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In my recent book, Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks (University of California Press, 2009), I show how consumerism has oozed into every corner and crevice of American life and how we increasingly treat everything as a purchase. We seem to think that anything of value in life can be bought as easily as a frappuccino, and that if it doesn’t work right away, we can move on because there will always be something better to buy—even a president.

When it comes to politics, the consumer model has taken over just as our faith in politics and politicians has eroded. But this doesn’t mean that we still don’t want big solutions to big problems, problems like global warming and racial inequality (or at least personal distance from these matters). We just don’t believe these things will be taken care of through the ballot box or legislation anymore. If government can’t save the day, then we think our purchases can, and what makes this path even more attractive is that buying doesn’t call for much sacrifice at all.

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Why worry about the political process when marketers tell us that we can pick up a grande latte or a new pair khakis and change the world? Even if the world doesn’t turn out better, we still get the things we want and look better for trying—and of course, there is always another product out there to try. 

Companies like Starbucks have taken advantage of our declining political commitment, yet persistent desire for solutions. On its beverage cups, it promises to help save the planet, and on its posters it promises to aid small farmers in underdeveloped nations from Latin America to Asia.  Mostly it sells, what I call, innocence by association to YOU. It tells you that you are no longer a part of the problem because you buy from a company that cares.  On one of its cups, it makes this proposition quite clear. “YOU,” it reads, “bought 228 million pounds of responsibly grown, ethically traded coffee last year.” (And it doesn’t mention that it is Starbucks that certifies these beans as “ethically traded.”)  After talking a bit more about what the company it has done, the cup concludes in bold letters, “Way to go, you.” 

I finished writing my book just as Obama was taking office. I thought—hoped—that his historic election and the mass mobilization of voters behind it might mark a change from citizenship through consumption to citizenship through ongoing political engagement. I thought maybe Obama would revive our faith in politics and our trust in politicians. And I thought maybe he might be able to break the political model of innocence by association and consumptive citizenship. This model is based on the notion that ideas are bought and sold like goods, not to change things so much as to make us look better. When they stop doing that, we move on to another product.

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But over the last few months, it seems we have learned just how little has changed.

It’s increasingly clear that many saw a vote for Obama as another consumer act, another attempt to gain a kind of innocence by association.  (For whites, this meant you couldn’t be prejudiced if you voted for a candidate of color, could you?) Obama was, in a sense, the latest thing that we bought—our faith in him no deeper than it is in Target, Whole Foods or Toyota. Our point in voting was to say something about us, not about larger social structures. 

Obama promised us hope and change. He also cautioned that he inherited two wars and an economic calamity. Standing in front of that sea of people on the National Mall at his inauguration, he told us that a better world would take hard work and would require profound sacrifice.  He called on values of citizenship that are in many ways the direct opposite of the values of the consumer culture. Really, Obama told us about how political change would happen, but it doesn’t seem like everyone listened.  

Many treated a vote for him like the purchase of a new and improved car or computer, something that would make their lives easier and make them—that YOU from the Starbucks advertisements—look better.  When the improvements and changes didn’t happen overnight, some—especially upper-middle-class suburbanites—moved onto another product: to Springsteen fan Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey or the pickup driving Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts.  And now the president’s approval ratings—themselves a kind of consumer barometer—are steadily declining. 

Alas, Obama hasn’t recreated citizenship. The Starbucks business model has become for many a model for politics. Lots of Americans still distrust government, believing instead that anything worthwhile can be bought and that there will always be something better to buy—even a president. That faith in the transformative power of a purchase seems as unshaken as ever.   

Bryant Simon Ph.D. is professor of history and the director of American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.