Consumer culture in the United States between the voting citizens, both working and non-working, creates the engine of socio-economic and political activity. Thomas Frank’s thesis in What’s the Matter with Kansas, explores the economic bamboozlement of the right in Kansas and provides a prismatic, holographic insight within the boundaries of Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands, Bethany Moreton’s To serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, and Lizabeth Cohen’s Consumer’s Republic. The above authors demonstrate how cultural manipulation of citizens and economics has impacted the America’s political and socio-economic landscape.

Consumer culture is simplistically described as the massive push, by the government and business, for American citizens to participate in the “democratic” process by spending their money, buying products, and subsequently helping to invigorate the economy. This consumer culture has been prevalent in our society since World War II and continues today, in 2011. How we, as citizens feel, reflects in how we spend our hard-earned money. John F. Kennedy “asserted that ‘consumers include us all’ when embracing the concept of the citizen consumer of the New Deal era.

Voting constituents are made up of both working and non-working citizens; both white and blue collar workers. Non-working citizens would be those members of society who have retired and are no longer working full time, yet still consume and still exercise their right to vote. Women and minority citizens never achieved the status of the white, male worker in terms of job opportunity and equivalent wages for equivalent work.

Wealthy citizens and business owners chafed at the lack of letting Social Darwinism, private enterprise, and the free enterprise system work without government interference and the policies enacted during the New Deal era that threatened their bottom lines. These conservative business men were concerned that minimum wages and labor unions would usher in a new era of political enslavement and that “dismantling the welfare state was a crusade for freedom.” These upper crust, influential men, during the 1930s-1950s, put into motion the conservative movement of the last thirty years, by laying the foundation for different organizations, as Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands guides the reader into understanding. The conservative, laissez-faire organizations had a strong Christian base that wanted to preserve their way of life and see their values and political beliefs spread throughout the country. “Money could, after all, support ideas, print legislative analyses, and hire scholars far more easily than it could create a mass following in support of conservative economic policies.”

Thomas Frank’s, What’s the Matter with Kansas, analyzes the political changes that have occurred in Kansas during the last twenty years and how these changes are a hologram of the country as a whole. The terms “Democrat” and “Republican” have been changing and no longer denote the values and issues that they each once stood for. Politics has become muddled in social issues, rather than the focus on economic problems that exist. Historically, agrarian Kansas had been a hotbed of leftist, populist movements, starting in the 1890s. Farmers were driven to financial “ruin by years of bad prices, debt, and deflation…” By today’s standards, “the populist demands were not so far-fetched – farm programs, state ownership of railroads, a graduated income tax to pay for it all, and a silver or even a paper currency”. At this early stage of politics, Kansans felt that both political parties were attempting to distract the general population from the “real problem -corporate capitalism”.

The Populist movement was agrarian based and part of the Granger movement of the 1880s and 1890s that was taking root in the mid-west area of the United States. Industrialists at this point began their stranglehold on products and production, as they controlled the majority of resources and the means of production. The United States, by the 1880s had started feeding much of the world as well as producing products for national and international consumption. Populists also fought and pushed for a universal and equitable means to exchange their goods for money, in light of the predatory banking practices of the 1880s. This is how the United States Post Office began selling Money Orders – a guaranteed, easily locatable means of currency that would ensure the farmers received payment for their goods. The Republican and Democratic parties of the 1920s and 30s began incorporating many of the ideas after the Populist Party faded away, ideas such as labor reform and trust busting. As Phillips-Fein quotes Cohen in agreement, “The New Deal, was in large part “made” by the people across the country who responded to the constraints of the Depression by taking part in strikes, in protests, and in politics more generally in ways that previously they would never have believed possible.” The Democrats provided something to the working class – New Deal legislation and social programs to help the lower classes that had been devastatingly hit during the Great Depression.

The traditional Democratic Party started morphing and via the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), “has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting, affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues.” (Frank 243) The blue-collar workers who were the “backbone” of the Democrats started moving into the ranks of the Republican party of Kansas and other areas of the country. There are “radical” conservatives who tend to comprise the poorer demographics of the state. These folks have been struggling financially yet support deregulation and tax cuts, which only hurts their economic causes, jobs and families.

The “liberal” conservatives of the Republican Party became the big winners with local and state politics as they benefited from the voting reactions of the “radical” conservatives who keep supporting tax -cuts, which only benefit the wealthy and does not benefit the poor conservatives. These “radical” folks started chasing red herrings in the form of social issues and let their beliefs run their economic issues. Hot topics like Christianity, abortion, gun control, and gay marriage/rights sucked in the poor “radical” conservatives. These topics sidetracked the poor conservatives into not thinking about their own livelihoods and how tax cuts affect their own economic well being while benefitting the wealthy upper classes.

Ultimately, many business and religious leaders began to realize that in order to garner support and strength for their causes of free-enterprise and Christian based values, a network of conservative think tans were necessary to counter the ideas of the liberal university system, with the ultimate goal to undermine the defenses of liberalism. Another example of tools utilized by the conservative movement is the funding of media outlets as a literal marketplace of ideas in order to bring ideas to the broad consumer public.

Examples of the associations that were started by and for the very wealthy included the Chamber of Commerce, Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), American Enterprise Association (AEA) morphed into the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for Public Policy Research. The Business Roundtable branched off into two groups, the Labor Law Study group focusing on industrial grants and the March Group which focused on world trade. Getting into the university system happened with various Christian organizations such as Campus Crusades for Christ and Students for Free Enterprise (SIFE), in order to help teach and influence the next generation of business students.

Cohen reminds us that “the government buttressed a male-directed family economy by disproportionately giving men access to career training, property ownership, capital, and credit, as well as control over family finances, making them the embodiment of the postwar ideal of purchaser as citizen and limiting their wives’ claim to full economic and social citizenship.” Cohen’s observation ties in well with the premise of the Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise for two simple reasons 1) the origins of its’ populist roots and 2) because of Christianity’s patriarchal component upon which the stores were based on. Sam Walton strove to recreate a family-like atmosphere in which consumer citizens felt comfortable and that they belonged to an extended family when shopping at his stores. At the core of this comfortable, cozy feeling were women. Wal-Mart’s origins draw on its’ populist roots.

The company germinated in the Ozarks of Arkansas, with a discount format that is now pervasive throughout the country. As the company grew, the targeted demographics of lower income, hard-working and fixed income agrarian folk and the location of stores in county seats or near military bases appealed to the common, more rural people. Customers were greeted by smiling, friendly employees while being treated to country music bands and bar-b-q’s on the weekends, when most rural folk would come to town for shopping, social, and business needs. The company was family oriented, comfortable, and homey; a place where people knew their neighbors.

Women were recruited to work in stores, providing some of that nurturing feel – servicing customers was seen as an extension of tending to their own families. This also reinforced the paternalistic, evangelical Christian model that the store’s founders, Sam and Helen Walton supported. Further, the Walton family supported and encouraged the education of white-collar workers from the Sun Belt for the “family” business of stores through support of Christian higher education facilities such as the University (formerly College) of the Ozarks. This helped pave the way for the United States to become a nation of consumers rather than producers. “…the Earth shall wax old like a garment…” (Isaiah 51:6)

The Wal-Mart style, paternalistic, benevolent boss theory was how many big companies (US Steel, General Electric) presented themselves. This cosmology helped middle management reorganize union workers into a market place type structure. Market pressures in the early 1970s were a driving force in this wake up call (1971 first year of American trade deficit). Once again, corporate culture (fearing for it’s future) moved working people away from their common self-interest.

In conclusion, Thomas Frank’s thesis concerning the befuddlement of the conservative right in Kansas is well supported by the observations of Moreton and Phillips-Fein under the larger umbrella of Cohen’s consumer definition. Bethany Moreton’s linkage of religion and political allegiance supports Thomas Frank’s conclusions in an unequivocal manner. The rise of the conservative, evangelical political participation has driven the franchise away from rational thought and into religious consumerism. “…thou be increased, and inherit the land.” (Exodus 23:30) Consumer citizens who believe can be more easily controlled and manipulated. The rapture mentality teaches that it is righteous to take advantage of the planet and her resources, because all Christians will be saved. The planet’s wealth is provided by the Almighty to be utilized, even to the point of depletion because that would be God’s will. Lower and middle class citizens looked towards the wealthy as a model in how to live and how to consume, just as they looked to God for answers in life.

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