For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.
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In late 1994, when I began working at the Washington Monthly, my new boss, Charlie Peters, asked that I write a piece on home shopping channels and how they preyed on lonely, mostly female consumers. On the one hand, it was a strange assignment for me, given that I had just returned from two and a half years in South Africa. Those were largely pre-internet days, so among the many aspects of America from which I’d been exiled was its consumer culture. And now, working eighty-hour weeks at the Monthly, I wasn’t watching much TV. On the other hand, Charlie clearly thought it was a natural fit for one of the magazine’s few female editors to date. Part of me knew and resented that. But as soon as I started tuning in, I could see that he was on to something.
Both the Home Shopping Network (HSN) and its rival QVC had started in the 1980s, a decade in which culture, along with politics, seemed to re-form around the rich. Inequality was rising. So was class consciousness. But the ethos of the era was that the rich were to be venerated, and if possible aped, but never resented. That played out very clearly on U.S. television. On one channel you could watch Dallas or Dynasty, shows that elevated the lives of fictional American oil tycoons. On another you could buy cheap imitations of the diamonds they wore.
While reporting the piece, I watched the latter channels late into the night. (The later the hour, the more acute the vulnerability and loneliness on display.) I listened to the shaky voices of the women who ostensibly called in to talk about their purchases, but who mostly just seemed to want to talk, and the unctuous voices of hosts urging them toward greater spending or congratulating them on the items they’d bought. Along with material goods, as I argued in the resulting article, HSN and QVC sold the illusion of community to people isolated in front of their screens: “Home shopping channels prey on the lonely, the alienated,” I wrote: “by offering a haven, then charging admission.”
Looking back, my claim that “the marriage of technology and commerce will make consuming ever more convenient,” and Americans more vulnerable, has been borne out. In June 1995, Amazon wasn’t yet a year old; technology and commerce had barely begun to date. Nearly twenty-five years later, consumption is very nearly instantaneous, and consumer debt, then just over $1 trillion, is now over $4 trillion. (QVC bought HSN in 2017, after years of losing market share to online shopping.) Americans are superficially more connected, via social media, yet seem more isolated. The Internet has enabled predation on a whole new scale. Witness “Facebook love scams,” in which scammers pose as soldiers online to romance and then steal money from civilians.
But a deeper and more troubling line runs from where we were then to where we are now. Writing about the 1980s culture of conspicuous consumption that spawned these channels, I mentioned how “the media elevated moneymakers like Donald Trump to celebrity status” and then went on to describe his ex-wife, Ivana: “In her pink silk ‘House of Ivana’ outfit, girlish blond curls, and what looks like tens of thousands of dollars of plastic surgery, she comes on HSN to share her designs and her secrets (and plug her new book).” It’s a reminder of how long the Trump family has been at this con, and how well tuned their playbook is. Ivana’s perfume must be good because, she said, “I could purchase any perfume in the world.” She proclaimed that “silver is in this year,” and that she “already knew that last year, because I go to parties. . . . I’m always dead ahead.”
But home shoppers supported Ivana for reasons beyond just her supposed taste making. She offered the illusion of transformation. “You can afford anything, Ivana,” one caller told her, “and due to you, people like me—I’m a nurse—can too. We live vicariously through you.” Less than twenty-five years later, they—Americans who were, or felt, left behind, left out, overtaken, alone—went on to live vicariously through Ivana’s ex-husband, putting him in the Oval Office as their proxy, reveling in his rage, his boasting, his nose-thumbing. Down on their own luck, they raised his stock ever higher, as if voting for him would, like buying Ivana’s perfume a generation earlier, help them transcend the place where they were stuck.
Politics and consumption are arenas of self-expression, of aspiration or rejection or both, and the self is ripe for manipulation because it is by nature an unstable organism. But in today’s America, where inequality has become the defining, distorting feature of our economy and democracy, the substrate is equally unstable. Is it any wonder that the marketplaces for fake diamonds and false prophets are thriving?