These days, it’s very difficult to surf the web without stumbling upon a commentator decrying the state of politics. From excessive fear-mongering to disenchanted cynicism and deepening polarity, there’s been no shortage of issues for pundits to highlight as they cosily remind us that there’s something fundamentally wrong with 21st-Century political culture. Voters are more disillusioned and distrustful than ever before, they tell us, disappearing into their own filter bubbles while the politicians who supposedly represent them are also disappearing into the mouth of corporate interests and funding. In other words, politics is in a spot of bother, leading certain members of the commentariat to affirm that something really, really needs to be done to divert it from its continuing journey towards irrelevance.
As Tom Kibasi wrote recently for the New Statesman, something does need to be done to roll back “the politics of impossibility and powerlessness” that’s gripping democratised nations, especially at a time when income inequality is at its highest ratio for decades and severe, risk-laden headaches like climate change still remain largely unresolved. Yet for all the urgency of the quandaries facing the realm of politics, journalists are wrong to think that answers can be found solely within this realm. Kibasi himself advocates “a new radicalism in our public policy,” while David Brooks declared in a February piece for the New York Times, “The answer to Trump is politics,” concluding that the best way to overcome the divisive and antagonistic hue of today’s politics is by somehow changing it so that it better resembles the more compromise-based, cooperative bargaining that defined America’s birth.
Brooks is right, of course, but aside from simply calling the problem by its proper name, he also makes the slip of assuming that we can rediscover a more collegiate politics by reforming today’s glorified sideshow from within. What he misses, but also teases at with his mention of “antipolitics people” who “make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations,” is that there’s a large public residing outside the political domain that’s receptive, if not increasingly receptive, to such soaring promises and ridiculous expectations. He identifies their tendency to “grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics” with the unrealistic vows their (anti-)politicians offer them. However, there’s another current that feeds into their skyrocketing expectations and growing intolerance for opposing stances, a current that’s not only political, but also socioeconomic and cultural.
This current is consumerism. It’s consumerism that conditions people to expect — on demand — everything they could possibly want, and it’s consumerism that nurtures an unhealthy self-absorption in one’s own self and identity. With a whole system of corporations and brands telling us we’re “worth it,” providing us with instant gratification, and erecting a massive bubble around our individual selves that reflects only the comforting image of these selves back at us, we’ve become accustomed to having everything our own way. By the same token, we’ve also become pathologically averse to not having everything our own way, and as Brooks rightly points out, not having everything our own way is precisely what a mature, adult politics requires of us.
It’s because consumerism has a significant influence on today’s political climate that a narrowly political focus on issues of disengagement, disillusionment and divisiveness will always fail. Such a focus would only ever concentrate on the political sources of negativity, removing dishonest or hypocritical politicians, for instance, when it would be much more incisive to ask why we’re always drawn to politicians who make grandiose promises they can’t keep, and why we always tend to hone in on what these politicians do ‘wrong’ rather than on what they do ‘right.’ It would address some of the objects of political dissatisfaction but not one of its main wellsprings, leaving unchanged the consumeristic, have-it-all, me-me-me culture that assumes difficulties and disagreements are an excuse to disengage, rather than a normal part of the political process.
I Want It All, and I Want It Now
But what evidence is there that consumerism could be having such a corrosive effect on politics? How could we possibly gauge the causal relationship between the indulgent materialism of today’s consumeristic society and a dysfunctional political system? Well, we could turn to the wealth of survey and statistical data amassed on just this society and system, data revealing traits among the general population that are certainly not conducive to our ability “to find and sustain public leaders who can encourage more of us […] and teach us to be citizens again.”
Consumerism stops us from being citizens in the proper sense of the word for many reasons. For one, consumerism has made us more impatient and hungrier for instant gratification, unable to tolerate to kinds of deferred rewards and constant striving for piecemeal gain that characterizes political struggle. That we’ve become more impatient is supported by a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center, who found that the negative effects of the technology we consume “include a need for instant gratification and loss of patience.” To take another example, their conclusion was also borne out by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who in 2012 demonstrated that viewers of online videos will ditch said videos if they fail to load after two seconds, arguably making them more likely to ditch the politicians and statespeople who fail to implement any noticeable change after four or eight years in office.
This impatience-inducing effect is especially acute for millennials, the people under the age of 35 whom the Pew Research Center identify in their Internet & American Life Project as having a particularly acute “thirst for instant gratification.” Such a demographic, “accustomed to a diet of quick-fix information nuggets,” are becoming “less likely to undertake deep, critical analysis of issues and challenging information.” They have grown up with quick-and-easy devices and products, quick-and-easy services, and quick-and-easy marketing that flatters their sometimes readymade identities. As an indirect result, they’re therefore less inclined to immerse themselves in political affairs and activities, which require a level of attention and application far beyond that involved in waiting for an online video to load.
While a direct causal relationship is nigh-on impossible to pinpoint in practice or experience, the unfortunate ramifications of our fascination with gadgets and modern consumer products is at least corroborated by levels of political engagement amongst millennials. For instance, the good-old Pew Research Center discovered via survey that millennials are the most politically disengaged demographic in America, with 50% of them considering themselves unaffiliated and unaligned with either of the two main political parties. Similarly, a 2012 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded its review of various surveys and databases with the observation that “Millennials reported thinking about social problems less, having less interest in government, making less effort to conserve energy, and being less interested in taking “green” actions to protect the environment, either personally or through government. Millennials were also less likely than Boomers and GenX to participate in the political process through voting, writing to a public official, participating in demonstrations or boycotts, or giving money to a political cause.”
Millennials are, then, the most politically detached generation, and while it might not be entirely clear how this relates to consumerism, the same paper helps us out a little more by noting that they’re also the most materialistic generation. Its authors wrote that they “considered goals related to extrinsic values (money, image, fame) more important” than goals related to intrinsic values, which involve community, civic life and other people to a much greater extent. Millennials have, therefore, become more enamored with things and less enamored with people and politics, swapping the healthier level of engagement that characterized the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers for a slightly exacerbated version of the cynicism that typified Generation X. They’re not especially interested in the nitty-gritty of politics, and it’s very tempting to conclude that their consumeristic values have a great deal to do with this disinterest.
As for these consumeristic values, they generally involve the acquisition of status symbols that reflect positively on one’s own public and private self-image. They involve the acquisition of smartphones that, all about the “I,” enable us to forge an online avatar that casts us in the best possible light, or they involve the consumption of movies, television, music, games and books that affirm a particular vision of ourselves, one that associates us with a particular demographic identity with a particular social currency. In these and every other case, consumerism revolves around the construction of individuality via material objects, with this centrality of individuality to consumerism being evinced by yet more survey data. In 2014, for example, a Reason-Rupe poll revealed that 71% of US adults regard millennials as “selfish,” while a 2015 Pew survey corrected for intergenerational prejudice by divulging that even 59% of millennials regard their own bracket as “self-absorbed.” On their own, such polls don’t allude to much, but when coupled with the aforementioned knowledge that millennials are the most materialistic and consumeristic generation in history, it reaffirms the notion that their materialism and consumerism is a means to indulging their egocentricity.
That they are the most consumeristic generation is further betrayed by the awareness that they spend an average of 18 cumulative hours a day consuming various media, and by the awareness that they’re the most brand-loyal generation to date, with 50.5% declaring that they’re “extremely loyal or quite loyal” to their favorite brands. Millennials are so loyal to these brands, not so much because they offer excellent or superior products, but because their advertising and marketing evokes an image that millennials wish to adopt and maintain. This is why half of them stick with Nike or Adidas so faithfully, because they don’t want to undermine the particular sense of identity and individuality such brands permit them to forge, because the construction of an ideal self is so central to their consumption of products.
While they aren’t quite as proactive in their consumption as millennials, a very similar story also applies to Generation X, an umbrella term for everyone born between 1964 and 1981. As documented in a 2013 paper for the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, materialism peaked with them, hovering around the same level with the generation that’s slowly taking their place. These individuals are no less covetous of wealth and status symbols than their millennial counterparts, and given that they and these counterparts total some 148 million people, they account for almost half the US population. Together, they may not quite form a majority as things now stand, but they form a substantial enough subset of the country to indicate that its values, attitudes and behaviors have been profoundly shaped by consumerism.
Politics is Not Something that Can Be Consumed
It’s because the country has been profoundly shaped by consumerism that politics is in crisis, and has been for several decades now. Consumerism helps generate a society of people who demand instant gratification, who get frustrated and impatient when they don’t immediately get what they want, and who therefore can’t reasonably endure the delays, compromises and imperfections that necessarily make politics the give-and-take business that it is. The two are diametrically, antithetically opposed domains, with the one conditioning people to expect everything to go their own way, and the other unpalatably reminding them that, because other people also exist, they can’t have everything their own way. This is as much why we’re disengaging from politics en masse as any failure on the part of politicians, prime ministers and presidents to enact beneficial change, and it’s why we respond to political ‘defeats’ and ‘incidents’ in an acutely overdramatic, disgruntled way, as if the slightest concession to opposing sides were as bad as coming away with nothing at all.
This consumerism-induced desire to have only one’s own views presented and reinforced is manifested most tangibly in the recent phenomenon of the ‘echo chamber.’ Related to but different from the algorithmic ‘filter bubbles‘ that automatically hide certain indigestible parts of the internet from us, this term describes the inclination of all internet users and groups to “limit their exposure to news sources that offer information that goes against their own beliefs,” and to gravitate towards only those “sources that they find agreeable.” Because likeminded people converge on each other online, sharing and consuming only those stories that flatter their worldview, they predictably become less willing and able to entertain opposing opinions and viewpoints. They become, to put it simply, less democratic, less political, since they are less interested in actually discussing and debating politics than having their own selves validated over and over again.
This echo-chamber effect is interesting precisely because it supplies an actual example of consumeristic values — e.g. the desire to do little else besides indulge the self — infiltrating the political realm. Because a growing number of us are approaching this realm through the prism of thinking we’re right about everything, we’re much less equipped to deal with the reality of everyday politics. We trust politicians less than we’ve ever done, not because politicians, say, are especially more corrupt or swayed by big business than they used to be, but because we expect more from them, because we expect them to satisfy our individual wants to the same degree that brands and corporations satisfy them.
We’ve been taught this partly by a culture of advertising and marketing, by such slogans as “I am what I am” and “Your Vision, Our Future,” and by whole narratives in the media that get people used to thinking they can have everything they want. Via a consumer culture that promises unfettered gratification, we’ve come to prioritize our own self-actualization and self-indulgence over almost everything else (save family, perhaps), so that when we’re confronted by other people and the assertion of their particular interests, we act out and complain more than we need to. This was palpable in the uncompromising inflexibility and intransigence of the 2009 anti-Obamacare protests to “Kill the Bill” rather than debate it, and it was palpable in the series of deadlocks that hit Congress in 2013 and then in 2014, as the Republican party sought to block measures on spending and immigration entirely rather than reach compromises. In these and other cases, it was as much a deepening thread of selfish individualism as any alleged commitment to a healthy democratic nation that caused problems and stalemates. Indeed, the progress of consensual, cooperative politics was lost beneath a hive of self-serving voices who couldn’t possibly tolerate a deviation from their own interests, even though they must have been aware that democracy is about giving everyone an input in the end result.
And it’s the intolerance of deviation from one’s own interests and preferences that, as opposed to deeply held principles about what’s right and wrong, largely explains the public’s media-fed appetite for controversy and scandals in politics. When we the public gasp about Hilary Clinton’s negligent email use, or about David Cameron’s profiting from an offshore investment fund in Panama, we’re reacting less to our horror that laws or protocols have been breached and more to our unwillingness to accept or work with people whose views aren’t our own. If we were truly committed to democratic politics then we’d strive to meet other people half way, to forgive and ‘rehabilitate’ them when they make honest mistakes, but instead we rush in to eliminate and exclude those with whom we’d rather not share democracy, forgetting that such attempts at banishment are decidedly anti-democratic. We do this because we want everything to ourselves, because we’re interested in politics only insofar as it can be approached through the frame of consumeristic self-indulgence, and not interested in it if we have to dilute our fancies with those of all the other men and women with whom we share a country.
To an extent it would be unwise to ignore, this unwillingness stems from a mindset born of consumeristic indulgence and egocentric individualism, the kind whose growth during the 20th Century Robert Putnam charted in Bowling Alone. In this landmark study from 2000, sociologist Putnam explained how Americans had become more isolated and individualistic over the course of this century, demonstrating how one of the single strongest predictors of low social capital is television consumption. He showed how we were involving ourselves less in political and social activities as we drew nearer to the 21st Century, and he showed how the correlate of this decrease was the precipitous rise in TV watching, a form of consumption that’s perhaps the model of self-indulgent consumeristic behavior. That is, without framing it as such, he showed how consumerism played a key role in the decline of social and political life, helping to mutate us from an engaged electorate to a disengaged audience that rewards and is responsive to only the most negative and sensationalistic of politics.
This mutation occurred because consumerism made us considerably more selfish and egocentric. This isn’t supported only by Putnam’s work, but by research confirming that people with consumeristic values score much lower on scales of agreeableness, and by more research confirming that younger individuals are more narcissistic than ever before, coupling their increased narcissism with comparable peaks in materialism and fame-fixation. Sad to say it, but such people aren’t especially interested in the “new kind of politics” clamored for by Paul Twivy that would be based on a “new relationship of collaboration” between the public and its politicians. Neither do they seem to be the types who’d be inspired “toward a shakeout of the political system” and the task of managing “the changes well enough to improve it,” as advocated for by David Malpass in a recent piece for Forbes. Instead, we’re more interested in the politics and level of political involvement we already enjoy today, in a politics we can consume rather than participate in, extracting hollow self-validation from the similarly hollow process of lambasting the people we don’t like rather than doing all we can to reason, compromise and cooperate with said people.
But we’re also more likely to lambast politicians rather than work with them for another, simpler but no less important reason deriving from consumerism. Namely, the most consumeristic, materialistic among us have been revealed on numerous occasions as being unhappier and more dissatisfied than our less materialistic counterparts. This has important political implications, not least because materialism-caused dissatisfaction is often a product of unrealistic expectations, which all-too often bleed into the political arena where flesh-and-blood men and women are almost invariably unable to meet them.
Yet aside from its occasional basis in dreams of Ferraris and Hollywood, dissatisfaction is toxic simply because it makes us negative. It puts us in a constant frame of mind where we’re unable to receive political news and ideas in a balanced, rational and dispassionate way, much like research has found generally dissatisfied people unable to appreciate such life-domains as “family life,” “standard of living” and “amount of fun and enjoyment.” Our evaluative frame of reference for such news and ideas is our underlying state of dissatisfaction, and because such news and ideas always meets this negative state, we often conclude that the latest proposal from Representative X or Senator Y is little else besides rubbish. This is why some of us are receptive only to scandal and confrontation, because they’re the only things in politics consistent with our consumeristic dissatisfaction.
Democracy vs Consumerism
This returns us to the fundamental problem facing politics and its hypothetical rejuvenation today, which is that the primary cultural paradigm — consumerism — cannot possibly be made to square with democracy. No culture can foster materialistic values in which dissatisfaction is perpetual, in which the gratification and actualization of individuals are the greatest possible goods, and then expect such individuals to team together in the mature, self-sacrificing pursuit of democratic harmony. This is — for want of a more delicate word — insane, and the sooner we realize that hyper-consumeristic capitalism is detrimental to collaborative politics the sooner we may actually manage to rediscover such a politics. As it stands, however, a consumeristic economic system dependent for its expansion on making us want more and more is nothing but an obstacle to political progress, and any attempt to reform politics that doesn’t take account of this will only run into it time and again, in the form of an apathetic public that doesn’t really care, that intransigently opposes divergent views, that’s chock with narcissists who always put themselves first, and that much prefers destructive to constructive criticism.
Such a dire state of affairs has arguably reached its apogee in the rise of Donald Trump to the stature of Republican nominee for President. Here, in all his glory, is the candidate of choice for a consumeristic and individualistic politics that’s centered solely on desecrating your opponents and assuming you’re right about everything. If he has fed off anything, it’s been off those members of the American population who’re tired of political failures but who think that making politics more self-serving and oppositional than it already is would be the solution. His supporters (and now also his fellow Republican Party members) betray this oppositional mindset when they rally behind such slogans as “Never Hillary” rather than behind an actual political idea, and so do all of his opponents who rally behind the “Never Trump” banner. Together, their me-only postures warn us that the crisis in politics is, at the very least, only going to get worse before it gets better.
Given that Trump’s campaign has already been successful beyond all expectation, it’s hard to imagine how exactly it would get better though. Nonetheless, it’s clear that what’s needed isn’t simply a changing of the guard from Obama to a supposed ‘outsider’ like Trump or Bernie Sanders, but rather a wholesale renovation in American society. Admittedly, this is much, much easier said than done, yet without reforming a culture and an attitude that thinks the only things worthwhile are always easy, perfect and primarily about ourselves, any new would-be reformer who enters US politics in an attempt to ‘unify’ is only going to discover that his or her proposals fall on disinterested ears, on people who’d rather criticize and revel in his or her faults than give way on their own views. A willingness to compromise and to recognize that others also have legitimate political claims is what’s needed here, but it’s difficult to imagine how such a collective state of mind could be achieved in a world whose economic development is predicated on making us want more than our neighbors.
Things, as they say, weren’t always this way. The immediate Post-War generation was more civic minded than the generations which prevail today, but since their time the world has undergone deep economic and technological changes that have re-sculpted the cultural landscape. Such changes — neo-liberalism, Reaganomics, globalization, television, the internet — have all contributed to the making of an individualistic consumerism that chips away at the very system that gave birth to it, and while political choices may have facilitated this birth, political choices alone won’t be enough to soften its more ruinous effects. They’ll amount to little without far-reaching overhauls in education and economics to complement them, to create the species of electorate who wants to struggle towards the ‘new kind’ of politics so many writers have been calling for recently. Unfortunately, in this writer’s opinion, the consumeristic rot has penetrated so far into the political system that successfully implementing such “far-reaching overhauls” is a task impeded by the very thing it seeks to overhaul. We find ourselves, therefore, unhappily stranded in a kind of Catch-22, exiled in a world where atomized individuals are too self-centered, impatient and materialistic to occupy themselves with politics, and where the need of these individuals to hold uncompromisingly to their particular interests always has priority over the need of groups to come together to actually make things happen. Well, at least we can continue consuming…