Three presidential elections are pertinent to understanding the development of consumer culture in 20
century politics. Each election had qualities that separated it from other moments in American history and each told a story about consumerism, consumer culture, and helped develop a connection between consumer rights and the obligations to vote.
Each election also told a story about the development of technology over time. Consumption of each product altered the political landscape in such dramatic ways that it changed the manner in which the political marketing profession now approaches elections. In turn, those changes continue to affect the way that we are consumers of politics. For precisely that reason, the 1936 presidential election, the 1960 presidential election, and the 2008 presidential election were all "game changer" events that transformed politics into a consumer industry.
The 1936 election came at a time in American history when the mood of the country was extremely volatile due to the Great Depression. The early 1930s were characterized by a number of issues, the biggest of which stemmed from high unemployment, a lack of government intervention to support the people, and problems in the banking and farming sectors in particular. Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the role of the government with his election in 1932 and the New Deal, a series of initiatives that focused on reform of banks, recovery and relief of farms, and the creation of programs to put people back to work. It was a dramatic change in government policies, as the proactive support of the citizens was far different from any actions of the United States government through this point in American history.
The Second New Deal program neared its end as the election of 1936 was conducted. This program was an extension of the first New Deal (1933) and included the Social Security Act, which provided retirees with money as well as other programs that promoted the consumerism that many hoped would return the economy to more prosperous times. Programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) were consumerist ventures by a federal government interested in the expansion of the scope of services and pricing of electricity. Other programs specifically addressed the consumer; e.g. The Office of the Consumer Council in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA).
The Second New Deal was based, in effect, on a model of a consumer citizen who understood his or her expenditures as contributions to the nation's prosperity. For this reason, this election was vital for the consumer model of democracy.
Likewise, this election was a landmark consumer election because of the changes that are associated around polling. The early 1900s saw the rise of social sciences and polling to collect data about the average person in America. Sarah Igo, a history professor who specializes in the history of the public sphere states, "Only in the years after World War I did mass surveys telling Americans 'who we are,' 'what we want,' and 'what we believe' enter the public domain. Over the next several decades, they would transform it."
The 1936 election ended up being a perfect clash between the prevalent techniques of straw polling and the development of scientific reasoning in polling. Straw polling, an accumulation of data from pre-selected or methodologically convenient populations, was represented by the Literary Digest Poll of 1936, which predicted that Republican candidate Alfred Landon would win in a landslide.
The Literary Digest article was skewed so badly because most of the people polled were Republican. Additionally, the people chosen to receive the surveys were the people with telephones in 1936, which skews the results most surveys come from the affluent.
Meanwhile, George Gallup launched his Gallup polls, a scientific poll that relied on quota sampling, which entails polling a representative sample of voters and non-voters. This was considered scientific because it relied on quality data over large quantities of consumers. Gallup very nearly predicted the result of the election, a landslide for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and brought credence to his style of opinion polling.
Hence, the polling process had reached a crossroads. The failure of Literary Digest's poll happened because of their reliance only on the number of responses. Meanwhile, Gallup relied on using a specific technique to gain a feel for the different types of people that could be part of the electorate. As a result, they were able to act more critically on smaller amounts of information collected. Thus, the magnitude of having the correct information available for both politicians and potential political consumers to interact with became vital for future elections. This change resulted in a larger and widespread reliance on opinion polling and political interactions between mass media, politicians, and voters.
The 1960 election was an interesting contrast to 1936 in many ways. The future president did not want alter the role of government in the economy. However, he did foresee a country that advanced the economic freedoms Roosevelt laid out in the 1940s. John F. Kennedy resonated with the American people because of his campaigns ability to create a profile of a vigorous, energetic, articulate person who was ready to help the country usher in a new era of prominence. Kennedy labeled his platform the New Frontier, which focused on changing the mindset of the consumer to "ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country".
Kennedy asked people to begin thinking about their universe of obligation to each other and to country. He began the advancement of the country by pledging to put a man on the moon. However, at the same time Kennedy New Frontier also advocated an agenda of social justice. He raised minimum wage laws and increased Social Security benefits. He supported the advancement of the civil rights movement, although it did not happen during his presidency, and he helped protect James Meredith's attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi. The election was a "game changer" because Kennedy preached harmony among Americans and the world, while at the same time advancing the consumer agenda by raising minimum wages and increasing Social Security benefits. Again, the prevailing thinking was to put more money in the hands of the consumer to spend via tax cuts.
On the other hand, Kennedy also invisibly changed the consumer culture in politics drastically in regards to the performance aspect of the industry. Kennedy used television and political marketers to begin the process of constructing careful images of individual himself. This process added complexity to the consumer culture in politics expanding this culture to include advertising and marketing professionals. Consultants eventually came to be labeled as image-makers. Dan Nimmo, a political communication expert and professor, uses this term based on the work of Daniel Boorstin in the book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America in an article titled "Political Image Makers and the Mass Media". He discusses how voters in elections look for two major things from any candidate. They look for a person who is party loyal and experienced and they judge candidates characters in the sense of looking at "the dramatic …and personal qualities" of each person.
The image-maker, or political consultant who is aware of this, in turn, can inform their candidate on how to act, dress, and what to think. Ultimately, the image-maker helps shift the role of politics from a proactive product producer driven to a reactive product consumer driven. The candidate's image has become a mirror of what the consumer desires and is shaped by both consumer wants and political consultants and marketers. It is interesting to note that this is an extension of the polling process, as the political consultants and marketers build upon accepted polling practices to scientifically derive information to use in elections, loosely speaking. In addition, the election process changes for the consumer as well. Robert Westbrook, a professor of history at the University of Rochester, suggests that "in most of the country…winning elections became less a matter of mobilizing the faithful and more a matter of attracting the undecided. This reconceptualization of the voter as a consumer rather than a soldier was part of the effort of parties to maintain control over"...
Ultimately, the Kennedy campaign introduced a strong performance aspect that television only enhanced of the man who became a product for the people.
The 2008 election was also a "game changing" election for a number of reasons. I chose this election because of the closeness this topic has to many of the students. It is recent and real as opposed to the other case studies that students will see. It also has a historic status marking the election of Barack Obama as the first black President. Obama inherited a country, however, that was in the midst of an economic crisis and developed political consumer policies were that to support and protect consumers. It is interesting to note that Obama fits similar molds to both Roosevelt and Kennedy. Beyond being the first black elected President, a monumental moment in the face of America's race relations, Obama entered office and immediately passed a financial bailout of the banking and automotive industries. He reformed health care in an attempt to minimize financial strains on the systems and he reformed banking to add more consumer protections. Again, the federal elections proved to be a place for mandates that support and protect consumers this election actually serves many to continue the equalization of opportunity for people to consume.
Obama's election in 2008 also held special cachet in the distinctive way it embraced social media networks. This process of mobilizing the electorate, as Westbrook suggests happened with Kennedy's campaign, is something that the Obama campaign capitalized upon in 2008; Obama attracts the undecided voter.
This is a "game changer" in politics because previous campaigns had not benefited from this ability to organize and communicate with younger generations. The use of social media networks, such as Facebook©, Twitter™, and MySpace™ was an extremely perceptive strategy that related to the youth in the country. Barack Obama was more effective than John McCain at using this platform for motivating and engaging the people; the result certainly points to continued reliance on these sources of communication to organize and disseminate important information for the public. In this sense, consumer culture continues to grow as the voters desire to equalize voting opportunity with equal information of all candidates.
Changing consumer culture is evident within the development of each election. The clear connections from presidential elections that contain visible and invisible markers of consumerism exemplify how American politics became a consumer driven industry. Each case study illustrates similar policies from the president/government towards the development of consumers. Indirectly, the case studies also help students study lessons of how consumers utilize changing technologies over time. However, an important question should be reflected upon based on these various case studies. How do these elections help create a consumer citizen who believes in the power of the universe of obligation? The best type of consumer citizen is one who will recognize that the ongoing development of consumer rights should warrant a growth in the importance of a universe of obligation; this duty applies for the visible consumers of politics next to them as well as the invisible consumers of politics in Alabama, Florida, or anywhere across America.