While further mandatory restrictions will hopefully change this outlook, we must understand why it has been so difficult mobilizing Americans to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing. One could point to a host of causes: the death of expertise, the stovepiping of information sources, the rise of post-truth politics, the lack of paid leave for many workers and the Trump administration’s failure of leadership.
Yet, another factor is at play. For the past three-quarters of a century, Americans have largely not been asked to sacrifice across the board for the good of the country. They’ve been told they can fulfill their responsibilities as citizens by being consumers — buying stuff to keep the economy humming was all it took to be a good American. This makes the sacrifices now being requested feel alien, causing many Americans to bristle.
In the 1930s and 1940s, under the influence of Keynesian economics, consumption was reconceived as a patriotic duty that would fuel a recovery from the Depression and then sustain the postwar boom. Shortly after the war, the New Deal economist Robert Nathan wrote: “Only if we have large demands can we expect large production. Therefore … ever-increasing consumption on the part of our people is … one of the prime requisites for prosperity.” This conflation of consumption and citizenship altered Americans’ conceptions of themselves and what they demanded of their leaders.
As technology grew more sophisticated, businesses chopped up the citizenry into market segments based on demographic traits and targeted them with specific messages. Political campaigns soon followed suit, delivering different appeals to audiences that they could, with each passing decade, increasingly pinpoint into ever narrower segments. The growth of direct-mail fundraising in the 1970s exemplified this trend.
The rise of the mall and other privatized shopping centers in the place of old downtown centers in the 1970s and 1980s, and then the rise of Internet shopping replacing the mall in the 2000s, removed crucial sites of public interaction, let alone discourse.
Following these economic and cultural shifts, the relationship between voter and elected official transitioned into a contract in which the government’s legitimacy was based on its ability to provide for an ever-expanding standard of consumption. If the people’s responsibility was to consume, the government’s responsibility became maintaining economic conditions that allowed them to do so; in short, preserving their prosperity.
By the 1970s, historian Lizabeth Cohen argues, the idea of an elected official calling for sacrifice for a common cause became harder to conceive.
President Jimmy Carter found this out the hard way after giving his infamous 1979 “malaise” speech calling on Americans to reduce dependence on foreign oil by expanding alternative energy sources and embracing conservation programs and public transportation. Carter asked Americans to: “take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can … to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel.”
Although Carter received a modest boost in his approval ratings for this speech, the American people ultimately opted for the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, who continued the trend of praising the people but demanding nothing from them. Declaring “less is not enough,” Reagan removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof and lifted federal controls on the domestic production of gas as soon as he entered office, paving the way for a resurgence of gas-guzzling automobiles.
This political trend coincided with the rise of the all-volunteer military after the debacle of Vietnam, which meant that an ever-tinier slice of the population was asked to sacrifice for the common good by serving. As historian Andrew Bacevich notes, this shift changed the democratic social contract. Instead of meaningful sacrifice like military service, higher taxes or the forgoing of certain consumer goods, Americans instead adopted the shallow, performative patriotism represented by ballpark military demonstrations, “support the troops” bumper stickers and the canceling of the Dixie Chicks.
While these rituals and symbols soothe our consciences, they have left most of us content to go about life expecting others to sacrifice to keep us safe. Meanwhile, American foreign policy shifted toward maintaining the free flow of oil from the Middle East, a crucial plank for upholding domestic economic prosperity, although the volunteer military would bear the burdens of policing this volatile region.
Nothing exemplified this facile conception of the citizen’s obligations to national defense more than the post-9/11 wars. In the midst of invading two countries, President George W. Bush did not renew the draft and even cut taxes — instead of raising them as in previous wars. Embodying the idea of consumerism as patriotism, Bush asked the public shortly after 9/11 to take responsibility for reviving the airline industry: “Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” In 2006, as the Iraq War reached a crescendo, he exhorted: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”
Today, too many Americans think consumerism is their civic responsibility, and they expect the government to preserve the rhythms and conveniences of everyday life at all costs. The election of Donald Trump, a man who seems incapable of self-sacrifice, may be the apex of this trend.
We still have robust levels of voluntarism at local levels, as exhibited repeatedly since the coronavirus began through donations and other acts of kindness. However, our diminished capacity for “involuntarism” and real sacrifice is highly problematic in the face of this sort of challenge.
The reality of the next few months will probably be that the government will disrupt our lives in ever-intensifying waves. It will have to mobilize us preemptively, before the crisis is so bad that Americans will voluntarily isolate ourselves. This is where it is especially important to understand the historical roots of our consumer-oriented notions of citizenship and our reticence to accept temporary compulsive measures.
It is hard to draw lessons from an ongoing event, but here’s a tentative takeaway from this crisis: it is as much a political event as biological disaster. The leaders, ideas and histories of different nations matter in shaping how they respond. The fact that most of the country is experiencing the same problem at the same time could inspire a shift away from hyper-individualism and consumer citizenship, but this will not happen automatically. Building a stronger concept of the citizen requires an active consciousness of how our notions of self, society and government have changed in ways that make it harder to put the collective good first when we really need to.