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Americans don’t think like citizens. They think like shoppers.

One political scientist says politicians should embrace this reality if they want to win.

Shoppers wait in line while shopping at Toys R Us during the Black Friday sales event in Fort Worth, Texas.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A lot of Americans think the country should be run like a business.

This is a problem on a few levels. Most obviously, a country isn’t a company. Businesses exist to turn a profit; countries do not, and competence in business rarely translates to competence in politics.

Treating the country like a business also encourages Americans to think of themselves as customers rather than citizens. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner spoke directly to this idea in a 2017 interview: “We should have excellence in government ... The government should be run like a great company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers.”

American citizens are not Trump’s customers — we’re his boss. But more broadly, calling citizens “customers” implies the only thing that matters is self-interest: What am I paying, and what am I getting for it? Ideally, citizenship involves something beyond self-interest. We all want to benefit from good government, but citizenship should have a collective dimension that transcends narrow cost-benefit calculations.

Here’s where a new book by political scientist Ethan Porter, The Consumer Citizen, makes a provocative claim: The conventional idea of citizenship is a fantasy, and the only language the vast majority of people understand is consumerism. If that’s true, Porter says, then we need a form of politics that accepts this reality and tries to leverage it to produce the best possible outcomes.

I’m a little skeptical of Porter’s argument, but I’m also not sure he’s wrong. So I reached out to him to talk about why he thinks our assumptions about citizenship are outdated, why people who benefit most from government often reject it, and if a hyper-individualistic consumer culture is really compatible with any meaningful vision of citizenship.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

It’s hard to have this conversation without a clear idea of what democratic citizenship is supposed to mean and what it actually looks like in the world. So let’s start there.

Ethan Porter

There’s an idealized vision of citizenship that really goes all the way back to ancient Greece and ancient political philosophy. The idea is that citizenship makes demands on people and it means active involvement in public life. It demands that people be responsible and take the time to acquire knowledge about policy issues. It demands that people participate in political debate and accept all the burdens that come with democratic engagement.

So you’ll notice I’m using words like “responsibility” and “burden” and “demands.” These are the kinds of words that have typically been associated with citizenship. In the book, I try to imagine an alternative vision of citizenship that isn’t based in some fantasy of “public debate” and doesn’t place politics in some abstract realm removed from how actual people live their lives. If we’re going to be honest about the possibilities of citizenship today, we’ve got to be honest about how people think and how they spend their time.

Sean Illing

If the “ideal” citizen is a fantasy, what we have instead is something you call the “consumer citizen.” What’s that?

Ethan Porter

The consumer citizen is, firstly, a person who devotes much of his time to things besides citizenship. More specifically the consumer citizen is a person who spends a lot of his life shopping and making consumer decisions. Most people don’t spend much time thinking about, say, monetary policy, but they make many choices every day about what to buy or not buy, who to hire or who not to hire, what they can afford and what they can’t afford. As a result of this, people develop habits and techniques as consumers, and those habits and techniques shape the decisions they make as citizens, even if it’s not intentional.

A consumer citizen approaches government the way he or she approaches a provider of consumer goods. Now, you and I both know government is not an ordinary economic firm, but nonetheless that’s how consumer citizens see government. And that means they’re wondering, what are they getting out of it? They’re wondering if they’re getting a fair return on their investment. Are the benefits worth the costs?

The argument of my book is that there’s a disjunction between what government is and the expectations people have from their experiences as consumers. And that disjunction helps explain some of the more interesting puzzles in American political life.

Sean Illing

What puzzles does it explain?

Ethan Porter

Well, here’s one. In a time of massive inequality, what explains Americans’ opposition to tax increases? There have been many answers offered to this question. But part of the answer, I think, has to do with the expectations that consumers have about what they pay for. Like an ordinary firm, government extracts costs; but unlike an ordinary firm, it doesn’t make clear the benefits that people receive in return. People feel that they don’t get a good deal from government. And so they punish government as they would an ordinary firm — by withholding their support.

Sean Illing

Give me some examples of citizens making political decisions through a consumerist lens.

Ethan Porter

While writing the book, I came across a New York Times article about the Bush tax cuts of 2001. A man quoted in the article said something to the effect of, “It’s really good to get something back from government for a change.” At first glance, that’s bizarre because of course the person has likely benefited from any number of public goods the government has provided, even if he never benefited from direct benefits. But I think it makes more sense if you imagine a typical weekend from the perspective of this man.

Imagine a person who leaves work on Friday to get his biweekly paycheck and finds that some of the money is already removed for taxes. He feels it as a sort of cost that government is imposing upon him. Over the weekend, he takes his wife out to dinner. Working around the house, he pulls his back, so he takes a painkiller. He takes his kids to the park. He’s actually constantly receiving government benefits, but it’s really unlikely he’s actually going to understand those benefits come from government. So, as a consumer, he feels ripped off.

As a consumer, he says, well I paid for something on Friday, I paid money to the government and I’m not getting any benefits. Again, you and I can sit here and say, oh, no, he did benefit, and indeed he did. But for someone who, again, isn’t spending their time thinking about politics, it can be hard to discern those benefits. And so from the perspective of a consumer citizen, government is like an unfair company in the market, ripping them off and overcharging them.

Sean Illing

Most “consumer citizens” are very bad at understanding how government interacts with their lives. The costs of government (taxes) are very clear, but the benefits of government (public parks, drivable roads, safe food to eat) are harder for people to connect. That’s probably unavoidable in a big, complex society like ours, but it also seems like a recipe for incoherent electoral outcomes.

Ethan Porter

It seems pretty clear that consumer citizenship does lead people to make less-than-defensible political choices. One study in the book shows that people who aren’t particularly knowledgeable about politics are more likely to prefer candidates who provide them with equal amounts of government benefits and government costs, over candidates who promise them more benefits than costs.

As consumers, we want the value of what we paid for to align with the price we paid for it. Consumer citizens approach candidates the same way. This is a key point in the book. The less politically knowledgeable are more likely to prefer political candidates who give them fewer direct benefits compared to the costs they pay. By contrast, the people who are very politically knowledgeable are more likely to prefer candidates who offer them direct benefits, who offer them benefits beyond the value they paid.

When people ask what’s the matter with Kansas or make that kind of argument, I think part of the answer has to do with the power of consumer citizenship. But the consumer citizen is not immovable. Appealing to the consumer citizen can effect political change.

Sean Illing

What does it mean to appeal to consumer citizens?

Ethan Porter

It means being comfortable with government, particularly in the US, advertising its services in a way similar to private companies. This is something that government used to do but doesn’t really do much of anymore. You can go back and see art from the New Deal period. Government actually used to be invested in this idea of promoting itself. It’s not really the case anymore. I think that’s unfortunate.

As I show in the book, there are different lessons we can take from consumer life. We can take those lessons and apply them to certain advertisements for government. Done right, such advertisements can actually increase trust in government and increase support for various forms of taxation and government spending. So government needs to get more comfortable with advertising itself again.

Sean Illing

You take a very realist position, which is that consumerism is a permanent feature of our culture and we have to reconcile our politics to that reality. But I think consumerism is incompatible with citizenship, or at least deeply at odds with it, and trying to marry the two is therefore a mistake. I’ll tell you why, but I’ll pause and let you push back however you’d like.

Ethan Porter

I guess I don’t think of this as an attempt to marry consumerism and citizenship. My argument is that the two are already connected, whether we like it or not. There are obviously real tensions here — I don’t deny that. And I definitely agree that those tensions are deeply problematic for our politics. But the question is, what are we supposed to do? Consumerism isn’t going away, so we can either give up on citizenship or attempt to leverage the consumer mindset to make the world something closer to what we want it to be.

Sean Illing

Part of what I’m getting at here is that to be a citizen you have to care about your country and you have to care about the people who make it up, but in a capitalistic society like ours, market logic shapes our relationship to nearly everything, including and especially people. We’re not part of some shared project. We’re all competing for money, for power, for status, for whatever advantages we can get.

How do you build a viable conception of citizenship on that foundation?

Ethan Porter

I think you do it by reaching out to people where they are. One approach would be to build on the ubiquity of online shopping. There’s a great book, Politics With the People, in which the authors describe a series of virtual town halls they conducted, with legislators. These town halls do a lot to connect people to the legislators. But let’s bring these town halls to places where people actually are.

So you can imagine, you’re buying something on Amazon and you’re suddenly asked, do you want to participate in a town hall with your representative? And it doesn’t have to be Amazon. You could bring virtual town halls to any place of online business.

It doesn’t just have to be online, either. Whenever you go to Costco, when you’re walking around and getting your free stuff, it’d be really neat if there was also some local representative there, sharing other ways to get involved and perhaps offering a way to get involved right there.

Part of government’s charge in an era of consumer citizenship should be to reach out to citizens in marketplaces, whether they be virtual or in-person, and announce itself. Say, here’s what we do, and here’s how you can get involved.

Sean Illing

I don’t really disagree with you on the substance here; I guess I’m just not that sanguine about the viability of consumerism in the long term. But maybe you’re right, maybe we don’t have a choice.

Ethan Porter

Here’s something that might make you a little more optimistic. I conducted an experiment in early 2015, trying to get people to enroll in the Affordable Care Act. Different messages were sent out. One message that was sent out to prospective customers emphasized this notion of consumer fairness. Another message just contained typical advertising pablum. It turned out that the consumer fairness message was really effective at compelling people to sign up for the ACA.

Notions of fairness and reciprocity have always been essential to consumer behavior. Consumer behavior is not just a pure maximization game. Consumer behavior often involves consumers making decisions about what counts as fair, what counts as unfair, and wanting to be treated fairly. To the extent that it’s transactional, consumer citizenship can also be reciprocal. If we can inculcate a sense of shared obligation and a sense of reciprocity, we might be able to use consumer citizenship to achieve the higher, more idealized version of citizenship that I think you’re interested in and I think a lot of people are interested in. But to do that, we need to begin by acknowledging people as they are, not as we might wish them to be.

Sean Illing

Can you recall the specific phrases you used in each message?

Ethan Porter

The fairness message made clear at the top that the company’s “plans are priced to reflect their costs,” thereby hitting a key tenet of consumer fairness. The fairness postcard also made clear that the company sought to provide “fair coverage for you and your family.”

In the same place on the placebo postcard, recipients were told when the company was founded and the state in which it operated. Both postcards contained the same content otherwise, describing the company as offering high-quality, generous, and affordable coverage. The fairness message was nearly twice as effective as the placebo message in getting people to enroll.

Sean Illing

What’s your parting advice to politicians and parties who, for better or worse, have to appeal to consumer citizens if they have any hope of achieving their goals?

Ethan Porter

I can maybe offer some advice to the incoming Biden administration, because a lot of the book looks at attitudes toward taxes and government spending. Progressives are often afraid to talk about the costs that government imposes and instead want to talk only about the benefits that government provides. I think progressive policymakers should not be afraid and instead should communicate to citizens that the government doesn’t just provide benefits, it provides you a fair deal for the costs that you’ve already paid.

This notion of a “fair deal” encapsulates both benefits and costs. It may be counterintuitive to politicians on the progressive side, but I think doing this will likely lead to people becoming more supportive of progressive taxation and also increase their trust in government. That’s what I showed in several studies in the book, at least.

Bottom line: If people are approaching government as if it’s a provider of consumer goods, the government should respond by emphasizing to citizens how it’s a fair provider of consumer goods. And that means government has to get back into the self-promotion game. It has to sell itself to people in the most universal language we have: consumerism.