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Buy American an interview with Dana Frank

by David Glenn | Issue #19

Dana Frank, a professor of American Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has been investigating consumer politics for more than a decade. Her book Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism (Beacon, 1999) critiques the narrow-nationalist strategies designed to protect U.S. jobs. Stay Free! talked to Frank in January 2002 about the resurgence of "corporate patriotism" and buy-American rhetoric in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

RIGHT: In October 2001, San Francisco launched its "America: Open for Business" campaign. The poster above was distributed to 30,000 stores for display.

Stay Free!: How long have buy-American campaigns been around?

Dana Frank: They have a very long history, dating back to the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party, for example, was partly about rejecting British products in order to support a domestic economy. And we saw a major wave of economic nationalism in the 1930s as a response to the Depression. During that period the Hearst chain’s 26 newspapers sponsored a large-scale buy-American campaign.

The Hearst campaign was premised upon an alleged virtuous circle, or "economic train." The notion was that you, the American consumer, would buy an American product from an American merchant and that that merchant would buy from an American producer, resulting in good jobs here at home. The rhetoric was explicitly racist, especially against Asians. Hearst’s newspapers denounced the so-called Yellow Peril–the idea was that low-cost Asian labor would destroy the U.S. economy. Even immigrant laborers’ products were attacked. The Hearst campaigns were finally eclipsed in 1933 and 1934 by the New Deal, but they set certain patterns that we’ve seen again and again.

In the 1970s, as a response to economic restructuring, some U.S. labor unions started launching buy-American campaigns. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union ran advertisements asking consumers to look for "Made in USA" labels. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, members of the United Auto Workers flirted with Japan-bashing–and this period coincided with a wave of harassment and violence. The worst incident came in 1982, when a Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death in a Detroit bar by two laid-off auto workers who thought he was Japanese.

Did that nationalist rhetoric fade when the Japanese economy began to decline?

Well, it’s more complicated than that. The populist buy-American movement peaked during the early 1990s, when the notion that we could fix the economy by buying U.S. products was very attractive to unemployed and anxious workers. These ideas were somewhat deflated by the anti-NAFTA campaign in 1993. The activists behind that campaign were able to push a more sophisticated analysis of international economics to the foreground. They helped people realize that there’s no such thing as a pure "American" product because corporations finance, design, manufacture, and assemble their products in so many different locations. The NAFTA fight showed people that they have to a lot in common with, for instance, workers in Mexico.

So what’s wrong with buy-American campaigns?

Well, what’s the goal? Ideally, buy-American campaigns want to protect good domestic jobs. But some of these campaigns have also been financed by anti-union moguls like the textile magnate Roger Milliken or William Randolph Hearst, so it’s not that simple. The assumption is that there’s some sort of national "we" that can solve these problems, that U.S. citizens and U.S. corporations are all on the same side. What happens is that U.S. auto workers get drawn into alliances with U.S. car corporations instead of forming alliances with Mexican or Brazilian auto workers.

Meanwhile, U.S. corporations are moving overseas as fast as they can. Consumers are out shopping for products, and corporations are out shopping overseas for cheap labor. These corporations are part of the problem they are claiming to solve.

The other problem with these movements is, again, that they have a long history of racism. After a Citrus Bowl game in the early 1990s, the UC Berkeley chancellor, who happened to be Asian-American, went up the podium to receive the trophy–and the fans started to chant, "Buy American! Buy American!"

Here in rural California, I noticed an upsurge in buy-American talk last winter, during the standoff over the U.S. spy plane brought down by China. You’d hear people on talk radio saying that we could "bring China to its knees" if we just stopped buying Chinese products for six months.

Yes, there was a lot of ugliness during that period. The Asian Studies Center at the University of Oregon got phone calls from citizens saying that all the Chinese nationals at the school should be rounded up and put in internment camps. A lot of historic U.S. paranoia over Japan has now been transferred to China.

So–September 11th. In the wake of the World Trade Center massacre, U.S. corporations have suddenly been advertising their patriotism.

After the attacks, people are scared, naturally, and they’re pouring a lot of that anxiety into comforting patriotic modes of thinking. And corporations are trying to tap into those emotions with some ridiculous ads–claiming that consumers’ money will help "get America moving again." But in fact our money might actually just be helping grease the wheels of business-as-usual. If corporations are really serious about changing their stance in the face of the new economic crisis, they should call for us to pull out of the WTO, and they should call for the repeal of NAFTA. But the alternative to the corporate model shouldn’t be economic nationalism–it should be an internationalist model that respects workers’ rights and the environment all over the world.

In the absence of an organized movement for social justice, the possibilities seem very limited. So we wind up sort of individually trying to change the world through shopping. But in the long run, we need to look very carefully at the limitations of consumer-based strategies alone.

LEFT: CooperVision sells red, white, and blue contact lenses. The company's website urges consumers to "Show your patriotism and help support our nation's recovery effort" by buying a pair. (A portion of the proceeds benefit the United Way September 11th Fund.)