The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History

By Meg Jacobs; William J. Novak et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Ten
POCKETBOOK POLITICS

DEMOCRACY AND THE MARKET IN
TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICA

Meg Jacobs

IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, pocketbook issues rose to promi- nence in American politics. In 1914, the young Progressive journalist Walter Lippmann declared, “the real power emerging to-day in demo- cratic politics is just the mass of people who are crying out against the ’high cost of living.’ That is a consumer’s cry.”1 That phrase, the “high cost of living,” gained currency at the turn of the century, when more Americans became urban consumers and when prices began an upward trend, reversing a century of deflation. As Americans became increasingly dependent on basic goods purchased in the market rather than produced at home, they started to pay more attention to costs. For those living on limited means, a jump in prices, even if small, could make the difference between having and going without. A new era of inflation affected every- one, including the rapidly expanding group of white-collar workers on fixed salaries. Throughout the twentieth century, even in times of deflation or relative price stability, politicians have tapped into pocketbook con- cerns to mobilize voters.

Why have historians overlooked the influence of pocketbook politics in the twentieth century? The conventional wisdom holds that consumers are notoriously apathetic and politically weak. As Lippmann acknowl- edged, many “pretend to regard the consumer’s interest as a rather mythi- cal one. ‘All the people’ sounds so sentimental, so far removed from the clash of actual events.” Indeed, it is a staple of American political science that consumers are difficult to organize into coherent political move- ments. Precisely because all citizens are potential consumers, their inter- ests are diffuse and often changing. As New Deal historian Ellis Hawley concludes, “In many respects, then, the consumer remained the ‘forgotten man’ of the New Deal, the most prominent gap in the new organizational

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