Political Consumerism: Democracy for Dinner

Cara Schulte, JHU:

Do corporations respond to consumer trends or do they create them? Here, we find ourselves floundering amidst a chicken-and-egg causality dilemma.

Early last week, Hans Taparia and Pamela Koch of the New York Times published an article titled, “A Seismic Shift in How People Eat.” The online opinion piece was fronted with a flippant stock photo of a carrot disguised as a hot dog. The article went on to qualify changing dietary trends, avowing that, “consumers are walking away from America’s most iconic food brands,” largely in the face of the modern health movement.

The article, like any critique of the contemporary food regime, called for a, “fundamental shift” in the nature of the system. As opposed to an analysis of the cultural values and consumer behaviors that must change, however, the piece emphasized the agency of individuals. The authors asserted that the recent food movement has been inspired by growing trends on behalf of the consumer, illustrating that consumers hold influence over corporations.

This marks a significant change in the nature of our political, economic, and, more specifically, food systems. Historically, successful corporations have not been reactionary. Successful corporations are themselves responsible for shifts in human behavior; they are responsible for generating demand. Corporations have long held influence over consumers.

If both consumers and corporations now hold this sense of agency, we have conflict. The balance between supply and demand is certainly imperfect; flaws within the food system are rampant, obvious, and multiplying. Perhaps, however, this conflict will bring about positive change.

Conflict, as defined by father of transitology, Dankwart Rustow, is a necessary precondition for the formation of democracy. Rustow defines this conflict as inconclusive political struggle. The basis of democracy is not unanimous consensus, but rather “the tenuous middle ground between imposed uniformity and implacable hostility.” Rustow suggests the need for a political struggle before the establishment of democracy.  Conflict, often in the form of inequality or ideological discord, inspires debate. Democracy serves as a forum for this debate. Democracy allows for compromise and thus acts as a means to consensus. Democracy is therefore sustained through participation; without debate, there is no consensus and without participation, there is no debate.

In an attempt to clarify these causal links, we turn to an argument presented by Neva Hassanein. She defines politics as, “arena in which we deal with disagreements over values.” Disagreements, we can then assume, are not static entities; rather, they are dynamic in nature in that they must be both addressed and resolved. Hassanein’s argument asserts that participation is the vehicle through which these disagreements are compromised.

Democracy provides choice. It gives citizens the ability to make decisions they believe will bring benefits. In this way, democracy is self-indulgent. Political decisions are intimate, as they are made with personal factors in mind. Food itself is an intimate issue, as it directly affects human health.

Consumerist culture is also founded on choice. Competition, in this case, among corporations, as inspired by the free market, provides customers with options. The ability to purchase items for ourselves makes the decisions both personal and constructive. Consumerism and democratic practice, however, are not analogous purely in the context of choice. They are more than choice; they are processes. Decisions are not isolated units. They require thought, comparison, interaction, emotion, knowledge, time, and engagement. Schudson refers to consumer behavior as a, “complex set of activities,” it relies heavily on participation; consumers must be engaged to make informed choices. In this way, political decisions feature consumer behavior; “participation is a key feature to democracy.”

But what about food?

Here, we introduce the concept of, “food democracy.” Food democracy is both an opportunity for and a means of decision-making. Food democracy, in this way, also relies on engagement. “At the core of food democracy is the idea that people can and should be actively participating in shaping the food system, rather than remaining passive spectators on the sidelines. In other words, food democracy is about citizens having the power to determine agro-food policies and practices locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.” Food democracy furthers values of equal opportunity, conflict resolution, and integration; it is a road to sustainability.

In understanding the parallels between sustainability and maintenance, we might begin to recognize the importance of satisfaction. A system that does not satisfy its customers is not a system worth sustaining. Here, the importance of feedback becomes relevant. In order to create a system worth sustaining there must be some understanding of its successes or failures. This understanding is best gauged through engagement; active participation in the system is therefore key to its ability to provide for its consumers.

The above concepts are founded in simple logic; conflict is solved via compromise, compromise is reached via discussion and debate, democracy provides a forum for this debate. Debate requires active participation. This sequence is practical. It incorporates the notion of political pragmatism, a willingness to negotiate differences. Food democracy, according to Hassanein, is the mechanism through which these practices might be implemented. It is a, “pragmatic device for moving toward sustainability of agriculture and food systems.”

In applying this model to the larger food system, we see conflict in many forms. Our food system is inherently flawed; it is wasteful, inefficient, and unjust. The arrangement can be classified by measures of failed collective action, aggressive business strategy, dependency on shrinking resource inputs and a lack of coordinated regulation to help promote more reliable performance.

Participation of the people is thus fundamental in working towards the formulation of a better food system; our actions do matter. Corporations hold influence over consumers in that they provide choices; consumers inspire these options and subsequently make decisions. Democratic values will work to ensure that healthy food is accessible both physically and mentally, as people are conditioned to understand the power of their diets. While corporations both create and respond to consumer trends, individuals should also have a sense of efficacy. There is a, “Seismic Shift in How People Eat” occurring, and we, as consumers, are responsible for its outcome. Both chickens and eggs are crucial components of the cycle.


Rustow, Dankwart A. “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model.” Comparative Politics 2.3 (1970): 344. JSTOR. Web. Apr. 2015.

Hassanein, Neva. “Practicing Food Democracy: A Pragmatic Politics of Transformation.” Journal of Rural Studies 19.1 (2003): 79. Print.

Schudson, Michael. “Citizens, Consumers, and the Good Society.” The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science 611.1 (2007): 243.


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