Imagine the most epic can of shaving cream you have ever seen. The name brand is all upper-case in a white-on-blue design. A tagline is below, swooping along a curved red streak: YES YOU CAN have more aloe! Be the lather you wish to see in yourself! And let’s not forget the swirling blue poof of shaving cream, with golden rays emanating from its core. But best of all is the scent — all-new, fist-bumping, OBAMAFRESH.
Ah, consumption! A world completely divorced from public service and civic participation, right?
Wrong! For whatever reason, we’ve managed to overidealize our belief in the inherent promise of civic behavior while stymieing and moralizing on economic consumption. Our typical notions separating consumption and citizenship are in fact negligent to the way the world actually works, and bifurcating the two may actually be worse for our understanding of the political economy.
The simplest means for exploring the political ambiance of economic consumption is by looking at consumer choice. You might choose to drive a hybrid car as a political statement, to show off your beliefs and concerns about the environment. Consumption can actually take on the form of political motivation, even a call to arms for a just(ified) cause.
Even further: noticing a shiny new Hummer hulking around the neighborhood, you, the hybrid owner, might be even more antagonistic to the politics engendered in your neighbor’s gas-guzzling purchase and decide to rally for a healthier planet.
Indeed, consumption and citizenship are not so easily divorced from each another. Political behavior may actually be a kind of consumer behavior, and a kind that is not as self-contradictory as one might immediately expect. When reviewing candidates in an election, voters are often peering through a kaleidoscope of expected costs and benefits that may (or may not even) relate to them and their situation — thereby construing the candidate into something that could be completely irrelevant to the rest of the populous. While not necessarily self-centered or inconsiderate of others, one could argue that it makes sense for voters to make political decisions in their own best interest.
At the same time, political practice can often be desperately lacking in real virtue despite an impassioned, popular sense of public-spiritedness. Politicians and policymakers have mixed motives in their engagement in the political process — and may not be acting in accordance with the ideals of true “public service” at all.
Whether it’s the thrill of conquering a worthy foe, the passion for solving problems, the joy of fame through public notoriety, or the sense of accomplishment felt by brokering a savory deal, politics always has its emotional rewards that, on the most visceral level, make it extremely appealing.
I see this on a daily basis in my interactions with other Yalies, be it in casual encounters or on formal parade in various campus organizations. Let no one deny the vast reasons for political involvement beyond mere notions of “public service.” Heaven forbid we consider the possibility that politics, and their glorification, might be ineffectual in engendering the true democratic values we would like to see.
While the typical analogy goes that citizenship is to public-spiritedness as consumerism is to self-interest, this dichotomy is a false one, and the situation is far more complex than a simple binary dialectic. Both political action and economic consumption can be, inconsequentially to the other, either public-spirited or self-centered. Thinking otherwise is simply being naïve to the true state of both consumerism and citizenship, which are neither mutually exclusive nor separable at all.
Matthew Brimer is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.