A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America by Lizabeth Cohen

“Goods are neutral, their uses are social; they can be used as fences or bridges.”
— Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood

I grew up in the ’50s in a starter suburb of Detroit, a cap-gunslinging pioneer of the crabgrass frontier. It was the cultural moment of what architecture-and-design critic Thomas Hine has dubbed “populuxe,” a time when American democracy was said to have been fed by the material abundance of the mass market, however cheesy its products. In her new book, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, Lizabeth Cohen douses Hines’s exuberance in a sobering shower of social history. Where Hines’s view of postwar consumerism is that we were coming together as one nation under tailfins, push buttons and broadcast TV, Cohen asserts that in more important respects we were actually moving farther apart.

A Harvard historian whose last book, Making a New Deal, won the 1991 Bancroft Prize, Cohen bases her views mostly on an analysis of her home state of New Jersey, but she could be writing about anywhere in these United States of Generica. The explosive growth in the ’50s of the consumer market in New Jersey and elsewhere in the nation pushed many economic totals to new highs. But socially, politically and even physically, the American landscape became more divided along lines of class, race and gender.

Fueling this process was the increasing privatization of all aspects of American life. Consumer movements have long flourished in America, Cohen maintains, most notably in the muckraking of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (which resulted in federal standards for food and drugs) and the cost-of-living protests and “buy where you can work” boycotts of the Great Depression. What changed in the Consumers’ Republic was the shift in emphasis from the “citizen” consumer to the “purchaser” consumer. The first represented the public interest, the second the marketplace. The first had rights, the second demographics.

The story of the Consumer Republic is the story of the rise of the suburbs, where the majority of Americans now live, work and shop. Henry Ford predicted the demise of the urban environment earlier in the 20th century when he said, “The city is doomed. We will solve the problem by leaving the city.” The private automobile provided the means of transportation, but government literally and figuratively paved the way. Federal subsidies for highway construction and home mortgages gave many urban dwellers the physical and financial means to escape the perceived troubles of the city. At the local level, zoning rules for developing residential subdivisions and shopping centers broke up the mass public and erected strict boundaries of class and race.

Ground zero of the Consumers’ Republic was the single-family house. Its division of labor consisted of Dad as chief executive and treasurer, Mom as the manager of operations and the kids as the productive output. There was also the plethora of goods and services of the domestic economy, from appliances, furnishings and maintenance supplies to the daily consumables, clothing and personal effects of each family member to the vehicles needed for work and play and so on. These items were duplicated in every home in every neighborhood in America, all the responsibility of the individual homeowner. The perfect metaphor of self-reliance in the Consumers’ Republic was the home fallout shelter, where each family became accountable for its own survival in the event of nuclear holocaust. And not surprisingly, these facilities were most often built in suburban areas by people with middle-class incomes and above, who had the space and money for them.

Where Cohen really excels is showing how social, economic and political forces came together in the Consumers’ Republic. After the Second World War, converting back to the peacetime economy meant also reestablishing the dominance of the mostly white men coming home from service. The nuclear family was promoted as the fundamental social and economic unit, tightening gender roles that the wartime economy had loosened. Programs such as the GI Bill and VA loans worked to men’s advantage, especially for those originally from more privileged backgrounds. The income tax code and lending guidelines further concentrated financial power in the hands of men. (What we now call the “marriage penalty” started out as a bonus given to predominantly male head-of-household taxpayers to subsidize their nuclear families; married women did not have legal access to credit ratings independent of their husbands until the Fair Credit Act was passed in the ’70s.) Homeowner’s associations and shopping center security policies kept out “undesirables,” typically the poor and blacks. Moving into the ’60s, market segmentation techniques began to slice and dice the population into even smaller groups, spilling over into the “special interest” politics we know today.

As an outgrowth of Cohen’s New Deal research, this book seems intent on representing the Consumers’ Republic as a missed opportunity for furthering the social welfare agenda that arose between the two World Wars. Hence, little space is devoted to how the stage was set for the postmodern condition in which we live. Cohen recognizes that production practices shifted around the ’70s, as Third World sweatshops began supplying designer jeans, Nike running shoes and other consumer items to the First World. But her claim that growing income disparity in the US simply prompted marketers to move upscale and abandon the mass market isn’t entirely accurate. Census Bureau statistics from the 70s show that personal consumption continued almost unabated across the board even though real incomes dropped. These consumption levels were maintained by the entry of more women into the workforce (typically in working-class occupations) and the expansion of unsecured debt, primarily higher revolving credit card balances. This legacy lives on today. Still, this doesn’t negate Cohen’s basic thesis so much as show that there’s plenty of grist for grinding out the next chapter of the story.

What’s truly refreshing about A Consumers’ Republic is how a serious examination of the holy trinity of cultural studies (i.e., class, race and gender) can be done without the academic hoopdeedoo that keeps most writing on these issues from ever communicating with a wider public. That’s reason enough for wanting to read this book.