Criticisms of capitalism and market economies–fair and unfair– are plentiful. I’ve noted before that–as with most debates about political and economic systems– reality is more complicated than either the defenders or critics seem to recognize.
This post is not going to wade into those waters–I’ll leave my (hopefully more nuanced) economic arguments for another day–but I am going to argue that America’s devotion to the operation of the market has had one unfortunate cultural consequence: it has strengthened a widespread belief in the notion that citizens are customers, rather than shareholders, of government.
And the customer, no matter how unreasonable, is always right–or at the very least, entitled to significant deference.
I’ve noted this confusion between citizenship and market consumption before; an article about recent attacks on school boards by parents and political activists have reinforced my concerns.
During the school masking debates, an essay in the New York Times considered the roots of the hostile confrontations at school board meetings. One of the people quoted in that discussion referred to a “citizen consumer” concept , which he said was helping him “to better understand the open-the-schools crowd.” I was unfamiliar with the scholarship around that term, so I googled it.
According to one paper abstract posted on the Oxford Scholarship Online website
Americans spend far more time thinking about what to buy, and what not to buy, than they do about politics. Political leaders often make political claims while using consumer terminology, and political decisions resemble consumer decisions in surprising ways. Together, these forces help give rise to the consumer citizen: a person who depends on tools and techniques familiar from consumer life to make sense of politics. Understanding citizens as consumer citizens has implications for a broad array of topics related to public opinion and political behavior. More than a dozen new experiments make clear that appealing to the consumer citizen as consumer citizen can increase trust in government, improve attitudes toward taxes, and enhance political knowledge. Indeed, such appeals can even cause people to sign up for government-sponsored health insurance. However, the consumer citizen may also prefer candidates whose policies would explicitly undercut their own self-interest. Two concepts from consumer psychology—consumer fairness and operational transparency—are especially useful for understanding the consumer citizen. Although the rise of the consumer citizen may trouble democratic theorists, the lessons of the consumer citizen can be applied to a new approach to civic education, with the aim of enriching democracy and public life.
I definitely fall within that group of “democratic theorists” who believe that confusing consumerism with democratic participation is very troubling.
The people who have embraced this approach are people with something to sell: the political strategists and public relations gurus whose business is peddling political policies and candidates. Those of us who decry the identification of political choice with consumer marketing agree with an organization called “The Common Good Collective,” which describes the difference between the citizen and the consumer:
A citizen is one who is a participant in a democracy, regardless of their legal status. It is one who chooses to create the life, the neighborhood, the world from their own gifts and the gifts of others. Many who have the full legal rights assigned by their country continue to wait for others to provide them with satisfaction and contribute little to democracy or the well-being of their community. At the same time, there are major contributors to community and democracy who do not enjoy the legal status of “citizenship.” Nevertheless, these people still] function as full participants in what is necessary for a democracy to work.
A consumer is one who has surrendered to others the power to provide what is essential for a full and satisfied life. This act of surrender goes by many names: client, patient, student, audience, fan, shopper. All customers, not citizens. Consumerism is not about shopping, but about the transformation of citizens into consumers.
Citizenship is a hotly debated political subject. Look for ways to participate in this discussion by contacting elected officials and supporting grassroots organizations assisting refugees and undocumented neighbors. As you do, consider, how might I call everyone I meet into deeper participation in our community? How might I loosen the grip of consumer culture on my life, noting and offering “care” in ways that move beyond transaction?
One of the accusations frequently leveled at Trump–aka “the former guy”–was that he was entirely transactional, always concerned with “What’s in it for me?” He was the choice of voters who saw themselves as “consumers” entitled to demand a political “product.” If that product benefitted them at the expense of less savvy or less empowered consumers, tough.
Consumers don’t worry about the common good. Citizens do.