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

por Lizabeth Cohen

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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, 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.… (mais)
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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. ( )
  drbrand | Jun 8, 2020 |
I've read Lizabeth Cohen's A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America three time for three different classes and find new insights each time.
Cohen writes that the federal government stimulated the economy first and foremost through its “commitment to becoming the ‘arsenal of democracy’” which “translated concretely into the expenditure of billions of dollars for armaments.” (p. 63) To deal with issues on the home front, President Roosevelt created the Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply (OPA) that, in 1942, “issued the General Maximum Price Regulation – what became known as ‘General Max’ – requiring merchants to set ceiling prices for goods at the highest price they had charged during March [of 1942] and granting the OPA specific powers of enforcement.” (p. 65) The OPA’s primary objective was to curb inflation and, in that regard, it was fairly successful. Cohen writes, “in contrast to an inflation rate of 62 percent in World War I, prices rose less than 8 percent during the last two years of World War II, and crucial military material found its way to the front.” (p. 66) The OPA convinced consumers to follow guidelines by creating “new rituals of patriotic citizenship” such as “obeying OPA price, rent, and rationing regulations and reporting violators; participating in recycling, scrap, and waste fat drives; planting Victory Gardens as ‘putting up’ the harvest.” (p. 67) The OPA instilled this new mindset successfully due to the “survival of prosperity amid sacrifice” in conditions where, “even when observant of salvaging, rationing, and other market regulations, Americans managed to live better during the war than they had during the Great Depression.” (p. 69) Women took an active role in consumer activism as well. Cohen writes, “loyal female citizens were defined in consumerist ways, as keepers of the homefront fires through their own disciplined, patriotic market behavior as well as through the enforcement of high moral standards in others.” (p. 75) Women became more politically active to this respect. While “men may still have run major wartime agencies like the OPA…women were much more visible politically than they had been in the heyday of the New Deal.” (p. 77) In bureaucracy, “women’s new authority was most evident on the state and local level, for here they served as key administrators.” (p. 78) In this way, women consumers were seen as “the legitimate representatives of the public interest to elevate women to a new, official level of civic authority.” (p. 79) African Americans, while excluded from the OPA, were able to exert their own influence as well. To this end, “African Americans supported price and rent controls and the rationing of scarce good even more enthusiastically than did the average white American, recognizing in them the potential not just for fair treatment during wartime, but also for redress of the overcharging and other market exploitation that was their common lot in the hands of inner-city storekeepers and landlords.” (p. 85) Price controls weren’t enforced as well in black neighborhoods to the result that “African Americans continued to pay from 3 to 12 percent more for groceries than whites in comparable neighborhoods.” (p. 87) Finally, after a summer of violence in Harlem in 1943, the OPA admitted its “responsibility for the mistreatment of blacks under price control.” (p. 88) This led first to a series of sanctions and warnings, and eventually the OPA “relented and declared New York City a war rental area, finally establishing the rent control for which Harlem tenants were desperate.” (p. 88)
According to Cohen, what was “probably most significant” to the shift to market segmentation “was the post-war explosion of market researchers’ interest in consumer motivation, prevalent enough to attract scathing condemnation for its manipulative dangers from social critic Vance Packard.” (p. 298) The shift was one “from ‘who’ and ‘what’ to ‘why’ people bought” thus opening “the door to the possibility of greater diversity in consumers’ behavior and attitudes.” (p. 298) Cohen states, “by the 1970s continued interest in the psychological dimension of consuming would lead to the emergence of ‘psychographics,’ a term coined to mean the combining of demographic and psychological factors to define market segments.” (p. 299) Following this, “links extended to social science disciplines other than psychology, helping further to conceptualize buyers as heterogeneous.” (p. 299) In this way, “the growing influence of social science on marketing prepared the way for market segmentation and, in turn, gave practitioners more precise tools for identifying and catering to segments of consumers.” (p. 301) Among the ways in which marketers segmented the markets was “by some version of social class,” though, “with the shift to market segmentation and particularly the rise of psychographics by the 1960s, marketers turned class differentiation from an income to a lifestyle distinction” which led marketers to pay “particular attention to the working class.” (p. 310-311) To this end, “manufactures and sellers of goods ranging from furniture to clothing to magazines hired marketing researchers to help them figure out what working people wanted.” (p. 311) In the 1980s, “income inequality in America grew and working-class people had less money to spend” so “marketers and manufacturers shifted their prime target to upper-class consumers with more disposable cash.” (p. 312) The differentiation of the sexes was the next shift “as men gained more influence over consumption, accompanying their wives more frequently on shopping expeditions and exerting new control with the expansion of credit” and so “men and women increasingly became viewed as separate, profitable market segments with distinctive desires and responsibilities, no longer a single family market.” (p. 313-314) The final segments were teenagers, which “became defined as a unique consumer experience: buying certain kinds of things – records, clothes, makeup, movies, and fast food – in certain kinds of places – shopping centers, drive-in theaters, and car hop restaurants,” and minorities, “with the most significant segment consisting of African Americans.” (p. 319-323) As to politics, “the application of mass marketing techniques to the political arena dates back to the turn of the century, though it reached a new level of intensity in the 1930s.” (p. 332) It was “Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and again in 1956 that brought mass marketing fully into the political arena, sounding the death knell for campaigning by whistle-stop tours, street parades, and grassroots organizations.” (p. 333) In the 1960s, “the advent of market segmentation later that decade would change the rules of the game for political marketing, as it had for product marketing, pushing campaigns and electioneering away from selling” to the “Lowest Common Denominator” toward “crafting special messages for distinctive segments about whom more and more was becoming known through increasingly sophisticated polling.” (p. 336) When the Kennedys took control at the Democratic National Convention, “Sargent Shriver was promptly dispatched to reach out to as many of these groups as possible,” including Germans, Italians, Poles, Spanish, farmers, labor, senior citizens, the youth, and civil rights groups. (p. 337-338) In this way, “market segmentation techniques were not only implemented in candidate campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s; they were also called on to help mobilize voters around controversial issues” and their impacts were “campaign duels between televised advertisements, packaged candidates known more by image than substance, and party conventions that are no more than infomercials.” (p. 341)
According to Cohen, “suburban town centers proved inadequate to support all the consumption desired by the influx of new residents” along with suburban consumers increasingly viewing “returning to urban downtowns to shop as inconvenient,” and retailers coming to “realize that suburban residents…offered a lucrative frontier ripe for conquer.” (p. 257) These factors led to the creation of the “regional shopping center…as a new form of community marketplace.” (p. 257) Following the war, “only the most ambitious suburban tracts built…had developers incorporated stores into their plans.” (p. 258) This changed, however, when “by 1957, 940 shopping centers had already been built.” (p. 258) Unlike the small, independent stores found in cities, “each shopping center had two to three department stores as anchors…surrounded by fifty to seventy smaller stores.” (p. 259) In building these shopping centers, developers “set out to perfect the concept of downtown, not to obliterate it.” (p. 261) In their eyes, “a centrally owned and managed Garden State Plaza or Bergen Mall…offered an alternative model to the inefficiencies, visual chaos, and provinciality of traditional downtown districts.” (p. 263) To achieve this goal, various mall planning boards were encouraging “members and their communities to us ‘appropriate zoning and site development controls to encourage this desirable trend’ of making centers ‘real downtowns for the surrounding area.’” (p. 264-265) One example of the increase in shoppers that shopping centers generated was found in the anecdote of Jack Shuster. Shuster “opened two toy stores in 1962, one in downtown Rochester, the other in the suburban Pittsford Plaza; not only were unit sales four times higher in Pittsford, but charge accounts were opened and used there at twenty-five times the rate of downtown.” (p. 281) While a greater population congregated at shopping centers, they were private property and so “an unintended consequence of the American shift in orientation from public town center to private shopping center” was “the narrowing of the ground where constitutionally protected free speech and free assembly can legally take place.” (p. 277) Eventually, a series of court rulings would vaguely define what type of free speech was allowed, though it would shift from favoring the storeowners to the customers depending on the prevailing political atmosphere.
Discussing the gendered consumer republic, Cohen writes, “The pejorative labels of ‘female’ and ‘weak’ also undermined the consumer movement more broadly. Whereas its reputation as female-dominated had once given it prestige as a voice of morality and the public interest, in the new postwar world female identification only tainted the consumer movement as out of step with the times and, accompanied by a decline in ordinary women’s consumer activism, contributed to its decline.” (pg. 135) That said, “norms, whether conveyed through ideals presented on television or via government tax policies, of course, are not the same as social realities. Women could – and did – break with those norms every day.” (pg. 150) Cohen writes of the remnants of consumer representation in the 1950s, “What advocacy for consumer persisted through the 1950s, then, was undertaken by maverick (and sometimes opportunistic) lawmakers such as Congressman Roberts, Illinois Senator Paul Douglas – a champion of truth-in-lending – and Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who, as chairman of the Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee, went on the attack against the prescriptions drug industry, rather than by any bottom-up mobilization of consumers, with the major exception of civil rights activism.” (pg. 348) Cohen describes the rising tide of consumer activism in the 1960s, but does not discuss comics. However, she writes, “Women served as the foot soldiers and the leadership of the third-wave consumer movement, much as they had for its predecessors during the Progressive Era and the New Deal. When Esther Peterson served President Johnson as his special assistant for consumer affairs, she was faced with a groundswell of grassroots agitation from ‘housewives’ for such goals as lower supermarket prices, fewer price-raising promotional gimmicks like games and trading stamps, better inspection of consumer scales, and more honest advertising of specials.” (pg. 367) ( )
  DarthDeverell | Mar 10, 2017 |
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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, 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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