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A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America

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In this signal work of history, Bancroft Prize winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Lizabeth Cohen shows how the pursuit of prosperity after World War II fueled our pervasive consumer mentality and transformed American life. Trumpeted as a means to promote the general welfare, mass consumption quickly outgrew its economic objectives and became synonymous with patriotism, soci In this signal work of history, Bancroft Prize winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Lizabeth Cohen shows how the pursuit of prosperity after World War II fueled our pervasive consumer mentality and transformed American life. Trumpeted as a means to promote the general welfare, mass consumption quickly outgrew its economic objectives and became synonymous with patriotism, social equality, and the American Dream. Material goods came to embody the promise of America, and the power of consumers to purchase everything from vacuum cleaners to convertibles gave rise to the power of citizens to purchase political influence and effect social change. Yet despite undeniable successes and unprecedented affluence, mass consumption also fostered economic inequality and the fracturing of society along gender, class, and racial lines. In charting the complex legacy of our “Consumers’ Republic” Lizabeth Cohen has written a bold, encompassing, and profoundly influential book.


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In this signal work of history, Bancroft Prize winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Lizabeth Cohen shows how the pursuit of prosperity after World War II fueled our pervasive consumer mentality and transformed American life. Trumpeted as a means to promote the general welfare, mass consumption quickly outgrew its economic objectives and became synonymous with patriotism, soci In this signal work of history, Bancroft Prize winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Lizabeth Cohen shows how the pursuit of prosperity after World War II fueled our pervasive consumer mentality and transformed American life. Trumpeted as a means to promote the general welfare, mass consumption quickly outgrew its economic objectives and became synonymous with patriotism, social equality, and the American Dream. Material goods came to embody the promise of America, and the power of consumers to purchase everything from vacuum cleaners to convertibles gave rise to the power of citizens to purchase political influence and effect social change. Yet despite undeniable successes and unprecedented affluence, mass consumption also fostered economic inequality and the fracturing of society along gender, class, and racial lines. In charting the complex legacy of our “Consumers’ Republic” Lizabeth Cohen has written a bold, encompassing, and profoundly influential book.

30 review for A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America

  1. 4 out of 5

    Billy

    Argues that Keynesian-paradigms of thought transcended the New Deal brain-trusters and was adopted by grassroots consumers. In short, consumption became a political act in and of itself during the New Deal, and this dollar activism has remained in the United States ever since. In her examination, she builds upon E.P. Thompson’s idea of a “moral economy,” a notion that began with the Progressive era but came to actualization during the Great Depression. In particular, women and African American g Argues that Keynesian-paradigms of thought transcended the New Deal brain-trusters and was adopted by grassroots consumers. In short, consumption became a political act in and of itself during the New Deal, and this dollar activism has remained in the United States ever since. In her examination, she builds upon E.P. Thompson’s idea of a “moral economy,” a notion that began with the Progressive era but came to actualization during the Great Depression. In particular, women and African American grassroots consumer activism gave these usually disenfranchised groups power. As activists, they forced issues of Civil Rights onto businesses that would discriminate. During the New Deal, administrators focuses on the rights of consumers, not producers, a sharp distinction after decades of adhering to Say’s Law. She argues that Keynesians subscribed to the concept of “purchaser-consumers,” or politics of purchasing. During the Cold War, consumption was in and of itself an act against communism. Politics pushed the freedom of purchasing, thereby creating a Consumer’s Republic.” Private consumption became the appropriate form of political public expression. This shift can still be seen in American landscape in the “landscape of mass consumption”: suburbia, strip malls, and highways. In short, suburbia is an extension of Keynesian policies. She detests this growth, finding it socially destructive at the expense of economic growth. Suburbs put private consumption ahead of all other considerations—in this way her book can be compared with Rome and Galbraith. Sprawl created a racial and economic exclusivity yet to be overcome. She hopes for a return to a landscape characterized by social equality, not clear delineations in the landscape depicting economic disparity. Cohen’s argument is important because it complicates our understanding of American history. She downplays—nay, challenges—the historical assertion that the cold War was the defining influence on post-war America. Her consumer’s republic was a post-war strategy “for reconstructing the nation’s economy and reaffirming its democratic values through the expansion of mass consumption.” (11) This consumers’ Republic impacted where and how Americans lived, how and what they consumed, and how they viewed government. The consumer’s republic resulted in an economic upswing (Pax Americana), but also added to racial and gender stratification. This occurred through planning (i.e. suburbia, commercial v. residential zoning). Target Marketing by design stratifies by gender and race. Downtowns became decimated in favor of suburbia and malls. Schools were funded unequally based on property taxes. The G.I. bill aided predominantly white males. The 1970s economic crisis collapsed the Consumers’ Republic. In response, a growing political aim to aid in privatization and deregulation are justified as aiding the consumer and therefore the entire economy. Consumers view gov’t policies as another consumer good to be judged based on individual utility. (review) At the end of WWII, New Deal era labor and consumers’ movements lost the battle to retain price controls. This defeat combined with postwar reconversion legislation and shifted power away from New Deal models of consumer citizenship towards white, male, middle-class consumers. The women now became not an active member of political action, but a Keynesian pawn held to her home to consume. There were notable exceptions: boycotts and sit-ins of civil rights activists come to mind. Her book attempts to answer Michael Denning’s argument about the “laboring of American culture” during the New Deal.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Craig Werner

    Cohen's thesis--and this is very much a thesis driven book, sometimes to its determent--is that in the years since World War II, the United States is best understood as a "consumers' republic," and that, for the most part, that has operated to the detriment of political citizenship. The consumers' republic refers to the intersection of an economy, culture and politics "built around the promises of mass consumption, both in terms of material life and the more idealistic goals of freedom, democrac Cohen's thesis--and this is very much a thesis driven book, sometimes to its determent--is that in the years since World War II, the United States is best understood as a "consumers' republic," and that, for the most part, that has operated to the detriment of political citizenship. The consumers' republic refers to the intersection of an economy, culture and politics "built around the promises of mass consumption, both in terms of material life and the more idealistic goals of freedom, democracy, and equality." Cohen does a good job examining the impact of the emphasis on consumerism on housing, the marketplace (particularly the growth of mall culture), and notions of community. Her discussion of how the increasing segmentation of marketing plays out not just in advertising but also in politics illuminates some of the forces that have led to the horrendous red state-blue state split we're living with today. It's not a perfect book; the alternation between her micro studies of New Jersey (clearly home base for her research) and generalizations about the U.S. as a whole doesn't always flow smoothly. But I'd recommend it over Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier for anyone looking for an introduction to the most important changes in American "lifestyle" from WWII to the 1980s.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Luke

    I don't know if it's just me, but I found this book to be much more difficult to read than Cohen's first book, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. I'm not sure if I fully understand Cohen's argument, but this is what my major take-away is. During the New Deal and World War II, many American citizens sought to consume specific goods for the sake of the nation. The idea here was not to consume everything--frugality was necessary, and that which was consumed must benefit the I don't know if it's just me, but I found this book to be much more difficult to read than Cohen's first book, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. I'm not sure if I fully understand Cohen's argument, but this is what my major take-away is. During the New Deal and World War II, many American citizens sought to consume specific goods for the sake of the nation. The idea here was not to consume everything--frugality was necessary, and that which was consumed must benefit the larger nation. To be a good citizen, the interests of the nation had to be put first, with luxuries and personal desires remaining subordinate to the United States (as an aggregate). These are an "ideal type" that Cohen calls citizen consumers However, at the same time, another ideal type emerged--that of the purchasing consumer. The purchasing consumer liked to acquire goods and pay for services for their own sake, offering a level of luxury not earlier seen. However, the problem with this is that purchasing anything had the possibility (and probability) of undermining limited consumption during the Second World War [pic related]. However, in the post-war years, the results of a sort of Hegelian dialectic emerge. The citizen consumer (the thesis) was synthesized with the purchasing consumer (the antithesis) to produce the purchaser as citizen. The purchaser as citizen is an ideal type that represents the perspective that ALL consumption actually benefits the national interest, no matter what it is. In the wake of Depression and War, economic recovery was critical (although much of the engine was already spurred by the defense industry), and the best way to recover was by consuming, consuming, consuming. Consumption of goods requires people to produce those goods, thereby creating jobs and strengthening the American economy. This worked well because, with the backdrop of devastation of years of warfare, there was nowhere else on Earth that could economically compete with the United States. The vast majority of goods were produced domestically, thereby strengthening the American economy further. The unity of consumption and civic duty created a world where consumer activism, consumer rights, and consumption itself became representative of American values. In the process, Americans restructured their residential communities, commercial centers, and ostensibly empowered oppressed groups like African Americans and women (I'm less convinced by this last argument). Further strengthening the hold of consumption in the United States, new industries were forged in marketing and advertising to promote consumption, which was largely successful. The story ends with the collapse of the American economy in the early 1970s, which delegitimized the act of consumption as a civic duty. Consumption continued and the association of consumer well-being with American prosperity continued, but consumption and "civic duty" became separated. I know I just used the word "consumption" and its derivatives a lot, but it's the best way to describe what's happening here. Cohen is largely convincing, but the logic of the book was, at times, a bit confusing to me. Nevertheless, it's worth reading to make sense of the seeming idolization of consumerism in the United States.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Hank Stuever

    Great start for anyone who wants to think or write more intelligently about our shared shopaholic tendencies.

  5. 4 out of 5

    AskHistorians

    A great history of consumerism in the post-WWII US.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Simon Purdue

    Cohen’s sweeping history of the postwar period paints a vivid picture of a rapidly changing society. The author describes a cultural landscape in which the terms of citizenship had shifted dramatically, placing production and, more importantly, consumption as the primary term of involvement in this new ‘consumer’s republic’. Using her own experiences growing up in New Jersey as a case study- particularly in the third section of the book- Cohen argues that the encouragement of mass consumption h Cohen’s sweeping history of the postwar period paints a vivid picture of a rapidly changing society. The author describes a cultural landscape in which the terms of citizenship had shifted dramatically, placing production and, more importantly, consumption as the primary term of involvement in this new ‘consumer’s republic’. Using her own experiences growing up in New Jersey as a case study- particularly in the third section of the book- Cohen argues that the encouragement of mass consumption had become a concerted project driven by political and economic elites. She notes that consumption, primarily of American-produced goods, quickly became an essential component of citizenship in the new, suburban America, as shopping malls became major social spaces and possession of goods became even more of an indicator of social status. This new culture of consumption marked a gear-shift in the idea of social mobility and the ‘American Dream’, and for the first time it was the spending of money and not the earning of money that paved the way to said dream. Furthermore the postwar years marked a notable shift in American capitalism, and a scaling back of the limitations imposed from the populist era through to the New Deal. Crucially Cohen dedicates sizeable portions of her analysis of this new consumer’s republic to its failings and- in many cases deliberate- inequalities. She suggests that the consumer’s republic represented a more segregated America than had been seen in the preceding decades, and that the rapid changes that were taking place in American society left African-Americans behind. She, sometimes slightly clumsily, frames much of the Civil Rights Movement in consumerist terms, arguing that the ‘urban rebellions’ of the 1960s were the result of a renewed sense of African-American disenfranchisement and exclusion brought on by this reconfigured and exclusionary white middle class consumerist society. Cohen’s book frames consumption as a key marker of American identity, paving the way for deeper explanations of what it meant to be a citizen in this new social structure.

  7. 4 out of 5

    MargaretDH

    This is an extremely readable examination of the valourization of mass consumption in America in the middle of the twentieth century. Cohen argues that, beginning during the New Deal, the idea of Americans as citizens and as consumers became inextricably linked, and that consumption was understood as an important way all people could benefit to the health of the nation. Cohen explores the rise of manufactured goods, suburbs, shopping centres and the ethos of increased spending on consumer goods a This is an extremely readable examination of the valourization of mass consumption in America in the middle of the twentieth century. Cohen argues that, beginning during the New Deal, the idea of Americans as citizens and as consumers became inextricably linked, and that consumption was understood as an important way all people could benefit to the health of the nation. Cohen explores the rise of manufactured goods, suburbs, shopping centres and the ethos of increased spending on consumer goods as a rising tide that would lift all boats. She also explores the racialized and gendered lenses through which consumerism was inevitably understood, and the ways in which consumerism both empowered and disenfranchised American women and black Americans. Cohen also examines how important class was in America, despite how proudly many political leaders stated that the USA was a classless society, with all sharing in prosperity. Though this was published in 2003, it's also a timely read. It explores many of the ways that black Americans have been excluded from American prosperity, from the GI bill to restrictive housing covenants to the 'don't shop where you can't work' movement. If you're interested in learning about the ways that American policy has favoured some groups over others, while also touting the American dream, this is an excellent read. As I mentioned above, this is extremely readable. Though detailed, Cohen's prose is crisp and lively. She also includes photos, advertisements and charts to illustrate her arguments. This is an academic work, and it's not short. But if you're interested in the subject matter, I think it's worth picking up.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Erik

    Interesting to learn that modern consumerism is not just an outgrowth of natural human frailty in the form of greed but was instead the creation of government policies to apply war production capacity to civilian needs after World War II. That's hopeful. It means that humans aren't doomed by nature, or by some quality of American culture, to deplete natural resources through overconsumption and destroy the environment through waste. Instead, we can change now to use less just as we changed back Interesting to learn that modern consumerism is not just an outgrowth of natural human frailty in the form of greed but was instead the creation of government policies to apply war production capacity to civilian needs after World War II. That's hopeful. It means that humans aren't doomed by nature, or by some quality of American culture, to deplete natural resources through overconsumption and destroy the environment through waste. Instead, we can change now to use less just as we changed back then to use more.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mariel

    Cohen's argument can be broadly generalized to say that post-war economic policies and consumer spending habits led Americans to conceive of themselves more as consumers than politically-minded citizens. However, the nuance of her work, especially in her attention to the gender and racial inequalities of post-war consumption patterns, illuminates a fundamental shift in what it means to be an American citizen and what constitutes "rights" beyond the framers' intent. Read in March 2017, when the c Cohen's argument can be broadly generalized to say that post-war economic policies and consumer spending habits led Americans to conceive of themselves more as consumers than politically-minded citizens. However, the nuance of her work, especially in her attention to the gender and racial inequalities of post-war consumption patterns, illuminates a fundamental shift in what it means to be an American citizen and what constitutes "rights" beyond the framers' intent. Read in March 2017, when the current political climate bears the unbearable stamp of consumption, fraud and market segmentation, the significance of this shift could not have been visible to Cohen in 2003, but her analysis provides an eerily prescient foreshadowing of the consequences of these factors. Unfortunately, her conclusion assumes an acceptance and continuation of the dual identity of consumers and citizens. She believes it would be impossible to sever the social, economic or political connections that have fused over the last half of the 20th century. However, conditions in 2017 suggest that American political identities may have been long-dormant but are waking and may be poised to break free from the segmentation after all. Cohen's writing is clear and refined. Although this is a work of advanced scholarship, it is well within the reach of able high school students and would be a great example of clear, professional historical writing. I can see using excerpts to teach content as well as style.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ross

    After World War II, Americans began to change their attitude toward the role of consumption in constructing American identity and values. Actively discouraged by the American government during the war and socially condemned during the Depression, postwar conspicuous consumption subsequently came to represent all that was ideally American in Cohen’s "Consumers’ Republic": freedom, egalitarianism, and democracy. Cohen argues that the reality of the Consumers’ Republic was not so democratic, but wa After World War II, Americans began to change their attitude toward the role of consumption in constructing American identity and values. Actively discouraged by the American government during the war and socially condemned during the Depression, postwar conspicuous consumption subsequently came to represent all that was ideally American in Cohen’s "Consumers’ Republic": freedom, egalitarianism, and democracy. Cohen argues that the reality of the Consumers’ Republic was not so democratic, but was in fact a staging ground for competing notions of American identity and citizenry along racial, gender, and class lines. Using her home state of New Jersey as a way to analyze mass consumption issues of the postwar era, Cohen details the origins, character, and consequences of this new American consumerist mentality and questions whether the Consumers’ Republic actually yielded all of its supposed benefits. She charts the origins of the Republic to the 1930s, when lawmakers, women, and African Americans pursued a “citizen consumer” role—a role that put the safety and political rights of the consumer at a premium. Government agencies reinforced and strengthened the citizen consumer concept through World War II with inflation control and other artificial means of maintaining a stable and productive wartime economy. Cohen places the firm establishment of the Consumers’ Republic in the immediate postwar period when government supported an expansion of the private sector, thereby assuming that this would be the sight of an egalitarian free market economy that would embody democratic ideals and freedom for all citizen consumers. Cohen shows that this was not always the case—women, African Americans, and low-income consumers were often marginalized, both formally and informally, by a defensive rising middle class, a painfully slow-moving federal government, and private developers and marketers who wanted to maximize profits, which meant marketing to the rising white middle class reaping the recent benefits of the GI Bill. Cohen also examines the creation and expansion of the suburbs, privately owned shopping centers, and market segmentation, which were all part of the idealist Consumers’ Republic based more on a dream of equality rather than a reality. As a consumer history, A Consumers’ Republic is well conceived, well articulated, and well executed. Using her childhood home state to illustrate the larger trends taking place throughout the United States is helpful and convincing, but it neglects the heterogeneity of the country. Regional economic differences were even more pronounced during the establishment of Cohen’s Consumers’ Republic, leaving a southern or western historian to wonder whether these patterns of widespread suburbanization, multiplying shopping malls, and restructured tax systems were as prevalent in other regions of the United States. From a southern perspective, Cohen situates the role of consumerism among urban African American southerners in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, but fails to discuss the rural population that made up such a significant portion of the United States generally and the South more specifically. Additionally, the federal government takes a central role in her understanding of the Consumers’ Republic, yet southern state governments were notoriously wary of federal intrusion into state policy. It is likely that the economic and social problems of the South put it outside of the mainstream America that Cohen seems to be focused on, but it is a glaring omission in a book concerned with characterizing consumerism in postwar America as a whole. In addition, Cohen fails to examine the rise of the modern tourist industry occurring almost simultaneously with the development of her Consumers’ Republic, especially in states like Florida and California, where theme parks and resorts expanded into multimillion-dollar attractions capitalizing on Americans’ postwar purchasing power. Parks like Disney World and Six Flags became synonymous with middle class white America’s idea of family vacation and symbols of American consumerism abroad. Cohen’s emphasis on the government’s role in postwar consumerism implied that housing, malls, and modern appliances were all that consumers were purchasing, but status symbols went beyond a nice car and a nice home. Middle class families might not have been able to afford a trip to Europe or other exotic destinations, but domestic theme parks marketed directly to this rising middle class offered a more exciting and economic alternative to local attractions. A Consumers’ Republic is the product of extensive research and keen insight into the political and social history of modern American consumerism by an author who clearly understands how the pursuit of economic prosperity may have defined postwar America even more than the idealism of the Cold War. Every citizen participated in the Consumers’ Republic in some form or another, whether by accepting the government relief of the Depression, reaping the benefits of the GI Bill, or shopping in the local mall. With this book, it is now possible to understand how consumers’ personal economic benefit became the catalyst for these extensions of the Consumers’ Republic.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jene

    It's been fifteen years since Cohen published A Consumers' Republic, making so much of her thesis seem old hat. Everybody knows about the postwar culture of mass consumption. But what makes this book an important read, even now, is Cohen's further analysis of the effects of this "Consumers' Republic" (CR) on American lives. Americans of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds accepted the basic premise of the CR: that mass consumption would bring a greater equality to all of America. We didn't need t It's been fifteen years since Cohen published A Consumers' Republic, making so much of her thesis seem old hat. Everybody knows about the postwar culture of mass consumption. But what makes this book an important read, even now, is Cohen's further analysis of the effects of this "Consumers' Republic" (CR) on American lives. Americans of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds accepted the basic premise of the CR: that mass consumption would bring a greater equality to all of America. We didn't need the vast government programs of the New Deal to bring everyone into the middle class, or so the thinking went. Cohen followed up on this mass consumption = mass democracy theory, and found that we (surprise) did not eliminate class distinctions, but instead created new ones while solving some of the old. The postwar era was a lot more complicated than we like to remember. I think Cohen's best chapter was on suburbanization - the promises it held for middle-class white families, and the legal barriers erected to keep out working-class whites and people of color.

  12. 5 out of 5

    David

    I’m super busy at the moment so jotting down notes to write a fuller review later. References Halberstam’s The Fifties with regards to advertising Companion to City of Quartz but focused on NJ Focuses on Black and female consumers, mainly 1945-1975 Black women organized against white store owners in Harlem to force them to hire Black employees in the 1930s Riots focused on white-owned businesses while Black-owned businesses were spared Looters saw commercials for products featuring whites which stoke I’m super busy at the moment so jotting down notes to write a fuller review later. References Halberstam’s The Fifties with regards to advertising Companion to City of Quartz but focused on NJ Focuses on Black and female consumers, mainly 1945-1975 Black women organized against white store owners in Harlem to force them to hire Black employees in the 1930s Riots focused on white-owned businesses while Black-owned businesses were spared Looters saw commercials for products featuring whites which stoked consumer resentment Whites moved out of cities and into suburbs, bus lines limited Black commuters who didn’t own cars in the same number as whites Part time employees in suburbs were almost entirely white housewives Women wouldn’t buy a house or establish credit without a husband, especially after a divorce

  13. 5 out of 5

    Alisha

    This is an incredibly dense, well-researched, and thorough book about the history and politics of mass consumption in the U.S. I learned so much about the gendered and racialized dynamics of consumerism and its implications for inequality in the United States. I thought I already knew a lot about this topic but Cohen's book was an education. Although the title says "postwar" Cohen digs into the origins of the culture of modern consumerism as well as government policies that facilitated the struc This is an incredibly dense, well-researched, and thorough book about the history and politics of mass consumption in the U.S. I learned so much about the gendered and racialized dynamics of consumerism and its implications for inequality in the United States. I thought I already knew a lot about this topic but Cohen's book was an education. Although the title says "postwar" Cohen digs into the origins of the culture of modern consumerism as well as government policies that facilitated the structural conditions of market reliance (pressure, behavior) that helped create the consumer culture that we experience the legacies of today. This is not a breezy read -- it is a commitment -- but it is worth it.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Christina Ailor

    This book is long and dry, but it’s a great resource if you want a comprehensive overview of how our nation’s economy and government grew to depend on consumerism. Cohen takes the reader through the 20th century, describing the various political, social, and technological factors that created the “consumer’s republic” and how the culture of mass consumption shaped the experiences of various segments of the population. She also explores the various ways consumerism has been treated as a political This book is long and dry, but it’s a great resource if you want a comprehensive overview of how our nation’s economy and government grew to depend on consumerism. Cohen takes the reader through the 20th century, describing the various political, social, and technological factors that created the “consumer’s republic” and how the culture of mass consumption shaped the experiences of various segments of the population. She also explores the various ways consumerism has been treated as a political act or an act of citizenship.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Aimee

    Very thought provoking, offers lots of insight into the citizen-consumer relationship. I thought it was very long, and at times unnecessarily long. Maybe I'm just saying that because I had to read it for a class and was under a time crunch and that was very annoying. So, it was interesting, but I would not read a 500 page book about mass consumption unless I was forced to. Very thought provoking, offers lots of insight into the citizen-consumer relationship. I thought it was very long, and at times unnecessarily long. Maybe I'm just saying that because I had to read it for a class and was under a time crunch and that was very annoying. So, it was interesting, but I would not read a 500 page book about mass consumption unless I was forced to.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jared Lancaster

    I thought this was very interesting! Some deep dives in consumer activism and what it means to live in a society driven by mass consumption. The segmentation of markets coupled with the rise of identity politics was super interesting to me.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ietrio

    For Cohen, a woman's place is in the kitchen. There the woman should work day and night as penitence for the Original Sin. And Cohen will fight till the end to achieve this divine goal. For Cohen, a woman's place is in the kitchen. There the woman should work day and night as penitence for the Original Sin. And Cohen will fight till the end to achieve this divine goal.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Bethany Green

    Great read! So insightful, particularly into my parent's generation. Great read! So insightful, particularly into my parent's generation.

  19. 4 out of 5

    gadabout

    Well written, well researched, and consistent. It does lose me on a few points as far as making poor conclusions or showing unfair bias, but it's otherwise a very informative book. Well written, well researched, and consistent. It does lose me on a few points as far as making poor conclusions or showing unfair bias, but it's otherwise a very informative book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jimmacc

    Really interesting book. I enjoyed the walk through various consumer trends’ life cycle. I remember some of them as they started. The labor and consumer activism discussions were eye opening.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Cory

    Undergrad radicalization

  22. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    This is a well-researched, clearly written, and fascinating book that I will come back to over and over again. It's one of those "this is the why the world is the way it is" books that are just incredibly valuable to scholars and the general reader alike. It wasn't always the quickest read, but it is highly illuminating. Cohen's focus is on consumption, citizenship, and suburbanization. She argues that consumption in the 1930's and 40's became a patriotic act designed to boost the economy under K This is a well-researched, clearly written, and fascinating book that I will come back to over and over again. It's one of those "this is the why the world is the way it is" books that are just incredibly valuable to scholars and the general reader alike. It wasn't always the quickest read, but it is highly illuminating. Cohen's focus is on consumption, citizenship, and suburbanization. She argues that consumption in the 1930's and 40's became a patriotic act designed to boost the economy under Keynesian auspices. After the war, many people envisioned a "consumer's republic" in which high levels of income and consumption would raise the standard of living of all Americans and unite them in an age oIn the 50's and 60's, it became more of a way of life that mixed into race, where people lived, gender, and politics. Consumerism and citizenship became tightly entwined concepts because consuming was seen as so crucial to keeping the postwar boom going. Over time, this conflation changed people's perception of themselves as citizens and the nation as a whole. Suburbanization is a huge part of Cohen's argument. Cohen contends that the suburbs allowed people to live out a dream of prosperity, easy consumption, and independence, but at a cost. There was always a nicer suburb to move into, so suburbs started to reflect class hierarchies. They also drained money out of cities, which had hugely negative consequences for urban education and business. For example, new shopping centers popped up to serve the motorized suburbanites' consumption needs, draining the cities of much revenue. Suburbanites, for a mix of racial and economic reasons, wanted to ensure a homogenous population and therefore tried a number of tricks to keep out minorities, including up zoning, redlining, protective covenants, and straight up intimidation or ostracization. Cohen shows that the racist fear of property values dropping when minorities move in (a myth, btw) was pervasive in shaping suburban living patterns and ensuring black cities and white suburbs. The real question Cohen raises is whether suburbanization increased racial inequality and distrust. The answer for the time period of this book (50's to 70's) seems to be yes. Cohen makes some fascinating points about consumption and race. On one hand, the recognition of the power of the consumer was a major source of empowerment and rights protest. At the end of the day, most businesses wanted their money, which gave them some leverage as long as they acted in a united way. For blacks, the right to consume what they wanted on an equal basis with whites was a key demand that shaped civil rights protests in the 1950's especially. The "don't shop where you can't work" campaign won many concessions regarding black employment in By the 1960's, companies were paying way more attention to the black market, offering specific products and messages. On the other hand, mass consumption and the consumer mentality increased many trends that hurt African Americans, especially those living in the inner cities. Large companies often ran smaller, black owned companies out of business once they turned their attention to the black market. Blacks remained disempowered economically in their communities as stores tended to be owned by outsiders. I have already mentioned the negative outcomes emerging from changing economic patterns relating to suburbanization. Finally, the geographic relocation of shopping centers drained stores and money out of cities, leading to employment problems for African Americans. The biggest beard stroker of an argument in this book dealt with the connection between consumption and politics. Cohen shows the consumption encouraged a self and small-group centered version of the common good. Market segmentation contributed to this tendency. Markets divided up consumers into men, women, blacks, Latinos, kids, teenagers, the elderly, and then dozens of subsets of those groups, and marketed specifically to each group. Cohen says that politicians increasingly followed this method in campaigns, dividing up the citizenry into a number of groups who all received different campaign messages. Her conclusion is that Americans increasingly view politics from the consumer's perspective, which has eroded the common good and notions of public service. Our political fragmentation and partisan rancor have only been enhanced by this trend. Cohen is a bit more pessimistic than I am about this story of consumption and suburbanization. To be fair, she does account for the many programs adopted to lessen the negative effects of these trends. She also notes how successful and positive the consumer advocacy movement has been, especially under Ralph Nader in the 1970's. She clearly dislikes suburbs, but she doesn't let this bias get in the way of her history. This is a landmark book. The comp stomp continues.

  23. 5 out of 5

    William

    Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption, is a interesting look at the economic and cultural currents which transformed America during the early years of the Cold War. Cohen initially traces this current from the headwaters of the Progressive era, clearly evidenced by Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, in which Veblen argued for the existence of a Gilded Age proto-“keeping up with the Joneses” mentality of social mimicry. As Cohen illustrates, however, Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption, is a interesting look at the economic and cultural currents which transformed America during the early years of the Cold War. Cohen initially traces this current from the headwaters of the Progressive era, clearly evidenced by Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, in which Veblen argued for the existence of a Gilded Age proto-“keeping up with the Joneses” mentality of social mimicry. As Cohen illustrates, however, the torrent is truly unleashed by the adoption of Keynesian economics during the Great Depression and Second World War, and furthered by the perpetuation of same not only in the initial postwar ear, but throughout the Cold War and beyond. Cohen develops an interesting taxonomy for participants in this “consumers’ republic,” a term she uses to describe the distinct rise of mass consumption, with both its economic and cultural implications, following World War II. Cohen describes “citizen consumers,” who sought to support the public good through their consumption of goods, and “purchaser consumers,” who were oriented toward self-serving acquisitiveness. Eventually, according to Cohen, these two types begin to amalgamate into the “purchaser as citizen,” who attempts to satisfy a sense of civic consumerist duty while likewise seeking to benefit by the exercise of personal economic sovereignty. This last piece – a notion of individual sovereignty, or “freedom” in the rhetoric of the Cold War – was tied to an abundance of goods in the marketplace vying for consumer choice and the individual economic means of the consumer to pursue choice. This understanding of freedom was most notably articulated in the Kitchen Debate between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. However, Cohen illustrates that this ideal of individual economic freedom was hitched to a sensibility, pronounced most provocatively in 1957 by William H. Whyte, editor of Fortune magazine, that “thrift is now un-American.” In post-McCarthy America, this truly was a notable statement of the confluence of political and economic ideology. Given this understanding of freedom and patriotism, one wonders if production outside of the system is considered subversive. While much of Cohen’s work was interesting, one area which struck me as uneven was her examination of the G.I. Bill. While Cohen effectively describes how the benefits provided for in the G.I. Bill were inconsistently available or unequally applied even within the population of veterans, with particular regard to veterans of color, women veterans, and homosexual veterans given “blue discharges,” she continues beyond this criticism of the practical implementation of the G.I. Bill. Stating that the G.I. Bill was “the chief policy instrument favoring men over women” in the re-establishment of postwar social order conveniently overlooks that men were overwhelmingly selected for service in the war to begin with - as Cohen states, of the sixteen million men and women who served during the war, about two percent, or approximately 320,000, were women. While the G.I. Bill undeniably established American males as principle breadwinners within postwar American society, the result was essentially inevitable given the demographic selected for service. To support this analysis, Cohen invokes the Bradley Commission’s report of veterans benefits, which suggested that government resources should be “more equitably distributed to all citizens through more universal social programs.” How the timely reintegration of fifteen million American men into the domestic economy would have been effectively managed without the G.I. Bill, which moderated the flow of veterans back into the labor pool through education and vocational training benefits, is left to the reader to determine.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Cynthia

    Interesting but very dense, strategically organized in kind of an odd way, and damn is that conclusion depressing.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Radnor

    Interesting take on American history from the 1930's forward that focuses on the role (or you could say rule) of the consumer (rather than the voter or worker), arguing that they became the controlling influence, and sometimes even the controlling power in American society. As I read this I realized that I had already read some of the chapters for various classes on American history (namely the ones on suburbia and shopping malls). In fact this book is more a collection of journal articles writt Interesting take on American history from the 1930's forward that focuses on the role (or you could say rule) of the consumer (rather than the voter or worker), arguing that they became the controlling influence, and sometimes even the controlling power in American society. As I read this I realized that I had already read some of the chapters for various classes on American history (namely the ones on suburbia and shopping malls). In fact this book is more a collection of journal articles written by an author with central area of interest than a unified book, and as such is very easy to separate into chunks applicable to various class topics. As evidence, the last 32% of the book is notes, bibliography, etc. Cohen has a markedly Marxist/feminist/liberal bent to her work, and much of the book is focused on how consumers' economic interests have often functioned in direct opposition to their political ones, with the exceptions of when they mobilized to use their collective economic power to enforce change -- a period which she herself admits was fleeting and was dependent on a strong economy (job security). Her chapter on consumer cultures and the shifts from mass market to segmented markets, and how producers grab a segment and begin to mold it via producing for it is fascinating. The book starts off talking a little bit about the rise of consumer protection laws in the progressive era, but then argues that consumer power became political in the language of the new deal area culminating in the political mobilization of women's social groups in the 30's to utilize their power as consumers to protect their families via laws designed to control unfair pricing, etc and then by union workers to boycott stores that didn't have union workers. The next section is on how African Americans utilized their power as consumers to force the stores that served them to also hire them (as more than janitors, etc). The next section considers the creation of the suburbs, and the home as the largest consumer purchase, and how individual's owners concern with maintaining property values (rightly or wrongly) resulted in segregated neighborhoods. This segregation in turn resulted in imbalances in education as local real-estate taxes funded local schools. She then moves on to the rise of shopping centers (this was one of the chapters I had already read for a class). She then talks about the rise of consumer markets and how marketing changed over time as it became more and more about reaching individuals segments, with the marketers getting more scientific in their approaches by utilizing sociology, anthropology, etc. She then goes on to talk about how politics became influenced by this segmentation, transforming it so that only those already rich enough to undertake a targeted add campaign (or backed by people rich enough) could afford to run. And then she talks about the push back by corporations to undo all the political gains of the consumers/workers, starting in the 70's.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    What is the meaning of citizenship? To the Romans, and to the early Americans, citizenship was an exclusive state of being that depended on owning land, and so a stake in society. In the early twentieth century, however, as suffrage waxed more universal and markets were flooded with goods made for the masses, citizenship took on a different meaning. To be a citizen of a modern, capitalist democracy was to be a Consumer; voices rang out most strongly at the marketplace, not the ballot box. In A C What is the meaning of citizenship? To the Romans, and to the early Americans, citizenship was an exclusive state of being that depended on owning land, and so a stake in society. In the early twentieth century, however, as suffrage waxed more universal and markets were flooded with goods made for the masses, citizenship took on a different meaning. To be a citizen of a modern, capitalist democracy was to be a Consumer; voices rang out most strongly at the marketplace, not the ballot box. In A Consumer's Republic, author Lizbeth Cohen examines the way the burgeoning consumer market effected political activism. Beginning with consumer activist groups who protested high prices amid the Depression, her history examines the Civil Rights and feminist movements through the lens of consumption. Consumer equality, not income distribution, would create a classless society. Women fought for the right to have their own bank accounts and lines of credit in addition to equal wages; blacks labored for just prices in stores as well as unhindered access to the vote. This is an account of social, political, marketing history, intertwined together. Consumption didn't just serve individual desires; as Keynsianism became the dominant economic philosophy, intellectuals and citizen-consumers alike saw their compulsive buying as not only fun, but patriotic: their every new gadget grew the economy. The consumers' republic began to die in the 1970s and 1980s amid economic turbulence; even though people continued to buy more and more, the political aspect of their purchasing, the meaning they had given it, fell away, both because the economy no longer responded as Keynes promised and their motives became more purely self-focused and only tangently connected to the thought of improving the nation's fortunes. Although occasionally touching on the negative aspects of the rapidly expanding consumer culture -- the growth of suburbia, for instance -- A Consumers' Republic is not a polemic raging against consumerism, and effects open to interpretation, like the consequences of consumerism on citizens' peace of mind, are not touched on. It has a scholarly feel, though a 'popular' look; the art is well-done, including plenty of large black and white photographs that demonstrate the point at hand, and stylized headings that bring to mind advertisements from the 1950s. One particularly effective illustration shows the evolution of advertising in Ebony magazine from the 1950s to the 1970s, as white-owned haircare manufactures realized that (1) blacks were a market and (2) that black people were a different market. They gradually transition from a white model demonstrating hair treatment lotion to a black model advertising products related to 'natural' hair. Republic is a fascinating look at another side of the rise of consumption, impressively thorough in that respect, and free of scathing criticism if not critical substance.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    Excellent history, deeply researched and convincingly argued. Cohen tracks the formation of a Consumer Republic ("an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption, both in terms of material life and the more idealistic goals of greater freedom, democracy, and equality") in the aftermath of WW2, from its antecedents in the Depression era citizen consumer, to purchaser as citizen in the aftermath of the war, to the end of the consumer republic, as the roles of consum Excellent history, deeply researched and convincingly argued. Cohen tracks the formation of a Consumer Republic ("an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption, both in terms of material life and the more idealistic goals of greater freedom, democracy, and equality") in the aftermath of WW2, from its antecedents in the Depression era citizen consumer, to purchaser as citizen in the aftermath of the war, to the end of the consumer republic, as the roles of consumer and citizen mixed amid economic downturn and attacks on government regulation that begin in the mid-1970s. It is sobering history written clearly and directly. If the New Deal offered a place for the consumer in government and an additional wave of consumer activity in the 60s and 70s offered new consumer protections, the fear of economic downturn after WW2 and its arrival in the 70s limited the consumer's role. The government aided veterans after WW2, but that aid went overwhelmingly to the well educated (GI Bill for education did not help those who had not finished high school before the war) and better capitalized. Cohen uses her home state of New Jersey as case study to examine property taxes and education, residential home purchases, the rise of malls, and the decline of urban neighborhoods. She notes the roles of women as citizen consumers and the difficult issues facing African-Americans as they sought places as both citizens and consumers. The entire project of attempting mass consumption comes to an end in the 70s and 80s as different economic ends were pursued. "Rather than seeking to draw all Americans into an expansive mass consumption web, Reaganites promoted capital investment, concentrated wealth, tax cutting, and personal savings over consumption, with the assumption that prosperity would 'trickle down' from new corporate and private wealth to ordinary American consumers." "Whereas from the 1930s to as late as the 1970s, to refer to the consumer interest was also to appeal to some larger public good beyond the individual's self-interest, the ubiquitous invocation of the consumer today - as patient, as parent, as social security recipient - often means satisfying the private interest of the paying customer, the combined consumer/citizen/taxpayer/voter whose greatest concern is, 'Am I getting my money's worth?'" It's a change she describes, and even laments, but which she offers no remedy to undo. Pity that.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Randy Wilson

    For a long time I have felt that Americans identify more as consumers than as citizens.  For me, the distinction is between agency around satisfying material interests rather than agency to satisfy communal or societal interests.  This book does a terrific job outlining how those roles were more intertwined than I realized.  But this book does more than that, it provides a very useful way to understand American society in the 20th and 21st centuries. A key pivot is between the role of the citizen For a long time I have felt that Americans identify more as consumers than as citizens.  For me, the distinction is between agency around satisfying material interests rather than agency to satisfy communal or societal interests.  This book does a terrific job outlining how those roles were more intertwined than I realized.  But this book does more than that, it provides a very useful way to understand American society in the 20th and 21st centuries. A key pivot is between the role of the citizen using her power as a consumer to make social changes.  Women in particular were a powerful force during the Great Depression to push for economic changes, particularly around food costs.  African-Americans used their role as consumers to push white owned businesses servicing African-American consumers.  They would boycott those white businesses that didn’t hire African-Americans often with positive results. After the war, while African-Americans continued pushing their role as a consumer-citizens by sitting at white only lunch counters and asking to be served to spend their money, whites, men and women withdrew from the citizen consumer role and bought into the consumer-only role.  Were those two facts intertwined?  Whites reluctantly granting basic civil rights to African-Americans but hypocritically creating safe spaces that were difficult for African-Americans to reach?  Ah, the persistence and doggedness of White Supremacy.  Here society encouraged white people to escape urban centers for the suburbs where they shopped at non-public malls, cordoned off their communities from African American entrance, depriving them of safe communities and good schools. Then starting in the sixties but gaining speed in the seventies, marketers moved away from marketing on-mass to consumers and effectively divided us up into distinct niches, senior citizens, women, men, teenagers etc.  As the whites exited from the public sphere on-mass, they were then further divided by mass marketing, creating insular tribes who signalling to each other through consumer purchases who they were and who they weren’t.  The book is written before the age of social media but it describes the seeds of the toxic tribalism and mass manipulation that characterizes this era of Trump.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Samuel

    In Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, the author describes the United States following World War II as a “Consumers’ Republic” that she defines as “an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption, both in terms of material life and the more idealistic goals of greater freedom, democracy, and equality.” Although Cohen focuses the majority of her analysis of postwar America on the first three decades followin In Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, the author describes the United States following World War II as a “Consumers’ Republic” that she defines as “an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption, both in terms of material life and the more idealistic goals of greater freedom, democracy, and equality.” Although Cohen focuses the majority of her analysis of postwar America on the first three decades following the end of the war, she does offer a limited amount of past trends toward a modern consumer culture from the pre-WWII era as well as some later cultural shifts that bring her analysis to the contemporary present—2003. In developing her definition of the postwar Consumers’ Republic, Cohen contends that the previously distinct spheres of Americans as political “citizens” and economic “consumers” combined into a new ideal of the “purchaser as citizen” in which “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.” In other words, the postwar American climate encouraged consumers to buy not only to satisfy personal desire but also to benefit all Americans by stimulating the economy. Whereas other historians covering the same period have stressed the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement as the primary factors influencing the politics, economy, and culture of the era, Cohen demonstrates how her concept of the “Consumers’ Republic” offers a more comprehensive vision of the era. Not only does Cohen regard the counterculture’s critiques of mass consumption as evidence of its core standing in postwar society, but she also offers examples of how it paradoxically discriminated against and gave means to empower women, African-Americans, and other minority groups at different times.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kaufmak

    Lizabeth Cohen made her name with the New Deal, but it is this is by far the superior work, though I'm quite biased. This time frame is where I feel that the workers of the United States truly blew it. In exchange for political power, they pursued purchasing power, of creature comforts, of as they called them at the time, "bread and butter issues." Look, I don't fault workers for wanting a better life, a chance at that brass ring of middle-class life, but the cost was far too high. They gave up Lizabeth Cohen made her name with the New Deal, but it is this is by far the superior work, though I'm quite biased. This time frame is where I feel that the workers of the United States truly blew it. In exchange for political power, they pursued purchasing power, of creature comforts, of as they called them at the time, "bread and butter issues." Look, I don't fault workers for wanting a better life, a chance at that brass ring of middle-class life, but the cost was far too high. They gave up any say in the production of products, leading to the political discussion moving from workers rights to workers benefits. Cohen gives us a great look at this shift from the perspective of being an activist consumer to a purchaser consumer; the political component of economic transactions being eliminated in favor of self-interest. It was the promotion of mass consumption as the "American Way" as opposed to thrift, sacrifice and prudence of the Depression and World War eras. She also works the idea of citizen-consumerism of the African-American population and as a form of protest, not rejecting mass consumption, but also using buying power (or not buying) as a means to effect social change. Finally, Cohen examines the governments role in creating mass consumption as the ideal, namely through the GI Bill and FHA. Providing copious amounts of money to the millions of soldiers returning created one of the strongest economies the world had ever seen. Once that economy began to slow down, however, the real debate began. Would the government continue to subsidize spending or would it retreat? As the 1970s illustrate, protecting the consumer was secondary to protecting producers and business.

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