How did consumerism and the idea of the "American way of life" affect people’s understanding of American values, including the meaning of freedom, in the 1920s? Why should we care, and how can it connect to today?

Consumerism and the idea of the "American way of life" affected people's understanding of values in the 1920s by equating freedom with the ownership of consumer goods. As the United States became more prosperous, many people enjoyed something they'd never had before: the freedom to own consumer products previously unavailable to them, such as automobiles and radios. A similar attitude can be observed today. People seem more concerned with the freedom to own things than with political freedom.

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The 1920s were a boom time for the American economy. The country became more prosperous than at any time in its history. The mass production of consumer goods drove down their cost, putting them in reach of millions of Americans who'd previously been unable to afford them. In the popular mind, freedom was no longer strictly a political concept; it was increasingly related to the acquisition of consumer goods, such as radios and automobiles.

In the age of consumerism, freedom meant the freedom to spend, to amass as much stuff as humanly possible, much of it on hire purchase. This didn't mean, of course, that people were no longer interested in freedom as a political concept. It's just that the focus changed towards a very different kind of freedom—one that reflected a much more materialistic value system.

The world of today is so different from that of the 1920s in many respects. But in one aspect there are remarkable similarities between then and now. Consumerism continues to shape our values no less than it did nearly a century ago. Despite the decline of the middle class in recent decades, many Americans still cleave to the idea of the American Dream, in which freedom is virtually synonymous with the acquisition of wealth and the vast quantity of consumer goods that it can bring.

This ongoing obsession with material wealth and consumerism is important, as it tends to move our focus away from what are arguably more important freedoms, such as the freedom to vote—increasingly suppressed in some parts of the United States—and the freedom to protest, which is not always protected, as seen in the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Washington.

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