A Consumers' Republic

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Lizabeth Cohen. A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Random House (2003) ISBN 0375707379



After World War II a fundamental shift in American economy, culture and politics took place with major consequences for how Americans made a living and where they lived. The link between consumption and citizenship strengthened. It came about from the suburbanization of metropolitan areas. The government, through the GI Bill, sought the goal of stopping the housing shortage by promoting home ownership. Home ownership also encouraged people to buy things to put in their home. Consumption was at the center of the government’s plans for a prosperous America. Private mass consumption, supplemented by government resources, not only was meant to deliver prosperity, but social and political goals of a more equal, free and democratic nation. The idea was that consuming would mean greater political equality and stop fascism and communism. ‘Freedom from want’ became a new freedom. The ‘consumer’s republic’ then is where people said consuming means more freedom, more equality and is superior to communism. The election of 1948 was even couched in consumption terms. The expanding economy would make everybody rich. The landscape of mass consumption was the mass suburbanization of the 1950s. Suburbia became stratified by class. Zoning laws reinforced that. Leaving cities meant more race and class stratification. Local funding also caused inequality in schools until the natural marketplace was overturned by the courts. Also, Dr. Cohen suggests the Consumer’s Republic did not foster the more egalitarian society it promised. Market segmentation took off and caused further inequality. The regional shopping centers were now civic center gathering points. Existing markets in cities were defeated and the object of a freer society may have taken a hit as there were free speech issues with the ‘private property’ of the shopping centers.

The first wave of consumer movement was in the Progressive Era. This was the citizen-consumer, utilizing the government to protect consumers’ interest. Reformers during the Progressive Era brought in the FTC and other organizations and laws to protect the consumer. FDR’s policies brought consumers more into the American consciousness even though there was little substantive movement in the consumer protection arena. The second half of the New Deal brought a second wave, the purchaser-consumer, as the government tried to get people spending with Keynesian pump priming. Consuming was a new way of upholding American interests. Women were the main purchasers as they did most of the family purchasing. They organized nationally. Blacks also played a major part, with national boycotts. The citizen-consumer faded in the fifties as the producer-consumer won out. People were urged to save during the war when there were scarce resources. They emerged afterwards to spend. Consuming was seen as a boon to the country after the war. Credit became available. Cars and credit cards also became available. Private enterprise, not statism, put things right. The idea most Americans had of a postwar world even showed consumption had become part of American society. The tension between citizen consumers and purchaser consumers was settled after the war in favor of the purchaser consumer. This changed class dynamics, race dynamics, gender roles and how and where people lived. The GI Bill favored men over women and brought a great deal of patriarchy to American families. The Consumer’s Republic fostered other great changes in America. The black civil rights movement had its genesis in wanting to participate in mass consumption. The third wave of consumer Americans was a reawakening of consumer’s rights. The Consumer’s Republic may finally have had its run with the bad economic times of the seventies.


Chuck Crum Fall 2009

This is a very interesting look at America through the lens of something other than politics or the Cold War. It fully covers the one great defining thread of the second half of the twentieth century in America. There are a few areas, however, that may be confusing. Dr. Cohen decries the loss of “time invested in a particular community” upon leaving the cities but finds the same phenomenon in suburbs, people wishing to be with “people as much like themselves as possible” as racist. (p.222) She claims zoning restrictions were for “vague” notions such as crime.(p.213) Such notions were not very vague. Dr. Cohen is writing from the perspective that government intervention in the marketplace to right what she feels are wrongs is the better way and this may influence this work. This leads to conclusions that the Consumer’s Republic did not foster a better society, to conclusions that workers did not become middle-class, conclusions which are not a given.

KA Fall 2009

Cohen has generated a sprawling and comprehensive review of the rise of suburbia and consumerism during the post World War II era. In tracing the twentieth century evolution of the American citizen becoming a patriotic consumer of goods, Cohen has made a nice contribution to the growing canon of American consumer history. The research is both broad and granular, providing a truly thorough examination of the material. However, as Cohen notes early in the book, most of the action she describes takes place in her home state of New Jersey. She posits, "I could have situated this local investigation anywhere; the trends I explore occurred nationally."(12) There is little here to back this claim up, however, as we barely push beyond the confines of the Northeast. This is a small but fair criticism, given her titling of the book. Regardless, it is such an enjoyable and interesting study, it seems likely others will bring her arguments and theories to bear on other parts of the country.

Alan S. Brody Spring 2011

Lizabeth Cohen’s thesis may well be stated in her epilogue, where she tries to complicate and interrogate the argument that America was an affluent society from 1945 to 1975.. This fallacy is easily overturned and she does an apt job of describing the tension between consumption and citizenship. This notion is the core of her argument, asking what type of society does one need to be an ethical consumer or is such a definition inherently flawed or impossible? Her epilogue can then be read as an epitaph for American consumers, writ large. This is not to say we have failed, rather it recognizes that Americans, “would prefer to decouple citizen and consumer.” (p. 410)

While this may not a radical approach, it is a fundamental starting point in the historiography. Her entry point is based on her own experiences in suburban New Jersey, where I lived (Princeton) from my birth in 1960 to 1976 . Cohen does an admirable job in moving from local to national scope and in trying to unearth some of the macroeconomics and trace the tensions that plagued certain segments of society. The great untold story is not of societal strife, rather it is the way in which these battles began to be played out in the media and the way consumers gained a unified voice. Borrowing from Anderson’s ‘imagined community”, one can read American consumers as made up of imagined communities. There were many ways in which to imagine oneself, although it meant operating under conflicting or vague definitions, likes suburban. Simply, one can’t be disenfranchised without membership in something, like suburbia, and yet one had to deal with never having the newest or enough of some commodity. I suggest this lead to what I term physic disenfranchisement - the notion that one is a member of a group, say white, suburban housewives, however, there is always a slightly elusive ideal. This is not a radical notion in the post modern age, however, it is arguably at the heart of consumption and of Cohen’s argument. Simply, how does one reinterpret changing norms, values and attitudes when they are framed in economic terms?

I was very drawn to the chapter “Culture: Segmenting the Masses” and will reference her idea that consumers judged government through the lens of self satisfaction. I would especially steer readers to the work of Karal Ann Marling, Thomas Hine and especially James Twitchell for additional narratives and chronicles of this period in American cultural history. I like advertising as an exemplar of social trends and throughout the work the photographs and especially the advertisements add a great deal. This work is especially strong in its use of government archival material as well as trade publications and industry studies. Others seem to suggested that the work supports a sub rosa notion that government economic policy would create the middle class or fix the economy, I did not encounter such ideas. I found her to be an astute and careful critic of both government action and inaction.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

Cohen’s work was an interesting, insightful, powerfully written, and refreshingly readable narrative of the impacts of consumerism on society, economics, and politics. At its core, “A Consumers’ Republic” was an economic and political history. But it did not fall into the frequent traps of many historical works which present these elements as abstract and somehow removed from people. Instead, Cohen use cultural examples and sources to show the ways in which political and economic changes shaped Americans’ everyday lives and changed their viewpoints as the country evolved in to the Consumers’ Republic.

Beyond simply being a compelling book and a good read, another strength of this work was in detailing the ways that the working class, African Americans, and women helped to create the ideals behind the Consumers’ Republic through WWII, but then were ultimately blocked from full participation in its economic and political spoils. One of the main examples of this exclusion comes from changes in the credit system. Women were excluded from purchasing power by “a structure of taxation that rewarded the traditional household male breadwinner,” while also being reduced to dependents on male purchasing power as they were systematically denied access to credit cards, the dominant means of purchase in postwar America. (pp 146)

In the same way that women were blocked from earning economic, social, and political independence through consumption, the working class and African Americans were similarly denied. Cohen blamed this denial of upward mobility on similar forces to those which blocked women, but also blames the GI Bill. “The vehicle most often credited with moving working class Americans into the postwar middle class through higher education and easy capital - the GI BIll - orchestrated much less social engineering than it promised and has been given credit for.” (pp 156) Instead of expanding the middle class, the GI Bill denied loans, education, and business investments for African American and working class servicemen after the war, creating a huge progress gap between them and their white, upper-middle class counterparts that would only widen.

Despite its many strengths, “A Consumers’ Republic” did have a few weaknesses. One was Cohen’s lack of diversity in choosing her case studies. Intended to be a work about national trends, the book nonetheless only uses New Jersey as its example for suburbanization, the rise in shopping malls, racial changes, and political changes. A truly national narrative should have chosen more case studies from various areas across the country. Further, it was not convincingly argued that New Jersey served as an average case, especially given the proactive and progressive nature of the their State Supreme Court which “courageously responded to the challenges brought before them” by challenging residential segregation, zoning, and inequalities in school systems. (pp 235)

Another weakness was that Cohen did not develop themes of internationalism. In her introduction she says that she is “convinced that Americans after World War II saw their nation as the model for the world of a society committed to mass consumption and what were assumed to be its far reaching benefits.” (pp 7) But then she does not expand on issues of internationalism, beyond mentioning once that Americans saw consumption as a way to convince the world that capitalism was better than communism during the Cold War. (pp 125)

Despite these shortcomings, “A Consumers’ Republic” was still a wonderfully interesting and convincing read. It is the most well done and thought provoking book of the semester thus far.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

Cohen argues for the increasing segmentation of American society after World War II, attributing this change not to a single cause but an interaction between self-identified groups and the growing marketing profession. Because Cohen does not try to argue for one or the other as the origin, she is able to show how the special interest groups made use of their new consumer group status and how the marketers seized on special interest groups, increasing segmentation in a cyclical fashion.

This ties into one of Cohen’s key arguments in the book, the shift from Americans behaving as consumer-citizens to consumers of government services. Cohen convincingly demonstrates a shift in the language Americans used when talking about their government, from one which had a sense of shared duty to the feeling of a consumer who is owed service.

Daniel Curry, Spring 2014

In her book, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, Lizabeth Cohen provides a fresh perspective to the economic and political history of Post-WWII America. She provides a thorough narrative that details and explains the forces that led to the evolution of the “citizen consumer,” concerned with improving American society, to the “purchaser consumer,” concerned with the self-interest of narrow segments of American society. Although her case study is limited to New Jersey, Cohen provides a broad analysis of goals and strategies of the Federal Government, local governments, political parties, civil rights groups, labor unions and businesses. Cohen is particularly effective in her description of how the strategy of consumer marketing segmentation spread to political election strategies in the second half of the 20th Century and how this reversed earlier trends of breaking down class, ethnic, racial and gender barriers in America.

Cohen provides a fair analysis of a wide range of perspectives and agents of the Consumers’ Republic. Her book has many strengths, but one area that could have been developed further was an international perspective. Questions regarding global consumer trends as well as the effects of American Consumerism on other nations would have added even more perspective to Cohen’s work.

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

Throughout Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic, chapters are marked with tension between competing visions of the consumer. In some cases, the debate is over the difference and value of the citizen consumer and the purchaser citizen; in later sections, Cohen focuses on the change from a consumers’ republic into a consumerization of the republic. Much like studies of suburbanization such as Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, Cohen’s book emphasizes the influence of human purchasing trends and desire for accumulation alongside the ways in which government and business shape the markets and economic circumstances in which citizens operate. And like the suburbs, consumerism was not caused by one and responded to by another, but is a constant negotiation between the two.

With that in mind, it seems that Cohen’s book is truly a study of the shifts in that balance between consumer/citizen and market/republic. At times, the power of the consumer was linked to status as citizen, meaning that the government was compelled to consider their interests. The purchasing consumer, however, was a source of revitalization and stable economics that could be exploited (while giving consumers desirable products). Those competing values rock back and forth throughout the twentieth century, especially in the postwar years. Fittingly, Cohen concludes that the identities of American citizen and consumer are too entwined to ever allow a purely publicly-spirited system of civic participation (409). One can imagine that an anthropologist might trace the roots of consumption to the early Republic era, and the Revolution in which it began to diverge from previous European ideas. As Dan Curry notes above, however, Cohen provides inadequate international comparison to support any observations about the unique nature of American consumerism (especially in the post-globalization era). Linked to Jackson’s argument about the unique resources of North America and Wiese’s assent that Americans both black and white sought similar goals in suburban life, Cohen’s history about an American culture of consumption offers a particularly potent view of American society.

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