Democracy and Progress in America: The Corporation


How did the corporations capitalize on the association of democracy with technology? By linking the "right" to purchase the results of technology, machine-made goods, with freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Just as the machine allowed Americans more leisure time, it provided goods for consumption during these leisure hours. Consumption--of goods and culture--was the seemingly natural next step in the progress of American civilization. Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America is an excellent investigation of the rise of the consumer culture in America. He contends that the "world itself [was] newly imagined as consisting of goods and their consumption." (132) Not only was democracy commodified, but consumption was democratized as well. Stephen Fjellman asserts that the "democratization of consumption and the accelerating reification of the consumer have continued throughout the twentieth century in the United States." (48)

American culture in the twentieth century has accelerated the pace of the commodification of democracy. Albert Borgmann has concluded that

Technological culture is the largely unspoken but pivotal issue of liberal democracy. Without modern technology, the liberal program of freedom, equality, and self-realization is unrealizable...Liberation and enrichment have been made possible over the last few centuries as technological devices have become increasingly available. (qtd. in Fjellman, 352)
The association of democracy with progress is as robust in the late twentieth century as it was at the inception of the Republic. Fjellman, who considers Disney World the apotheosis of this way of thinking, describes the effect on American self-conception (as produced for consumption by Disney, that "most" American of corporations):
Dreamers and doers! That's what we are. This is Disney's central image of the U.S. character, which is echoed throughout W[alt] D[isney] W[orld]; the American--the pragmatic, inventive entrepreneur, seeking freedom to go his or her own way, to make and sell his or her own inventions. Sometimes he or she must join with others to overcome a challenge, but this is necessary only to remove some institutional fetter that binds her or his independence. (103)
The journey of the symbology of democracy, always connected to progress, can be seen quite vividly in the Brumidi Corridor of the U.S. Capitol.

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