it any wonder that voters prefer a market? At least a market offers convenience - and you can buy your products on-line at home instead of waiting in-line. It is responsive in such a way that you can tell when a company means what it says in regards to your complaints rather than when it is merely being patronizing. And a good amount of the time, there are substitutable (i.e. "close") alternatives with which to compete - Democrats and Republicans, on the other hand, rarely attempt to distinguish themselves from each other in terms that are anything but sweeping. Markets evolve in ways that continually and tangibly offer more and more - and further, they've become incredibly more participatory than even political forums have. For at least a good couple of years now - an eternity in an technology-centered economy that changes by the decade if even that long - the big growth drivers in technology have been social networks - YouTube, FaceBook, mashable, Myspace, etc.

All these developments - focused as they are around a net-centric culture - have led to the evolution, at least as I see it - for a yearning to return to something that has been all too infrequent in a country as young, as geographically spread-out and as consumer-oriented as this one: authenticity. And I think the politician who can deliver on that while covering all the same bases vis a vis intellectual talent and political expertise as his/her competitors will continue to be rewarded with the same advantages enjoyed by companies that have realized this. It sure does explain the Obama phenomenon. And the successes, but not the failures, of Dean (as well as GWB, and perhaps Giuliani) before him.