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Consumer In Chief

 

Road sign near Kingwood, West Virginia. Source: Library of Congress

“Road sign near Kingwood, West Virginia.” Source: Library of Congress

 

Americans have such a unique lifestyle, we’ve given it a name: The American Way. The concept is deeply embedded in our collective identity. We bristle when others attack it and we lament its potential disappearance. Even our military swears to protect the American way of life. 

The American lifestyle is frequently criticized by our allies and enemies as one that promotes capitalism over all else. One of the biggest critics in the global community is Pope Francis. He used his recent U.S. tour to speak against consumerism, but that wasn’t the first time he held that position. In his 1998 book “Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro,” Francis wrote, “What the Church criticizes is the spirit that capitalism has encouraged, utilizing capital to subject and oppress the man.” He further believes that the inequality created by capitalism is a source of evil.

Even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders believes that inequality is a social problem that Americans need to address. While Sanders might not go so far as directly labeling capitalism a contributing factor to inequality, his own beliefs on inequality and wealth is a top issue of his campaign.

If there is an individual who symbolizes our way to the rest of the world, it is probably the president. When President Obama said in this year’s State of the Union that he needs “every American to stay active in our public life,” he’s invoking the American way. And when presidential candidate Donald Trump promotes his slogan “Make America Great Again,” he’s looking for an emotional response by pushing the “protect the American way of life” button.

Ahead of his symposium on “The Presidency and American Capitalism Since 1945,” we asked BackStory co-host and University of Virginia professor of history Brian Balogh some questions to help us understand the American way and the president’s role in maintaining the ideal.

Q: How does the president sell the American way of life?

A: Presidents have, sometimes with subtlety and sometimes not, promoted American abundance. For instance, in July of 1959, when Richard Nixon was still vice president, he debated soviet leader Nikita Krushchev in a model kitchen that was setup for the American National Exhibition in Moscow. They debated the benefits of communism vs. capitalism, with the all-electric kitchen as a backdrop, in front of a color TV.

For Nixon, this was more about using the friendly competition over consumer goods to open up a free exchange. Nixon understood that consumption was key to winning the hearts and minds of the Third World and he was banking on the American way of life.

Q: It seems like what makes a good citizen is often linked to the kind of economy we have.  How has the relationship of citizenship to the economy changed over the course of American history?

A: During the 19th century, Americans had a producer ethic, characterized by Max Weber as the Protestant ethic. It was a set of values, closely tied to religion, that consisted of work, sacrifice and saving. So, if you were a good citizen, you worked hard and denied yourself in the interest of god and the republic.

By the early 20th century, a consumer ethic emerged. Historian Lizbeth Cohen labeled the second half of this century the Consumer Republic. It’s characterized by an emphasis on the individual pursuit of fulfillment through the purchase of commodities and the quest for the “good life.”

Q: We’ve seen the term “outsider” used a lot in the current election cycle. What are some other examples of “outsiders” who ran for President, and what did they have to say about the American way of life?

A: Jimmy Carter rose to power in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, an era of running against Washington. So, he marketed himself as the ultimate outsider. Even though he was the Governor of Georgia at the time, he pitched himself as an unknown, a common man. He even appeared on the game show “What’s My Line,” three years before he was elected president.  It took the panelists eight questions to figure out that he was a sitting governor.

Carter drew a direct line from consumption to a social problem – in this case, a lack of purpose. In a speech that became known as the “malaise” speech, Carter grappled with the question of what was wrong with America. He said, “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Perhaps in his own way, Carter was calling for a return to producer ethos.  Whatever Carter’s vision, the American voting public had a different one:  they returned Carter to Georgia, voting in President Ronald Reagan in 1980 who celebrated morning in America as Americans doubled down on consumption.

If you’re near the campus of Florida Atlantic University-Boca Raton this Wednesday, drop by and catch the rest of Balogh’s talk.


Media Contact:

Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist
434-924-6894
dianaw@virginia.edu