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Feb 10, 2005 1:33 pm

Consumer Nation

In the splendid PBS documentary "Building the Alaska Highway," which aired last night, there's a brief clip of FDR telling Americans in 1942, the low point of the war, that the news is "bad."

The word stuck in my mind. When's the last time you heard a president say something like that? Presidents no longer talk that way. Instead, like Ronald Reagan, they always exude optimism.

That FDR, who has a reputation as the Optimist-in-Chief, could sound such a bleak note in a presidential speech is a sign of how distant his time and ours is.

What accounts for the change? Some will say that Reagan "proved" that optimism works and that therefore presidents ever since have been following in his footsteps. (Reagan in turn was said to be following in FDR's footsteps.)

But this is too simple an explanation. Going a little deeper, the difference between FDR's time and ours is the difference between a Republic of citizens and a Republic of consumers.

We are all consumers now, as Liz Cohen notes in her fine book, A Consumer's Republic. And consumers are always told what they want to hear. It simply does not occur to politicians in such a culture to tell people the flat out truth. This may explain more about George W. Bush's reluctance to acknowledge death and destruction in Iraq than anything else. To do so would be to violate the unspoken creed in a consumer culture: Never make the consumer feel unhappy!

In the other kind of Republic--the kind we used to have before TV and modern capitalism turned us all into consumers--politicians treated voters like citizens. The dictionary defines citizenship this way: "The status of a citizen with its attendant duties, rights, and privileges." (American Heritage) How I wish we were still treated like citizens! Citizens share the responsibility of governing with their leaders. In a Republic of citizens voters are told what they need to know to be able to make careful, reasoned choices. Alas in our consumer culture voters are treated like consumers, meaning that we are accorded rights and privileges but no corresponding responsibilities.

A secondary effect of the consumer culture is to increase dissatisfaction with our leaders. This is paradoxical since leaders now tell us only what we want to hear. But in a culture where the voter refuses to recognize that he has duties as well as privileges, there inevitably develops a feeling that the leaders are solely to blame when things go awry.

The big budget deficits that are now developing, for instance, are said to be Bush's fault. Actually, they are the fault of the people for allowing him to drive through the reckless tax cuts of 2001. But acknowledging this is difficult given that the consumer would perforce have to take responsibility for the mess.

Do the people share no part of the responsibility for the mess we are in financially as a nation? Of course they do. But who will say so?

In a Consumer's Republic the voter is king and all must bow before him in deference to his wishes. The consumer is always right, after all.

In democracies, of course, politicians are always inclined to pander to people. But we have gone far past mere pandering. A panderer would say to the people: You are wise and I must follow your leadership. Today the politician says, You are wise and I will make you feel good not only about yourself but about the world in which we are living. In such a world there is no room for facts that are contrary to the people's wishes. All that counts is that the people shall feel positive!

The galling thing is that in this Norman Vincent Peale Republic our economy depends on us pretending all is well. Were we suddenly to get a grip on our emotions and shape our behavior as the facts might suggest we should, our putative prosperity, such as it is, would rapidly diminish. We must pretend to be feeling good and keep buying buying buying or we shall surely feel bad as sales fall off, businesses close and people decide to save money rather than spend it.

We are no longer free as citizens to be told the truth because the consequences on our pocketbooks would be too ghastly. With wisdom did President Bush after 9-11 encourage Americans to go about their business and shop freely and fly. We must or we shall all suffer.

In short, the price of a Consumer's Republic is the surrender of citizenship. We have made our choice. Now we must live with it. We must not pout. We must not breath a word contrary to our desires.

Only one negative note is allowable in such a Republic: fear. As fear sells in the marketplace, so it sells in the public sphere as well. We must tread carefully here. It is easy to draw simplistic comparisons that trivialize events. But do we not hear in the president's repeated warnings of terrorism and nuclear bombs a faint echo of the warnings about halitosis and underarm odor common in television commercials? To get us to buy products advetisers speak to our fears. They leave us hopeful by promising that if we buy what they are selling we will not have to fear. Aren't politicians doing the same?

We live in a complicated world in which fears and hopes drive our behavior in both the political world and the commercial world. Once there was a large gap between those worlds. Today there no longer is. That, more than anything else, is why the president has not gone on national TV to tell us to prepare to make sacrifices in the name of the liberty he resoundingly hopes to promote around the world. Consumers don't make sacrifices.

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