the state of us: citizens or consumers?

With midterm elections hovering, we are inundated with phrases that remind us we are “more divided than ever” here in America.  We are accused and accuse others of playing with identity politics, and we are told to recognize our place in an elected official’s “base” or in our “voting block,” rather than as an interdependent people sharing a continent and a government. Call me contrary, but I am tired of being told how I vote, or what I care about or who I hate.  Before we can tackle if or how we are divided, I’d like to first examine the ways in which many of us engage in the public sphere.  For the next few weeks I will explore the divides we sense, the injustice we decry or ignore, and ways we respond to all of it.  

First though, my hypothesis for how we got here: Many of us have passively traded our duty as citizens for rights as consumers.  We are all driven by economic concerns. Whether you desperately scrape to gather money for this month’s rent or constantly worry about whether you will retire with six digits or seven, money consumes us.  In fact, I believe consuming has become our dominant approach to life.  We experience peace when we pay off our car or vacation home.  We beg others to “consume” us by “liking” our images or thoughts.  We feel valuable and find dignity when we can buy the things we want.  We feel like our government is working for us if we can consume what we want without feeling taxed or burdened by debt.  These truths demonstrate the fact that our relationship to consuming has taken priority over our relationships to one another as citizens who share a country.

Everything is not a transaction. 

As consumers, we reward the places where our dollars best stretch.  Indeed, we frequent businesses that sell cheap stuff because many of us can only afford cheap stuff.  Even if we earn high wages, most of us feel entitled to buy more with less.  We have forgotten that we are citizens, not consumers.  A citizen asks what governmental policies lead us to have stagnant wages, a growing pool of working poor, and the growing wealth of the top 1%.  A consumer starts to pay attention when bills are due.  A citizen starts to pay attention when companies move jobs and tax shelters overseas, using American infrastructure without paying into the economies that build and support that infrastructure.

We are not only consumer-minded first as citizens, but also as towns and communities.  For decades, we have chosen to compromise our tax base to lure businesses and professional sports to our towns.  In our metro councils and state legislators, we govern like consumers, not like citizens.  We allow ourselves to be victimized by companies who say they will only choose our city if we give them a tax free decade, for instance.  Think about the nation-wide courting process of Amazon, who is looking for a location for their second headquarters.  Cities and towns can’t lower taxes fast enough for them.  Sure, these companies bring jobs, but if those jobs pay low wages in a town that had to cut services in order to woo the company there, citizens are damaged in the process.

A recent episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley is a hilarious parody of this trend.  Gavin Belson, a morally bankrupt CEO, comes to an American town that rolls out the red carpet for him.  He announces to the crowd that if their mayor loves them, he will agree to all of Belson’s terms, ensuring Hooli, his Google-esque company, builds a factory.  Sounds patriotic, right?  The CEO wants nothing more than to build his plant in good ole’ Murica.  The catch, however, is that the CEO will bankrupt the town in order to secure a deal that protects his expected 80% profit margin.  The mayor agrees to the terms because he wants to say he brought jobs back, but the town is destroyed by the decimation of its tax base. 

In the same vein, we often buy the lie that business could pay employees more if they weren’t so strapped by regulation.  Regulations are expensive, yes; regulations also keep people alive.  A cursory look at the industries of coal, automobiles, paints, or tobacco should remind us that regulations are always loathed and also created because people die when profit margins are the loudest voice at the table.  Companies rightly complain that regulations cost them money, forcing them to create safe working environments, to sustainably source items, to more aggressively test products before they are available to the public.  This is expensive, and there are surely absurd regulations on the books.  Industries complain that all regulations, rather than protecting customers, actively hurt them by forcing prices to increase dramatically.  When the public joins the cry that “Regulations kill jobs!”, we dramatically shift from citizen to consumer.  In advocating for blanket deregulation, we prioritize our desire for low prices over our right to health and safety.  A citizen would demand every American company not sell products that are dangerous or are made in environments toxic for their employees.  A consumer simply wants more things made cheaply.  In short, we have exchanged our role as citizens for our need to consume.   

The abandoning of citizenship impacts other aspects of our engagement as well.  This shift has damaged our ability to share our cities as it has removed the ideas of mutual interdependency and shared sacrifice from our ways of viewing each other.  Consumers want to pay for what they want and get out. Citizens, on the others hand, have to have a conversation about what works for the many. Citizenry demands we acknowledge that America is a shared space, and therefore compromise is necessary.  Everything is not a transaction.  If you shift from consuming to civically engaging, then you have a vested interest in seeking out many sides of an issue.

Our government, at least in theory, provides space for every voice to matter. What if we collectively decided to call America’s bluff? To step out of our comfortable role as passive consumers, striding together down the road as engaged citizens, advocating for a more perfect union.  If you are frustrated by those who decry the terrible “direction of the country”, then evaluate and actively change your position and behavior. We are citizens, not consumers, and it is time we start acting like it.