Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Consumerism, Race, Gender, Civil Rights, Suburbia, Popular Culture.

Lizabeth Cohen's second major work after Making a New Deal offers a synthesis of the rise of consumerism over the second half of the twentieth century. Although it perhaps relies too much on its blurry distinctions between "citizen consumers" and "purchaser consumers," it nevertheless ably continues the story began in books such as Richard Bushman's The Refinement of America, William Leach's Land of Desire and T.J. Jackson Lears' Fables of Abundance.

According to Cohen, the story of America after 1945 is the story of a transformation in mores of consumption. "Although there are many ways that historians might conceptualize the second half of the twentieth century," she writes, "I have put Americans' encounter with mass consumption at the center of my analysis. I am 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. Mass consumption did not only deliver wonderful things for purchase...It also dictated the most central dimensions of postwar society, including the political economy (the way public policy and the mass consumption economy mutually reinforced each other), as well as the political culture (how political practice and American values, attitudes, and behaviors tied to mass consumption became intertwined)." (7-8)

To tell this story of mass consumption (as well as to call into question the dichotomy between citizens and consumers she claims is posed by political theorists like Michael Sandel), Cohen creates a few categories of consumer, which are quoted at length due to their centrality to this text. "Citizen consumers of the New Deal and World War II eras," she argues, "put the market power of the consumer to work politically, not only to save a capitalist America in the midst of the Great Depression but also to safeguard the rights of individual consumers and the larger 'general good.' In this effort, they often sought the government as ally. The competing ideal of the purchaser consumer during the late 1930s and World War II championed pursuit of self-interest in the marketplace out of confidence in the ameliorative effects of aggregate purchasing power; in wartime, however, such behavior would undermine homefront needs. In the postwar Consumers' Republic, a new ideal emerged -- the purchaser as citizen -- as an alluring compromise. Now the consumer satisfying personal material wants actually served the national interest, since economic recovery after a decade and a half of depression and war depended on a dynamic mass consumption economy. More recently, during the last two decades, a new combined consumer/citizen/taxpayer/voter has gained influence in a Consumerized Republic, where self-interested citizens increasingly view government policies like other market transactions, judging by how well served they feel personally." (8-9)

As suggested above, Cohen begins A Consumers' Republic where her last book left off, amid the depths of the Great Depression. During this time, she argues, the language and conception of citizens as consumers took hold just as people's ability to consume became sharply mitigated. In FDR's Washington, the Progressive Era discovery of consumerism as a social force and the newly-articulated problem of underconsumption were enthroned by a number of New Deal agencies and actors, which "spawned a larger reconceptualization of the role of the consumer among state policymakers and in civil society that World War II and the postwar period would extend."(24) [To my mind, this is starting the story too late...more could and should be done with consumption and the Progressives - To take just two examples, see Walter Weyl's The New Democracy or the speeches of William Borah.] In other words, both the citizen consumer and purchaser consumer ideals come to the fore of public policy during the New Deal -- The Consumer Advisory Board (CAB)'s role in NRA code-making, the consumer advocacy that animated the AAA and TVA, and the passage of several significant regulatory acts all suggested the rise of the citizen consumer, while the later Keynesian emphasis on purchasing power and boosting demand helped to prop up the purchaser consumer type.

In addition, the stronger emphasis on citizen consumers within government offered women and African-Americans new paths to political power. In Cohen's words, "the New Deal's sudden attention to consumers as a voice of the public interest offered otherwise underrepresented groups an opportunity to become another 'countervailing power' worthy of official recognition...Indeed, with the exception of the consumer cooperative and product-testing wings of the movement, women made up much of the leadership and rank and file of the consumer movement during the 1930s." (32-33) (According to Cohen, this route to political influence for women was aided by the labor movement's general indifference towards consumption at this time.) Similarly, black Americans found at this time that the consumer's power could be used to exercise considerable leverage in the name of civil rights. "Black residents of every major northern city and racial leaders of diverse political persuasions," writes Cohen, "recognized over the course of the thirties the benefits of politicizing African-American consumers on a mass scale." (42)

These various consumer trends, established during the New Deal era, were heightened by the domestic experience of WWII. On the citizen consumer side, war-time programs such as the Office of Price Administration (OPA) encouraged Americans to consume wisely for the general good. On the other hand, the purchaser consumer ideal - consumerism as self-interest - went underground as consumers hoarded rationed goods or bought them on the black market. Moreover, the "central importance of consumption to the smooth operation of the home front [via the OPA] meant that women -- perceived as the power behind purchasing -- gained new political authority," writes Cohen. "In the context of World War II, good citizenship and good consumership were promoted as inseparable, and women gained special stewardship over both." (77,83) This intertwining of citizenship and consumerism also aided African-Americans in their struggle for equal rights, for "Blacks' frustration as consumers fed their sense of inequity as well as provided strategies for combating discrimination...If the realm of mass consumption offered a ready setting for political action by African-American citizen consumers, the goal was as much to claim equal citizenship as to consume material goods or services." (97, 100) Finally, GIs fighting overseas began to embrace a consumerist vision of the good life as their ultimate reward for service, a vision that was encouraged by government war propaganda emphasizing the single-family home.

With the end of World War II and the beginnings of postwar conversion, citizen consumerism -- the idea that with buying "came the patriotic obligation to consume with the general good at heart, to observe price controls and other market regulations aimed at protecting consumers and preserving equity" -- suffered some notable defeats at the hands of purchaser consumers, those "who consumed in pursuit of private gain." (108) For one, despite the protests of consumer activists (and the labor movement, now awakened to the potential of consumerism and the danger of rising prices), the OPA was discontinued at the end of 1946, thus eliminating a key policy prop of the citizen consumer movement. For another, a "wide range of economic interests, ranging from strident anti-New Deal big businessmen to moderate and liberal capitalists to labor and its allies on the left, endorsed the importance of mass consumption to making a successful reconversion from wartime to peacetime, although each came to value mass consumption for its own reasons." (114)

This emphasis on "growing the economic pie," rather than assuring its fair distribution, helped to attenuate the connection between citizenship and consumerism and to pave the way for the ascendancy of the purchaser consumer. In Cohen's words, "perhaps most attractive [about the Consumers' Republic] was the way it promised the socially progressive end of economic equality without requiring politically progressive means of redistributing existing wealth." Despite warnings from economists like John Kenneth Galbraith, "the prevailing wisdom persisted that continued economic growth in the Consumers' Republic could sow the seeds of a natural egalitarianism." (129) And the ideal of mass consumption, already strengthened by postwar prosperity, was further lionized by the onset of the Cold War, when the "yoking of free choice as consumers with political freedom" was made ever more frequently by political leaders -- Cohen cites the example of the Kitchen Debate. (126)

With the postwar rise of purchaser consumers and the Consumers' Republic came a number of troubling changes to the nature of consumerism. For one, the significance of citizen-consumer concerns like "product safety, grading and labeling, and just prices" lost ground to the investigation of "how the individual consumer's subjective frame of mind boded for the nation's economy." (133) Furthermore, as consumerism took on central importance to the economic health and national security of the nation, it fell out of the province of women and became male territory - "The gendering of the 'consumer' thus shifted from women to couples, and at times to men alone. The female citizen consumer evolved into the male purchaser as citizen who, with the help of state policies, also dominated as head of household, breadwinner, home-owner, and chief taxpayer." (147) As just suggested, this change in gender norms was abetted by the GI Bill, the adoption of the joint tax return (which, argues Alice Kessler-Harris and others, made male breadwinning normative), the increasing unavailability of credit for women, and the lessons of television, wherein "authoritative male voice-overs taught incompetent house-wives the merits of everything from kitchen floorwax to headache medication on the myriad of commercials that filled every crevice of time within and between TV programs." (150) Finally, the rise of the Consumers' Republic "not only fostered new rules of the game for gender roles, but for the class structure as well." (152) Namely, it helped to spell the end of the idea of a separate working-class labor movement, particularly after the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act and the acceptance by labor leaders of the goals of purchasing power and a mass middle class.

But, despite the growing hegemony of self-interested purchaser consumers operating under the guise of purchasers as citizens, citizen consumers enjoyed a renewed heyday thanks to the civil rights strategies of African-Americans. The "firm connection between citizenship and consumption presented African Americans with new opportunities for fighting the discrimination in public places that had so angered them during wartime," and hence the Montgomery bus boycotts and Woolworth sit-ins across the South. (166) Indeed, for Cohen the story of civil rights in the 1950's is not only Brown vs. Board but also the consumer organizing of black Americans -- "Historians are just beginning to discover how much skirmishing took place in segregated cities like Birmingham, Alabama, over delineating seating on buses and in theaters, access to stores and parks, and boundaries between black and white neighborhoods in the decades before the more publicized events of the 1960s." (185)

Nevertheless, despite the citizen consumer challenge posed by civil rights, the purchaser consumer ideal ultimately won the day. Cohen concludes her book by examining various battlegrounds between the respective consumer movements. Examining the New Jersey suburbs, she concludes that suburbia helped to reinforce the self-interestednes of the purchaser consumer, for "residential suburbanization contributed to the emergence of a social landscape in the postwar period where the mass of Americans shared less and less common physical space and public culture." (254-255) Similarly, racism conspired with the fear of losing purchasing power to create racially segregated suburbs the nation over. "[A]s a majority of white Americans invested most of their life savings in a home by 1960," notes Cohen, "fear of racial mixing moved beyond a simple white discomfort with sharing neighborhoods and public institutions. The presence of black neighbors threatened to depress property values and hence to jeopardize people's basic economic security, or so homeowners were convinced." (213)

Cohen also spends on a chapter on the emergence of malls and shopping centers as mimicing the trends that shaped suburbia. "Developers and store owners...sought to exclude from this new public space unwanted urban elements, such as vagrants, prostitutes, disruptive rebels, racial minorities, and poor people," writes Cohen. "Market segmentation became the guiding principle of this mix of commercial and civic activity, as the shopping center sought, perhaps contradictorily, to legitimize itself as a true community center and to define that community in exclusionary socioeconomic and racial terms." (265) Put another way, the "landscape of mass consumption created a metropolitan society where people no longer left their residential enclaves to enter central marketplaces, and the parks, streets, and public buildings that surrounded them, but rather were separated by class, race, and less so gender in differentiated commercial subcenters." (288)

In an interesting digression, Cohen continues by examining the court cases that inevitably resulted when public civic spaces became privately owned, when "public life [moved] off the street and into the privately owned shopping center." (274) An "unintended consequence" of this shift, she concludes, "has been the narrowing of the ground where constitutionally protected free speech and free assembly can legally take place." (277)

The market segmentation which concerns Cohen above is the focus of the last two chapters of her book. According to Cohen, the principle of market segmentation -- of appealing to a specific slice of the population rather than the people as a whole -- has both recognized disempowered groups (because they're a slice of the market like any other) and exacerbated the self-interestedness of purchaser consumers. "As market segmentation gave capitalists and rebels alike a shared interest in using consumer markets to strengthen -- not break down -- the boundaries between social groups," wrtes Cohen, "it contributed to a more fragmented America. The marketplace became more like other fractured places in post-World War II America, most notably residential communities and commercial centers, where an investment in mass consumption ironically also propelled Americans away from the common ground of the mass toward the divided...[marketers, like racist landlords, are] more comfortable segregating rather than integrating the public realm." (331) This pernicious principle of market segmentation has naturally seeped into politics, where politicians now tailor their message to various groups in the electorate with amazing aplomb (I'm doubtful this is as new a development as Cohen makes it out to be.)

Cohen concludes by discussing the effect the hegemony of purchaser consumers has had on the politics of today. For, despite a resurgence of the consumer movement in the sixties and seventies (one which brought Ralph Nader to the public eye), Cohen concludes that "as the market relationship became the template for the citizen's connection to government, the watchdog, public-spirited citizen consumers of the 1930s and 1940s increasingly were replaced by the self-interested government consumers of the 1990s, who were encouraged to bring a consumer mentality to their relations with government, judging public services and tax assessments much like other purchased goods, by the personal benefits they derived from them." In effect, "the Consumers' Republic [has] transmogrified into the Consumerization of the Republic." (397)

Like the best works of history, Cohen's often fascinating book provides a compelling lens with which to peruse both the latter half of the twentieth century and the way we live today. Still, there are elements of it that leave me cold. For one, I do wish the book explicitly engaged more of the previous literature on consumerism, such as Bushman, Leach, and Lears. The way it's written here, and particularly after reading Land of Desire, I remain unconvinced that this story really starts with the New Deal. Moreover, it often seems that Cohen is recapitulating an argument already made by writers like Michael Sandel and Alan Brinkley in consumerist terms. For example, Sandel is tossed aside in one paragraph of Cohen's epilogue, but, given the ground covered here, I'd think that Democracy's Discontent warrants further appraisal in this book - After all, substitute "civic republican" for "citizen consumer" and "contemporary liberal" for "purchaser consumer" and you end up with a very similar story. And the first half of the book, concerning the Depression, WWII, and the supremacy of the mass consumption ideal, reads much like the previously formulated argument in Alan Brinkley's The End of Reform. Finally, as my colleague Jason Petrulis has noted in an unpublished paper, market segmentation may not be as new or as undesirable as Cohen makes it out to be.

But not to lose the forest for the trees, A Consumers' Republic is still a very intriguing book, one that makes a particularly compelling argument for the impact of changing consumerist ideals on gender norms and civil rights.

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