Vance Packard is not a name that comes to mind when you think of mid-century conservatives. Certainly, you won’t hear him mentioned alongside William F. Buckley, James Burnham, or Russell Kirk. If Packard is remembered at all, it is as the author of the anti-advertising tome The Hidden Persuaders, and more generally as a left-leaning critic of consumer capitalism and of America’s complacent Cold War culture.
That image is not exactly wrong, but it is woefully incomplete. Vance Packard may have been a liberal in his own time, but today he reads as a reasonable and fundamentally conservative voice in an era that was redefining at breakneck speed the nature of American life.
One reason for Packard’s lack of modern fame is that he was generally a popularizer, rather than an originator, of ideas. He was not a professor, philosopher, or economist, but a journalist. The wide range of ideas he covered may also suggest a certain lack of depth. But this very variety, combined with his unadorned, readable style and skill for reporting anecdotes and small, telling details, made him a bestseller in his time and makes him a voice worth reading now.
Packard exploded onto the scene when he wrote about advertising in 1957; he continued with a book on status-seeking and “keeping up with the Joneses” in 1958 (The Status Seekers), and another on consumerism and the creeping throwaway ethic in 1960 (The Waste Makers). Writing well into the ’80s, he covered every issue from feminism and changing sexual norms (The Sexual Wilderness) to the dissolution of America’s communities and extended families (A Nation of Strangers) to the quietly increasing power of corporate hierarchies over ordinary workers (The Pyramid Climbers). His choice of issues generally pegged him as a man of the left—though not always his insights and prescriptions.
Packard shone when he reported on ordinary, seemingly mundane details of everyday life that pointed to much larger worrisome trends. He wrote, for example, how one of his children managed to split open a spent aerosol can of whipped cream, only to find it nearly half-full. He noted that in post-war Japan, sales of every new electrical appliance were booming except for refrigerators; this was because Japanese housewives still shopped at the market every afternoon and cooked every evening. He did not object to abortion, but he noted, without derision, that Ireland had reduced its extremely high fertility rates by delaying marriage (that this was even possible tells you more about Packard’s era than Packard himself). He observed that more and more phone numbers were being disconnected each year, indicating that Americans were moving more often, and forming fewer permanent ties. He recounted one department store’s promotional activities, which included issuing store-branded “credit cards” to young children.
His propensity for using anecdotes to make sweeping observations about society—as well as liberally using his targets’ own words as gleaned from trade magazines against them—got him plenty of flack. One reviewer opined, “Packard’s targets are often not worthy of his attack. Steffens exposed the shame of the cities; Ida Tarbell did battle with the Standard Oil trust; Packard complains that the brushes in paste pots fail to reach the bottom.”
It would seem that such reviewers—and there were many of them—were missing the point. To someone for whom string-saving during the Great Depression was still a vivid memory, paste brushes that failed to reach the bottom should indeed have been an unsettling development, as should many of the other trends Packard noted. They included a push to sell Americans second homes, complete with a second set of furniture and appliances; the advent of expensive electronics that broke within one or two years and were perhaps even designed to do so; and a burgeoning market for disposable items that sometimes veered into self-parody: Packard reported that one company was developing a disposable electric frying pan, complete with a built-in disposable power cord.
It was in this era that the American right began to be joined at the hip with cheerleading for economic growth and turned a blind eye to such traditional concerns as community cohesion, localism, and a society built at a human scale. Is not the throwaway ethic the polar opposite of “permanent things”?
Indeed, the ferocity with which Packard was sometimes denounced says far more about the culture of the 1950s—with its innovative notion of consumerism as a form of patriotism—than it does about Packard’s supposed sympathies for anti-capitalism. One reviewer of The Waste Makers summarized the book thus:
We are spirited to the prophet’s high mountain peak….On one side lies the valley of glittering baubles which the princes of evil have prepared to lure us into an ultra-Stygian torment of early obsolescence, peopled with souls sold to the purveyors of interminable credit wandering through an eerie world of warped plastic, lifeless picture tubes, peeling chrome, and thrown-away containers of lotions and potions of Babylonish hedonism.
Others branded Packard a hypocrite because he owned a nice home in Connecticut and, presumably, a refrigerator. Ernest Dichter, the pioneer of psychology-based advertising (innocently dubbed “motivational research”) and Packard’s main villain in Hidden Persuaders, labeled Packard and other critics of consumerism “morality hucksters” who pound their “royalty-stuffed chests and weep bitter tears over tailfins, then step into their sports cars and roar out to their Connecticut homes to cool off with a drink iced from a 1961 refrigerator engineered by waste makers.” Some critics within the ad industry even suggested that Packard was overreacting—because he took at face value the claims of those critics themselves as to the effectiveness of their methods.
But Packard was no communist, nor was he a gross hypocrite. He did not exhort people to leave their Levittown homes and boat-sized automobiles behind and go live in the wilderness, nor did he ever appear to have any real sympathies for the Soviet system of central planning. He simply noticed that people were replacing instead of repairing, and buying two when one would do, all on money they didn’t have thanks to the exploding consumer credit market. Much of the criticism directed his way seems to have been a case of projection; was it not the consumerists who were the revolutionaries, remaking American life and the American economy overnight? It was Packard who wondered whether we shouldn’t talk about this first. He was a conservative in the temperamental sense, in the sense that he believed the status quo deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Though it was his denunciations of advertising and consumerism that made him famous, Packard waded into many other topics throughout his writing career, in which his conservative streak also shines.
In The Sexual Wilderness (1968), Packard turned his attention to the Sexual Revolution and its effects on romance and relationships. One of his more data-heavy books, it traces the loosening of sexual mores in ways that now seem quaint. Forty percent of college women, for example, were sexually active—an alarming increase over the previous decade. Packard’s final conclusion—that sex between committed and stable but unmarried partners should be tolerated, but that general promiscuity should not—may seem squishy to rock-ribbed social conservatives. But it is far more conservative than almost anyone on the left, or frankly the right, will allow for today, especially in a mainstream and secular book.
In A Nation of Strangers, published in 1972, Packard presciently warned against the “attrition of communal structure” brought on by Americans’ increasing tendency to move, splitting up extended families and rooted communities. This was often, he noted, a result of corporate ladder-climbing, which required transferring often and all over the country. He recounts an anecdote involving a CEO who forced his entire company to relocate halfway across the country rather than relocate himself.
Packard also decried the suburban trend towards wiping out true public spaces. Two decades before the great mall-building spree of the 1990s, he worried that shopping malls were becoming the only “public” spaces where young people could meet up and hang out. That they were designed to promote consumerism was a feature, not a bug. Packard, it seems, was something of a New Urbanist.
Packard’s prose is rarely moving and sometimes clunky, but he was able to intuit and even predict the anxieties of postwar America better than almost anyone else. Much of what we talk about now, and many of our current anxieties, hearken back to Packard’s popular books. When environmentalist and social critic James Howard Kunstler describes America as “physically arranged on-the-ground to produce maximum loneliness, arranged economically to produce maximum anxiety, and disposed socially to produce maximum alienation”; when activist Annie Leonard denounces the cult of consumption; when sociologist Robert Putnam surveys an America in which we are increasingly “bowling alone”; all are echoing Packard, who saw the downsides and discontents of our new way of living at a time when most people were still discovering its benefits.
He may not always have been right, and he didn’t know all the answers. But he saw things that many of his contemporaries didn’t, or didn’t want to. That counts for something.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.