Materialism and America: How Has American Democracy Shaped Consumer Culture?

By Alexandria Smith ’27
Staff Writer

At the core of the United States, since its emergence as a country, is the desire to secure happiness. Due to the individualistic nature of the country and its large degree of social mobility and opportunity, it has made Americans more materialistic than other nationalities. Materialism is defined as the act of valuing material possessions over spiritual or humanitarian values. In this context, materialism is used to express both the desire to amass large amounts of wealth and objects that signify that wealth.

America’s free market economic structure has made room for exponential competition. America promises each citizen that through hard work and ingenuity they can succeed. This belief, at the root of a country so large, has created an interesting dynamic between the desire to achieve greatness and the need to amass wealth.

The United States became the largest successful democratic Republic at the time of the nation’s birth. The broadness of economic opportunity in the United States allowed democracy to flourish. There was never one American lifestyle and no established aristocratic class. Without an aristocracy, all Americans became instantly equal and were allowed to succeed in their field if they played their cards right. However, as the country industrialized, there was a stark movement away from individual trade and towards the art of being wealthy.

One of the most defining and crucial characteristics of American democracy is that the government does not act as a parent. Across many aspects of American life this principle is unfortunately realized through an absence of affordable healthcare, no guaranteed maternity leave, and the growth of economic disparity. America as a country takes a noteworthy stance on social issues. This view on society seeped into the free market as the predominant government regulation on the market is the prevention of monopolies, leaving the environment and worker rights not regulated enough. This allows individuals to act freely but it also requires them to satisfy their own needs. With individual rights being a pivotal aspect of American freedom, being successful has become directly associated with securing happiness. The shrinking gap between success and the strong voice of freedom leaves room for Americans to quickly become money-driven and obsessed. Individuals reflect the priorities of the government and no longer consider the art of giving back to society, because if the government doesn’t prioritize it, why should the individual.

Modern social media has created a new market. As social mobility has decreased under modern free market capitalism, social media fills this lack of social mobilization by equalizing the consumer. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok are a place that gives everyone an opportunity to feel rich and influential. These platforms promise similar things that the United States does: if you are special and work the market well, you will succeed.

Though in different terms, social media sells itself as a way to increase an individual’s wealth represented in their ability to amass followers. Social media has become the biggest tool in the recent decade for promoting consumer culture. According to Statistica, “The United States is the largest advertising market in the world and in 2018 $51.3 billion was spent on social media advertising.” The persuasive nature of these platforms is derived from the social and economic perspective of the country as a whole.

Often the social media content that is most popular depicts wealthy individuals, a status signaled by their clothes and style. According to the GlobalWebIndex 54% of social media users use social media to research products and 71% are more likely to purchase products and services based on social media. These young viewers feel compelled to exist within these ideologies and social norms. Social media forces people of all ages and statuses to engage in consumerism and become addicted to the idea of American success.

TikTok, though not an American company, has been a prime example of this phenomenon. By presenting yourself in a certain way you can instantly become famous. This fame brings you likes and followers, which, in the modern market, is almost as valuable as money was to the first members of American democracy.

It feels easier to develop fame and fortune on these sites than it does to accrue money within the real American market. This idea is ingrained in young minds, getting them hooked on a new and nearly more destructive form of American materialism. Instead of this drive pushing them into the workforce, it encourages them to buy into this new digital hierarchy of what is profitable and what is not. Now the American individual is in and of itself a product.

The influence of materialism is seen more now than ever before and the ties between these social ideologies can be drawn back to the building of American democracy. It is important to look back to history before falling into this “new narrative” of what brings American life value.

Image Source: Dominic Lipinsk