More than Consumers: Post-Neoliberal Identities and Economic Governance

August 3, 2022

In the first 18 months of the Biden presidency, while the administration executed one of the fastest economic recoveries in memory following the COVID-induced recession, rising prices nevertheless helped stall the progressive agenda. For policymakers, journalists, and the American public, inflation felt more salient than record employment levels.

In More than Consumers: Post-Neoliberal Identities and Economic Governance, Suzanne Kahn argues that this is partly due to the way in which policymakers and the public understand themselves: For generations, our government has understood its constituents primarily as consumers, with their other identities—workers, parents, etc.—taking a back seat, and Americans, in turn, have understood their government as responsible primarily for maintaining functioning consumer markets rather than providing essential public resources.

By looking at how policymakers since the New Deal have conceptualized the intersection of inflation, wages, and prices, this report explores how the governance stance shared across parties became one that imagined Americans’ primary identity as that of consumer. And while progressives have moved away from policies that center markets and the consumer in recent years, they’ve continued to frame the policy conversation around consumer identities.

The scope of the challenges we face—from racial inequality to the climate crisis to the care crisis—cannot be addressed by the market. Only direct government intervention can affirmatively build the economy we need at the scale and speed we need. To explain and win this broad agenda, we need to change our approach and move beyond consumer-first governance.