How Customer-Centric Politics Undermines Democracy

by Steve Heikkila


I’ve been researching the corrosive effects of America’s for-profit election industry on democracy in recent months (see the piece I posted in October entitled The Election Industry versus Democracy). One of the more insightful works I’ve read on the subject is political scientist Adam Sheingate’s 2015 book Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy.

In this book Sheingate details how American electoral politics have been transformed into a multi-billion dollar, for-profit industry. This commercialization was facilitated, he argues, by “[l]ikening the act of voting to a matter of consumer choice.” It’s this conflating of voting and consumption, which at least to my mind sounds horrible for democracy, that I want to explore today.

In my first piece in this series I focused on how the election industry operates from the ‘business side’. A professional class of political consultants broker relationships between wealthy and corporate donors seeking to purchase political influence in the ‘political marketplace’, and the two political parties and their candidates who are insatiably hungry for funding for their now perpetual and obscenely expensive (re)election campaigns. In each campaign cycle, billions of dollars of investment capital are transformed into various campaign ‘products’, which predominantly consist of advertising aimed at the consumer target audience (i.e., you and me).

In this installment we’ll take a peek at the ‘customer-centric’ consumer side of the election industry. How did we, as citizens of a democratic republic, get hoodwinked into signing onto this? Why do we allow ourselves to be complicit in a process that ultimately heaves democracy overboard to transform politics into a commodity market and a profit center? When democratic participation is reduced to something akin to choosing a breakfast cereal, is it still really ‘democracy’ in any politically meaningful sense?

To get us started, I want to begin with a confession (bear with me, it’s directly related to our topic). I bought Adam Sheingate’s book, Building a Business of Politics, on There is a certain irony in this, which makes me feel embarrassed and a little bit ashamed.

“Alexa: Destroy Democracy”

Why am I embarrassed and ashamed about buying a book about the business of politics on It’s complicated, but only slightly so. It starts with the recognition that Amazon is a horrible company. It’s horrible, for instance, to working people. Amazon fights efforts at unionizing. It engages in wage theft. Its warehouse workers now frequently strike to protest “inhumane working conditions”. According to journalist James Bloodworth, who went undercover, some Amazon warehouse workers in the UK pee in bottles or forego restroom breaks just so they can keep up with Amazon’s unreasonable fulfillment demands.

Amazon is also horrible for communities. It’s devastated the brick-and-mortar retail industry and the host of jobs that that industry once supported. It free-rides on public infrastructure and extorts taxpayer funding from states and municipalities to subsidize its corporate expansion, despite the fact that the company itself pays no taxes.

Amazon is also horrible for democracy. It invested an unprecedented $1.5 million in Seattle’s city council race in an effort to replace progressive councilmembers with “business-friendly” (i.e., Amazon-friendly) substitutes. It’s founder and chairman, billionaire oligarch Jeff Bezos (the richest man in human history), reportedly recently asked fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg to run for President, presumably in an effort to promote plutocratic interests in the face of increasingly popular democratic support for prorgessive political reforms.

As an aspiring monopolist that destroys market competition, Amazon is even horrible for capitalism. It’s predatory pricing practices are notorious. Because of its vast wealth Amazon can go head-to-head with nearly any competitor in nearly any industry, selling its products at a loss until it drives the competition into bankruptcy. It can then weaponize this strategy at any time to create a barrier to entry for any prospective future competition. After Amazon becomes a virtual monopoly, it can charge whatever prices it likes.

All of that said, Amazon has outstanding customer service. Holy shit, do they treat customers well! In fact, Amazon sets the standard for what great customer service means. Here is where my relationship with Amazon starts to get complicated.

“Thanks for Voting Amazon #1” reads a headline on from early 2018. The headline continues: “For the ninth consecutive year customers rank Amazon #1 in customer satisfaction.Nine years! As consumers we love Amazon so, so much!

Amazon’s customer service is so outstanding that on its basis I chose to order Adam Sheingate’s book on Amazon despite knowing all of the horrible shit I just detailed about what Amazon does to workers, to communities, and to democracy. This is the source of my embarrassment and shame. What the hell is wrong with me? Why would I do this? This is already quite political, and we haven’t even begun discussing electoral politics yet.

At the very least my behavior tells me something about myself–about how I am ‘put together’, so to speak, as a human subject living in contemporary American consumer culture.

The Consumer Persona

Like anyone else in America, I am put together as a subject in multivariate ways. I’m a family member. I’m a friend. I’m a member of several communities. I’m a voter. I’m a worker. I’m a citizen of a (putatively) democratic republic. I’m a tax-payer. I’m a moral personality who recognizes certain ethical obligations to other persons. And yes, of course, I‘m a consumer.

I approached my decision to purchase Sheingate’s book on as a consumer. As a consumer I knew that Amazon would be fast, cheap, and super convenient. I didn’t consider all of the issues that are important to me qua democratic citizen, qua voter, qua working person, and so on. I didn’t consider these other things because my consumer persona brackets these other important considerations and focuses solely on my self-interest in the market. From a consumer perspective, these other things don’t matter. From the perspective of a citizen, however, they matter quite a lot. Or at least I think they ought to.

Human relationships in the marketplace are largely transactional and self-interested in nature. When I enter the market the rest of the world falls away and all that exists is me and my rationally self-interested transactional partner. Fuck the rest of all y’all, and your kids, and your student loans, and your medical debt, and your precarity, and the climate crisis, and the latest US-backed regime-change war.

Harsh? No shit! When I adopt my consumer persona I’m kind of a selfish ass. I’m shopping. I’m seeking my own advantage. I’m looking for a deal. This shrewd, self-interested consumer perspective might not be such a big problem if I adopted it only when I entered the marketplace, and (this second part is key) if the marketplace occupied only a very narrow dimension of human life. In this case one might then acknowledge that while I’m kind of a selfish jerk when I’m ‘shopping’, the rest of the time–which is most of the time–I behave like a decent human being who is considerate of the needs and interests of others.

Unfortunately, however, the world of the narrowly inscribed marketplace is no longer a reality. We in the twilight of the neoliberal era are well down the road towards the realization of a certain Hayakian utopia wherein no place exists “outside of the market.” This includes the sphere of politics. To paraphrase a worry Jürgen Habermas used to frequently articulate, we’re on the verge of seeing the market colonize our entire lifeworld.

If human relationships in the marketplace tend to be self-interested and transactional in nature, then when the market captures all spheres of human life, all of my relationships begin to look self-interested and transactional in nature. I begin to look less like Aristotle’s zoon politikon (political animal) who understands that human thriving entails recognizing and pursuing certain goods in common with others in the polis. I begin looking more like homoeconomicus. Atomized. Instrumentalizing. Selfish. What I’m calling the consumer persona is the attitude of homoeconomicus when homoeconomicus goes shopping.

Instead of Citizens, It Produces Consumers

Lest this claim that 40-some years of neoliberalism has converted most of the world into a giant consumer market, let’s be a bit clearer about what we mean. It’s all quite familiar: years of successful market deregulation, the creation of global free-trade agreements that put the market beyond the control of political steering mechanisms, privatization (capture and sale) of the commons, defunding of social programs, and shrinking (financially starving) the government (“down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” as Grover Norquist once famously put it) through tax cuts and austerity.

The consequences of these decades of neoliberal marketization of all things is captured quite succinctly in a quote that is widely misattributed to Noam Chomsky, and which serves as the epigrammatic quote at the beginning of this essay. The quote is from Robert W. McChesney’s introduction to Noam Chomsky’s 1999 book Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order. It bears citing in a bit more detail:

“…to be effective, democracy requires that people feel a connection to their fellow citizens, and that this connection manifests itself through a variety of non-market organizations and institutions. A vibrant political culture needs community groups, libraries, public schools, neighborhood organizations, cooperatives, public meeting places, voluntary associations, and trade unions to provide ways for citizens to meet, communicate, and interact with their fellow citizens. Neoliberal democracy, with its notion of the market über alles, takes dead aim at this sector. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.”

This quote, from 1999, is already antiquated in regard to its mention of shopping malls replacing communities. As we enter the year 2020, we well understand that shopping malls have been rendered obsolete, in turn, by

The Customer-Centric Revolution

One of the ways Amazon achieved its market dominance was by becoming the driving force behind a customer-centric revolution (“Thanks for voting Amazon #1!). This innovation in which businesses focuses obsessively on providing a great customer experience, has everything to do, not only with creating consumers rather than citizens, but creating consumers of a certain kind. Allow me to explain.

If you own a business today, and you’re not focused on providing a top-notch customer experience, your competitors will surely have you for lunch. It’s not just your direct industry competitors that you’re competing with, either. From a customer experience perspective, you’re also competing with Amazon. And here the competition is daunting. When customers interact with your business–regardless of the industry you’re in–they increasingly expect and demand an Amazon-like customer experience.

As someone who has had his share of absolutely infuriating interactions with phone companies, airlines, and cable television providers over the years, I don’t want disparage Amazon for raising the bar on good customer service as such. When businesses give a shit about how they treat their customers, we all benefit. However, it’s produced a certain ‘side effect’.

If over time neoliberal marketization has produced consumers rather than citizens, then obsessive focus on customer-centric business practice has shaped those consumers into a particular kind of consumer. This consumer has a name. Her name is Karen. And Karen is a monster.

Karen Wants to Speak to the Manager

Surely we’re all acquainted with the meme (circa 2014). ‘Karen’ is a Gen X white woman with a suburban mommy style, two-toned angular bob (see my cover photo). She’s the bane of the existence of anyone who works a service industry job.

The pretext here is that the service worker has made a minor mistake or has otherwise slightly inconvenienced Karen somehow. She forgot to provide the dressing on the side on Karen’s salad order. She forgot that Karen’s latte was supposed to be no foam. She regretfully informed Karen that her half-off coupon had expired, or that the hotel had no more rooms available with a king-sized bed. Something petty like that. Karen then immediately escalates the situation to DEFCON 1 by asking “to speak to the manager.”

This meme is about the site of confrontation between the customer persona (Karen) and the persona of a working person with little clout or social standing. The kind of worker the meme suggests is what British sociologist Guy Standing would describe as a member of the precariat (a portmanteau of precarious and proletariat).

Karen is a villain in this meme because her behavior is stone-cold harsh, and unnecessarily so. The interaction with the service worker is non-reciprocally abusive. Karen is going to get this relatively disempowered precarian in trouble with her manager over a trifle. Karen feels entitled to wield this power, because at least at this moment Karen is the customer–the supremely important focal point of business. This is what customer-centricity does to consumers. It entitles them.

Maybe the hapless precarian who is serving Karen will receive a reprimanded. Maybe she’ll get the sack. Karen doesn’t give a shit because Karen is in full, empowered, self-interested consumer mode.

We should note that this very well may not be Karen’s only ‘mode’. Perhaps Karen works at a job where she is forced to confront unreasonable Karens of her own. Perhaps it’s only when Karen is on the customer-side of the equation that Karen becomes noxious.

I want to know why Karen behaves the way she does because I’m Karen too. While I can’t recall ever asking to “speak to the manager”, thanks to my Amazon experience I now expect my books to be delivered literally overnight. Maybe I don’t get anyone fired. But maybe the price of making this happen is that an Amazon warehouse worker gets his head crushed under a forklift. Maybe a contract delivery driver kills a 9-month-old baby when he crashes his rental-truck packed with Amazon packages into the back of her mother’s jeep in his mad rush to meet the unreasonable delivery deadline that now squares with my expectations. Maybe tax-payers have to shell over a few hundred million dollars for Amazon HQ2.

As my customer experience improves incrementally, the world I live in with you becomes a little bit darker. I don’t know where it ends. I don’t typically consider these human costs when contemplating my purchase. I’m Karen and I want my fucking book right now.

Karen in the Political Marketplace

In the customer-centric era we all love to be the customer. In this respect, we’re all Karen (at least when we’re not serving Karen). Thanks to the customer-centric revolution, whenever we consume we’re treated as though we are important, we’re valuable, we’re VIPs. “How are we doing? Your opinion counts!” nearly every website and every app tells us. And then our feedback is solicited. Will you please write a review? Answer a brief survey? How many stars will you give? How can we do better? We care about what you think.

The seduction of great customer service on the customer persona is powerful–perhaps even addictive. Work life, family life, social life, political life can range from ‘meh’ to awful. But when we consume we’re royalty. We like how that feels, and this feeling serves to reinforce our desire to be the customer all the time.

Unfortunately, however, this is absolutely devastating for democracy. As customers we demand to be served. We expect high quality service from all businesses, including the business of politics. And there’s the rub. The role of a customer being served is a passive, rather than an active role. And the more we view ourselves as passive consumers of government rather than active members of a democratic polity, the worse off the prospects for the future of democracy become.

Consider, for example, the surge of popular democratic activism in the early days of the Trump presidency. Let’s imagine how this might have gone for Karen.

On January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Karen probably donned her pink pussy hat and joined millions of people worldwide in a Women’s March in protest of Trump’s appalling comments about women, immigrants, minorities, and the LGBTQ community. Reputedly, this was the largest single day protest in U.S. history.

Days later, when Trump signed Executive Order 13769 (the Muslim travel ban), maybe Karen joined thousands who showed up at U.S. airports to protest. Karen had been shaken out of a long standing state of political apathy. Karen was getting woke. Suddenly concerned citizens were engaging in grassroots political organizing and Karen was actively participating. Karen was behaving like a citizen, working in solidarity with her fellow citizens. Karen was active rather than passive. Karen was political.

Then in May of 2017 the Mueller investigation began and something shifted in Karen’s political comportment. Since ‘someone from the government’ was finally going to do something about this Trump situation, Karen didn’t have to. Hashtag Muelleriscoming! Hashtag Muellertime!

Reverting to her default customer persona, Karen now simply wanted to speak to the manager. As a consumer of government Karen wanted the manager to know that ever since Trump had become president she’d been having a really bad customer experience. She demanded to know what Robert Mueller was going to do about it. And CNN, and MSNBC, and The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and other mainstream media outlets sold a lot of ads keeping Karen apprised of the situation. And Karen fell back into consumer mode.

Now every two years there is a new set of ad campaigns, and a new set of political products to choose from. Every four years she gets to express her consumer pick for the manager candidate she likes best out of the set the election industry has curated for her. The tough-talking African-American policewoman was promising, but now Karen is torn between the ‘Native American’ law professor and the McKinsey consultant who also happens to be a handsome gay Millennial.

It’s a Cookbook!

n reflecting on the dark side of the customer-centric revolution I am reminded of an episode of the original Twilight Zone TV series called To Serve Man. In this episode a species of 9-foot tall, giant-brained space aliens (the Kanamits) visit earth. One of the Kanamits visits the UN and addresses various world dignitaries. He doesn’t have a stated name, this Kanamit, so let’s call him Bezos. Bezos explains that the Kanamits had heard that the earth suffers many calamities–famine, war, energy shortages. The Kanamits wished to share their advanced technology to resolve them all. No ulterior motive. Despite being way smarter and more powerful than us, they’ve come to serve, not to conquer.

For some reason when Bezos departs the UN, he leaves a book on the table. No one can read it because it’s written in an alien language. Over time, while the Kanamits render Earth a utopia by implementing their promised technologies, US military cryptographers attempt to translate this mysterious book. Early on one of the cryptographers, Peggy, reports that they were able to at least translate the title: To Serve Man.

Alien words for the phrase “To Serve Man” (CCO 1.0 Public Domain)

“Awesome!” They all say (I’m paraphrasing here). “These Kanamits are all about providing exceptional customer service. Nothing to be suspicious of here!” Not exact words, but this is the gist of it.

Eventually the Kanamits decide to fly their giant flying saucer home, and they invite a lot of humans to join them. The Kanamits’ planet is reputedly more idyllic than can be imagined. Craving even more exceptional customer experience, a lot of humans enthusiastically climb aboard. Among them is Mr. Chambers, the head cryptologist-spook from the Pentagon.

Just as Chambers is walking up the ramp into the spaceship, a very distraught Peggy runs up.

“Mr. Chambers,” she yells, “don’t get on that ship! The rest of the book To Serve Man, it’s… it’s a cookbook!” Whoa!

Before Chambers can run away a giant Kanamit shoves him in the ship and closes the door.

Later Chambers, now locked in a cell on the spaceship, breaks character and speaks to the TV audience: “How about you?” he asks. “You still on Earth, or on the ship with me? Really doesn’t make very much difference, because sooner or later, all of us will be on the menu… all of us.”

I’m pretty sure that Karen and I are on the ship with Chambers. Where are you?

Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.”