Solidarity and Group Think

This review by Alan Wolfe is an odd mix of insight and blindness, shrewdness and obtuseness.

Wolfe makes some good points about the inherent difficulties of trying to make a progressive politics out of consumer movements, and about the value of thinking big when writing about history.

For the past two or three decades, historians have been studiously thinking small…As important as social history has been, however, it has also been mind-numbingly narrow in its evocation of detail and in its reluctance to consider the larger meanings of its findings. But Cohen thinks big…One hopes that her book will stimulate her colleagues to take similar risks, even the risk of emulating historians of previous generations whose efforts at intellectual synthesis and grand narrative are treated now with contempt by postmodern pygmies.

But there is also a passage where Wolfe draws a bizarre moral from the segmentation of U.S. consumer markets in the post World War II period.

In theory, consumption, whether we like it or not, ought to unify us, because we all become consumers of roughly similar goods. In reality, marketing specialists discovered in the postwar years that the best way to sell goods is to segment the audience that is buying them…Once again, consumption determined politics. We shopped alone before we bowled alone. Segmented into our zip codes, is it any wonder that our politics became so contentious and our unity around a common conception of the good so impossible?

What can he mean? U.S. politics didn’t ‘become’ contentious after WWII, they always have been. The Depression, WWI, strikes and riots, Wobblies and miners and anarchists, the 1890s, the 1850s, not to mention a contentious little item known as the Civil War. And then again what can he mean in any case? What would a non-contentious politics look like? An ant farm? Clone Nation? There is much to be said for communitarianism, solidarity, and such, but it has to be said with caution. How exactly does one distinguish between solidarity and group think, conformity, organization people in grey flannel suits, outer-directed suburban robots, the pressure of majority opinion that so worried de Tocqueville and Mill? The answer is not self-evident, and not easy.

And then there is the last paragraph, the grotesque last three sentences.

It was not just perversity that led Ralph Nader, a hero of Lizabeth Cohen’s youth, to work so hard on behalf of the Republican Party. He must have realized on some level–and if he did not, then consumers certainly did–that if small cars are unsafe at any speed, one ought to buy SUVs instead. And for that ignoble end, conservative Republicans are the ones to have in office.

That is such an odd thing to say that it actually fooled me, I thought for a minute that Nader had in literal fact been a Republican in some earlier phase. But no, it was merely yet another assertion that It Is Forbidden to vote for a new party, a principle that would have left Lincoln with little outlet for his talents. And what a ridiculous non-argument he presents for it! The SUV! Which took over the universe precisely in the years Clinton and Gore were in office. What did they ever do to push Detroit to engineer better gas mileage, or to change the law so that SUVs would have to meet the same standards that non-bloated cars do? Nothing! Not one thing! They went on bleating about the sacred freedoms of the consumer, that’s what they did, but we should have voted for Gore anyway, because…the SUV situation under Bush is just exactly as bad as it would be under Gore. Huh?

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