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American politics falls
victim to consumerism

By City Mayors’ Special North America Correspondent

11 November 2010: The recent US Congressional elections are unlikely to lead to a settlement of issues particularly important to American cities: tax policy, and therefore the distribution of wealth; environmental and energy policy; the implementation of national health care; immigration reform; education reform; and federal transportation policy. That’s because elections in the United States – and political discourse in general – are no longer shaped by major ideological differences as much as a consumerist model of governmental responsibilities.

Congressman John Boehner, credited with engineering the successful Republican electoral strategy for the midterm elections, captures the essence of the consumerist model when he proclaims his support for “accountability and choice” in government.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan stoked Americans’ traditional mistrust of centralized government by encouraging people to purchase private retirement insurance, to embrace the radical new mobility of capital in the form of free trade, and, perhaps above all, to demand immediate accountability. “Government is the problem, not the solution,” said Reagan, who then used this assertion to encourage Americans to demand value from public institutions for their tax money, even where they once recognized that calculations of profit were not easily applicable – prisons, for example, or public schools.

Reagan’s rhetoric took root in the popular imagination and effectively became national policy. All subsequent federal administrations, for example, have prioritized deterring and reducing crime, but at the expense of tough questions about the long-term effectiveness of maintaining large prison populations. All federal administrations since Reagan have stressed choice in public education through competition between for-profit and traditional public schools and accountability in the form of standardized testing and performance measures, obscuring the actual philosophy of education behind a cloud of often formulaic and cookie-cutter criteria of attainment.

In other words, the US government now follows a consumerist model based on expressions of accountability and choice. The US has become a “market state”, in the words of scholar Philip Bobbitt. In a consumerist or market state, the basic function of government is to help individuals and groups secure the best deal or the best value for their money in pursuing what they want when they want it. It involves deregulation – from private prisons to private pensions to private schools to debates over a private Internet, and on and on – and, consequently, the withdrawal of government from many areas where it used to bring an ethical pressure to bear. The US government is now able to encourage enterprise, but not protect against risk; to try to increase the purchasing power of citizens, but not to take for granted anything much in the way of agreement about common goals or social good.

2010 Elections
As the recent elections demonstrated, the federal government, and especially the majority Democrats, were judged on their ability to give voters a quick way out of their insecurity. Voters wanted government to create jobs by reacting quickly to the market, yet punished the federal government, and Democrats, for negotiating deals with fickle bankers, financiers, automobile manufacturers, and insurance companies.

Pushing politics toward a consumerist mode raises short-term expectations because the national government, essentially, is expected to guarantee purchasing power and the citizens’ right to choose a lifestyle. Raising short-term expectations invites political instability (like dramatic turnovers in Congress and state houses each election), reactive and sometimes reckless political administration (such as turning a blind regulatory eye to subprime mortgages and other questionable financial products in order to support the American dream of home ownership), and, rule by opinion poll and pressure (no longer seriously questioned as undemocratic in America).

When political debate revolves around how best to satisfy consumer demand (more value, lower taxes), the ultimate – and perhaps only -- choice is between larger government and paralysis. To facilitate some of its goals and to avoid unsustainable fiscal solutions, the federal government inevitably relies on more centralized managerial authority. This is the heart of the tension in the health care debate in the United States. The Democrats offered a national health care system to cover the growing number of uninsured Americans and to begin to contain long-term costs. Republicans countered with paralysis.

The Tea Party protests that swept across the US before the midterm elections (fueled by funds from the Republican Party and conservative organizations) demanded prompt action to what were presented as popular demands. And the pressure for instant action and instant change blocked wider considerations about energy policy, education policy, transportation policy, and urban policy. Real and long-term issues about, for example, the environment and immigration, were damagingly mixed up with populist worries about taxes, jobs, and big government in general. Tea Party protestors made clear their feelings that the federal government worked in ways, which kept appropriate power out of the hands of citizens. Media outlets were happy to justify the incivility, intolerance, and paranoia of Tea Partiers as evidence of the alienation of the common people from the decision makers. The American media too often report politics as a form of reality TV in which participants clearly articulate their feelings but display no understanding or patience for the feelings of others.

If each American is led to believe that he or she can make the best decisions for him- or herself, what then does a reasonable decision look like? It’s difficult to justify choices that don’t have an immediate impact that one will experience personally, that go beyond positioning oneself for the best deal. When people make choices about the more distant future or about things that won’t impact them individually, they do so because they see themselves as part of a larger context. The ideals of the US Constitution and, to a lesser extent, organized religion historically played the role of providing shape, sense, purpose, and context to American life. Not surprisingly, conservative forces are attempting to re-interpret the Constitution, and many conservative religious communities assume a highly anxious and adversarial stance towards those who don’t share their views. They are attempting to re-write the story of American culture based on calculations of self-interest, sometimes fed by an amazingly distorted view of Darwinism. It’s a conflict with consequences, because whoever controls the debate over ideals in a sense controls the future of America.

Without a larger, shared, communal context for political and personal action, it’s hardly surprising that many Americans are apathetic to elections. Barely 50 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls in the midterm elections, and only 20 per cent of younger voters. The relationship between American citizens and government is rapidly becoming a push button model, a contract that can be honored by the prompt delivery of what the consumer orders. When the market defines and manages choice, when everything encourages one to struggle for individual interest and success, an overarching democratic ideal is elusive if not impossible.

Philip Bobbitt. The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).

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