Writing over a century ago, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner made the essential point. “Not the Constitution, but free land and an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people,” he wrote, made American democracy possible.4 A half century later, the historian David Potter discovered a similar symbiosis between affluence and liberty. “A politics of abundance,” he claimed, had created the American way of life, “a politics which smiled both on those who valued abundance as a means to safeguard freedom and those who valued freedom as an aid in securing abundance.”5 William Appleman Williams, another historian, found an even tighter correlation. For Americans, he observed, “abundance was freedom and freedom was abundance.”6
Touring the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, astute observer of the young Republic, noted the “feverish ardor” of its citizens to accumulate. Yet, even as the typical American “clutches at everything,” the Frenchman wrote, “he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications.” However munificent his possessions, the American hungered for more, an obsession that filled him with “anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation.”2
In the 1960s, however, the empire of production began to come undone. Within another twenty years—thanks to permanently negative trade balances, a crushing defeat in Vietnam, oil shocks, “stagflation,” and the shredding of a moral consensus that could not withstand the successive assaults of Elvis Presley, “the pill,” and the counterculture, along with news reports that God had died—it had become defunct. In its place, according to Maier, there emerged a new “Empire of Consumption.” Just as the lunch-bucket-toting factory worker had symbolized the empire of production during its heyday, the teenager, daddy’s credit card in her blue jeans and headed to the mall, now emerged as the empire of consumption’s emblematic figure. The evil genius of the empire of production was Henry Ford. In the empire of consumption, Ford’s counterpart was Walt Disney.
If one were to choose a single word to characterize that identity, it would have to be more. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors. A bumper sticker, a sardonic motto, and a charge dating from the Age of Woodstock have recast the Jeffersonian trinity in modern vernacular: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”; “Shop till you drop”; “If it feels good, do it.