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When, and Why, Did America Start Calling Its Citizens 'Consumers'?

When, and Why, Did America Start Calling Its Citizens 'Consumers'?

consumerism citizenship
Does framing the people within a country as "consumers" encourage a transactional relationship to civic interaction? That's what some critics say. Photolove/Anthony Bradshaw/Hapa/Alija/Getty Images

by Patrick J. Kiger

February 25, 2017

In a recent opinion piece "How Trump's immigration plans hurt American citizens' pocketbooks" published in the political newspaper The Hill, Maurice Goldman criticized President Donald Trump's plans for an immigration crackdown by pointing to the cost of building a border wall, hiring more enforcement agents and reducing legal immigration channels. But what was particularly interesting was the columnist's choice of words in one key passage. In contrast to the headline, which used the word "citizen," Goldman instead noted that "you, the consumer" would pay for the expense of Trump's policies.

That may not have been just a slip. It's hard to say exactly when it started, but in recent years, there seems to be an increasing tendency to use the term "consumer" interchangeably with "citizen," even when the discussion isn't taking place strictly in an economic framework. And some political experts say that the choice of words may reveal a subtle but worrisome shift in how we see ourselves and our role in American society — away from the notion of working together with others toward the common good, and toward a nation of individuals primarily motivated by self-interest.

shopping consumers shoppers
Does a focus on the economic role of U.S. citizens diminish their civic duties? Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Using consumer interchangeably with citizen "has become part of our default discourse — the normal way we view society and people," says Jathan Sadowski, who earned a doctorate from the University of Arizona's School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and currently is a guest lecturer at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. (He also wrote this 2015 article, titled "Stop Treating Citizens as Consumers.")

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"We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves."


  • Matt_ADMIN_Matt_ADMIN_ Administrator
    An article worth reading. I just wonder though why individuals, like this author, are surprised that people have been downgraded to valueless input machines when we live in an economic model that commoditizes everything, and indeed celebrates that commoditization as something good?
    "...Say, 'GOD is sufficient for me.' In Him the trusters shall trust." (Quran 39:38)
  • Sometimes citizens are upgraded from consumers to "Taxpayers", which really goes to show we're all just numbers in the machine in this world.

    "We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves."

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