Every day, millions of Americans diligently engage in patriotic shopping: In discount outlets, suburban malls and appliance barns, we turn shirt collars and VCR boxes inside out and upside down, looking for the label that says "Made in the U.S.A." Somehow, many of us believe that if we buy New Balance shoes or rush into Wal-Mart or pass up the British-owned Burger King in favor of the all-American Jack in the Box, we'll be able to protect our nation and keep the demons of the global economy at bay. It's a ritual of nationalism just as sure as the Fourth of July fireworks that will arc across the night sky tonight all over the United States.
At its core, "Buy American" rests on the idea of the nation as an economic team, with consumers and manufacturers working together as partners. If we shoppers do our bit by buying American products, then the big economic powers that be will do theirs by reinvesting our dollars to create good jobs in the United States. It's a contest, pitting "us"--the American squad--against "them," those infiltrating foreigners whose economic incursions must be warded off.
But the call to Buy American, however appealing, is out of touch with the realities of the global economy. And all too often its advocates have been startlingly hypocritical. Historically, privileged Americans have publicly promoted the Buy American idea and then feathered their own nests with imports, often quite lucratively. In recent years, corporations have repeatedly manipulated the Buy American sentiment while themselves moving investments overseas. Unions have asked us to Buy American rather than build bridges to labor movements abroad. Throughout the 20th century, the call to Buy American has encouraged a national self-definition that's xenophobic and dangerously racist. As a political program, Buy American undermines the very values we hope to support when we bring patriotism to the shopping cart.
Nonetheless, Buy American campaigns grow out of a deeply democratic impulse, as ordinary Americans try to exercise control over their economic lives. Throughout U.S. history, the call to Buy American has emerged at moments of financial insecurity, when diverse people have sought to raise economic walls around the nation in order to better serve those within. In the process, Buy American campaigns have helped construct our sense of national identity, as we decide who we are--and, especially, who we are not--in our day-to-day relationships with foreign goods.
The Buy American idea, in fact, goes all the way back to the American Revolution, when thousands of colonists swore off imported goods to protest British control of the colonial economy. The most famous protest of this "nonimportation" movement was, of course, the dumping of English tea in what became known as the Boston Tea Party.
The upstanding Boston merchant John Hancock--famous for his flowery signature on the document that we celebrate every Fourth of July--publicly pronounced his support for nonimportation. But he subsequently turned a huge profit by secretly trafficking in forbidden British imports, whose prices were all the higher because they were banned in the colonies.
Thomas Jefferson publicly swore off imports, too. But he twice ordered a long list of British goods for his new house anyway. In a letter to his agent, he acknowledged that the items were prohibited, but said he anticipated the British Parliament would soon meet the boycotters' demands. He later asked his agent to send "some shoes and other prohibited articles," and, for his new wife, a fancy pianoforte of "fine mahogany, solid, not veneered . . . the workmanship very fine"--proposing to store them upon their arrival if the ban hadn't yet been lifted.
Certain shining lights of the Revolution, in other words, might have publicly sworn off imports for political purposes; but, in private, they followed their own interests.
The next wave of Buy Americanism erupted during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This time, the force behind the movement was newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Calling for a national Buy American campaign, he argued that patriotic Americans could pull the nation out of the Depression only if they rejected foreign products. Imports, he charged, were dangerous whether produced by "foreigners" overseas or by "infiltrating" immigrants who were sapping the nation's economy from within.
Hearst's "foreigners" were almost always Japanese. His newspapers, in their efforts to build support for the Buy American cause, deployed an array of racial stereotypes: Asians were sneaky, cunning and perpetually plotting to subvert the U.S. economy. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) jumped on Hearst's bandwagon, charging "foreign labor" with taking jobs from "American citizens." Hearst's efforts climaxed with the passage of the Buy American Act of 1933, which President Herbert Hoover signed on his last day in office, and which required the federal government to purchase American-made goods whenever economically feasible.
But when it came to his own purchases, Hearst spent his wealth far beyond U.S. borders. He owned a castle in Wales, a 900-acre cattle ranch in Mexico and part of an immense copper mine in Peru. He spent millions on European antiques and filled his opulent castle on the central California coast with them. And the paper on which newspapers were printed? Bought in Canada.
The Buy American movement with which we are more familiar, though, began in the 1970s. As profit rates fell in the face of newly global competition, U.S.-based corporations responded by laying off hundreds of thousands of employees, many of them unionized workers in mass production. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, U.S. manufacturers eliminated more than 900,000 jobs yearly. Employment in the steel industry alone plummeted 40 percent.
That economic dislocation produced the third, longest and deepest wave of Buy American sentiment in U.S. history. This time, it began with the labor movement. In 1971, after imports first began to roil the garment industry, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) launched a national advertising campaign fusing the call to "Look for the Union Label" with the Buy American ideal. During the mid- and late 1970s, the union ran a series of TV advertisements in which a snappy chorus of ILGWU members belted out: "Look for the union label, when you are buying a coat, dress or suit." In one version, an earnest union member explained before the song: "There used to be more of us in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, but a lot of our jobs disappeared because a lot of the clothes Americans are buying. . . are being made in foreign places."
But as soon as the ILGWU launched its "Buy Union, Buy American" campaign, it sank into the same racial swamp as had Hearst. In early August 1972, the ILGWU plastered posters throughout the New York City subway system that featured a huge American flag, under which bold letters proclaimed: "MADE IN JAPAN." Smaller text below asked, "Has your job been exported to Japan yet? If not, it soon will be unless you buy the products of American workers who buy from you."
Critics of the campaign immediately pointed out that the poster drew on the same xenophobic sentiments that had fueled Hearst's prewar "Yellow Peril" hysteria, and its offspring, the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. The poster, they argued, unfairly blamed Japan for U.S. economic ills. The ILGWU withdrew the ad, and its campaigns thereafter were careful to note the many different parts of the world from which imports came.
Soon, though, the ILGWU's Buy American anti-import approach revealed deeper contradictions. Just as had previous Buy American movements, it set up another "us" versus a foreign "them." The problem was that U.S.-based garment manufacturers were transferring production overseas in the '70s and '80s as fast as they could. Meanwhile, the ILGWU was asking its members, many of them Asian and Latina immigrants, to demonstrate against garments being produced by their family members abroad. Rather than pursue a policy of transnational solidarity with garment workers all over the globe, as it does today, the union insisted on a Buy American partnership with domestic garment manufacturers--who were laughing all the way to the bank.
Auto workers marched militantly into the same nationalist trap in the '80s. As U.S. firms' share of the domestic automobile market dropped and layoffs multiplied, rank-and-file auto workers picked up sledgehammers and ritualistically bashed Toyotas in protest against imports. Union halls throughout the country banned imported cars from their parking lots. Nationalist slogans such as "BUY AMERICAN. THE JOB YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN" sprouted on the nation's bumper stickers. Once again, the racial politics of Buying American got nasty. Caricatures of Asians appeared on leaflets, graffiti and billboards, as many frustrated auto workers seemed to blame Asians--including Americans of Asian descent--for their plight.
Meanwhile, Ford and General Motors were continuing to move production overseas, where they could pay workers far less than what U.S. unionized auto workers earn. By 1997, a GM spokesman would say that "the goal in the very near term is to have 50 percent of our capacity outside of North America." That same year, the Chrysler Corporation merged with the German corporation Daimler-Benz to form a new company loyal to workers of neither nation.
By the mid-'80s, certain manufacturers and retailers were also quick to figure out that there was money to be made from the call to Buy American. In 1985, a group of textile and garment manufacturers formed the Crafted With Pride in U.S.A. Council, which still puts out little white product tags with a red and blue star, reading "Crafted With Pride in U.S.A." It also paid $85 million for a series of slick TV ads in the late '80s and early '90s that suggested Americans who bought imports were to blame for domestic economic ills.
The man behind this particular Buy American curtain was South Carolina textile magnate Roger Milliken. Milliken is famous not only for being a secretive billionaire who owns textile mills throughout the South, but as a founder of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. During the '90s, he has served as one of conservative presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan's biggest advisers and financial backers. Milliken's passionate public commitment to economic nationalism, however, hasn't kept him from opening plants in Japan, Denmark, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom.
Or take the case of Wal-Mart, one of the biggest corporate promoters of the Buy American idea in recent years. Huge banners in Wal-Mart superstores throughout the country have exhorted us to "Bring It Home to the U.S.A." But for all its public nationalism, Wal-Mart, too, is reinvesting its all-American dollars overseas. During the '90s, it bought 122 new stores in Canada and opened 41 new stores in Mexico. Most shamelessly, it runs a "Buy Mexican" campaign as well as "Buy American" campaigns at the exact same time--manipulating nationalist sentiments in both countries.
The problem with the Buy American approach is that it advances nationalist solutions to global problems. In a world of NAFTA and GATT, where free traders are rapidly rewriting the rules of global economic affairs, Buy American misses the boat. The Buy American approach not only blinds us to these deeper workings of economic globalization, but plays into the hands of certain corporations that wave the flag ostentatiously, then flee overseas to play the same game with Mexicans, Canadians or Chinese.
As the 2000 presidential election peeks around the millennial corner, the economic nationalist card is waiting eagerly in the wings to be played. Will xenophobia triumph over a forthright look at the transnational realities of the corporate-driven global economy? Or will we find new ways to solve our economic challenges without casting foreign peoples as our enemies? We need to celebrate the democratic impulse behind Buy American campaigns but we also need to find alternative ways for ordinary Americans to achieve control of our nation's economy from below--and, in the process, define our nation in ways that embrace all the many people within our borders.
Dana Frank is a professor of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This article is adapted from her new book, "Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism" (Beacon Press).
CAPTION: THE PEOPLE SPEAK: The Buy American Foundation's quarterly newsletter offers "orchids" of praise and "onions" of disdain to those who are seen as friends and foes of the cause. Examples: "Onions to the York, Pa., police department. . . for leasing their new police cars from the local Mitsubishi dealer. . . . Orchids to U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings, a champion of fair trade, not free trade."
CAPTION: STAYING POWER: Above, garment workers protest in New York City's Herald Square in 1977 while union leaders met with President Jimmy Carter about clothing imports. More than two decades later, the issue still elicits commentary, below.
CAPTION: AUTO FOCUS: Above, a parking lot at the United Auto Workers Union headquarters in Detroit in 1981. Are there any cars today that are 100 percent American made? The U.S. Stuff Web site claims it hasn't found any; the closest are 1999 Saturns, labeled "90 percent U.S./Canadian content with final U.S. assembly."
CAPTION: LABEL LOGIC: According to Apparel.Net, a recent Gallup poll revealed that 84 percent of Americans would rather buy American products than imported ones, so the promotion of U.S.-made goods through labels and tags is of great importance to American retailers.
CAPTION: BUMPER CROP: The Buy American movement is big on catchy slogans. Some examples since the 1970s:
Bring It Home to the USA
American Is Beautiful
We Buy What We Build and Want to Build What We Buy
Do It in an American Car
Be American, Buy American