Buying In: How the Language of the Market Has Warped American Politics

Days after the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February, Senator Marco Rubio appeared at a CNN town hall in Florida to discuss the shooting. One clip from the evening went explosively viral, featuring a question from survivor Cameron Kasky: “Senator Rubio, can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?” Rubio, looking aggrieved in his Sopranos-dark suit, replied, “So number one, the position I hold is the Second Amendment.”

Somebody in the audience began to yell at him, and he cut the shouter off. “No, number two, the answer to the question is that”—he gestured at himself and smiled—”is that people buy into my agenda.”

Buy into. The phrase is a fascinating one. It seems to have originated in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, when he notes that people, “to provide for a remote futurity,” rarely “buy into” long-term investments, especially in times of political uncertainty, even though these investments appear to be of equal or greater worth than short-term annuities. The phrase virtually never appeared again, except in specialist stock-market texts, until the 1980s, when it became a metaphor—at first, largely a negative one, meant to reveal the whimsy and illogic that drives our consumer choices: “People buy Nike shoes because they have bought into Michael Jordan … not necessarily because of the quality of the shoes,” the business strategist John Maxwell wrote. “Why do you need to be physically beautiful?” the actress Colette Brown asked. “If we are judged on modern physical beauty then 90 percent of us are going to fail … Fight the stereotype. Don’t buy into it.”

By this decade, though, it had largely become a positive metaphor: a necessary thing to sell a product or a political stance; even an indicator of the rightness or goodness of an idea. “The success of [welfare] depends on whether caseworkers and clients buy into the ideology of the institution,” a sociologist writes in Selling Welfare Reform. A self-help book tells us that “buying or purchasing items can be understood as a metaphor for accepting uplifting beliefs about the self or circumstances … consider ‘buying into’ thoughts and ideas to improve yourself, [such as] ‘I buy into the principle that abundant finances are good for me.’” A government official told The New York Times that the only way to make political change is to first gauge “the public buy-in” for reforms.

How did we make this shift, as a society, from a suspicion of what people “buy into” to a hailing of it, a reverence towards it? I think it’s not a coincidence that the idea of “buy-in” and, in fact, the intrusion of economic language into many non-financial realms of life (“to invest in a relationship,” “to buy time,” “to have values,” “the marketplace of ideas”) gained sharp momentum in the ‘80s. The ‘80s, of course, were the Gordon Gecko decade, a “morning in America” overtly driven by the pumping-up of Wall Street. But I want to glance at the ‘70s, the real progenitor of the ‘80s.

The ‘70s, of course, were defined by Jimmy Carter’s “malaise.” That malaise wasn’t only cultural: the ‘70s, fundamentally, conveyed to Americans that the power they thought they possessed after the Second World War to effect happy endings, to control the destiny of their own country and the world, had been lost. The noble overthrow of a corrupt president didn’t really matter: Vietnam had still been lost, OPEC could twitch an eyelid and Americans…

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