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A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America
"Lizabeth Cohen's refreshingly bold and ambitious book is an effort to explain how the republic for which we stand came to be shaped by our economy's insatiable demand for demand. Cohen breaks sharply with an often frustrating tendency in contemporary historiography. For the past two or three decades, historians have been studiously thinking small....One hopes that her book will stimulate her colleagues to take similar risks, even the risk of emulating historians of previous generations whose efforts at intellectual synthesis and grand narrative are treated now with contempt by postmodern pygmies." Alan Wolfe, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
The three decades after World War II are often heralded as a “Golden Era” of American affluence. But as Lizabeth Cohen makes clear, the pursuit of prosperity defined much more than the nation’s economy; it also became a basic component of American citizenship. Consumers were encouraged to buy not just for themselves, but for the good of the nation.
After a decade and a half of hard times resulting from the Great Depression and the war, the embrace of mass consumption, with its supposed far-reaching benefits—greater freedom, democracy, and equality—transformed American life. The extensive suburbanization of metropolitan areas (propelled by such government policies as the GI Bill), the shift from downtowns to shopping centers, and the advent of targeted marketing all fueled the consumer economy, but also sharpened divisions among Americans along gender, class, and racial lines. At the same time, mass consumption changed American politics, inspiring new forms of political activism through the civil rights and consumer movements and prompting politicians to apply the latest marketing strategies to their political campaigns.
Cohen traces the legacy of the “Consumers’ Republic” into our time, demonstrating how it has reshaped our relationship to government itself, with Americans increasingly judging public services—as if one more purchased good—by the personal benefits they derive from them.
Brilliantly researched and reasoned, A Consumers’ Republic is a starkly illuminating social and political history.
"Lizabeth Cohen?s rich, compelling study demolishes forever the myth that suburbs provided a refuge from the social conflicts that continue to shape the American century. A Consumers? Republic is one of the best histories of our times that has ever been written." Michael Kazin, co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s
"Shopping malls, suburban neighborhoods, union halls, picket lines, and government offices. These are the places focused on in Cohen's compelling examination of the development of the United States as a consumers? republic since the late 1930s. In the process she transforms the way we understand postwar America." Daniel Horowitz, author of The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979
"A Consumer?s Republic is a real tour de force. It is impressive in its sheer sweep through a century of complicated history, ranging from popular culture through political protest to demographic analysis. It takes seriously the now clichéd mantra of 'race, class, and gender,' by showing just how race and class and gender shaped and were shaped by the new idea that consumption defines what it means to be an American. It weaves local and even personal history through a national narrative, and ties it all into clear themes of struggle, triumph, and loss." Jennifer L. Hochschild, editor of Perspectives on Politics
"A surprising, engaging portrayal of the ways that mass consumption transformed America from the small scale to the large, as public authorities intervened massively and consequentially on behalf of their own visions of a consumer society. The book's illustrations alone offer a striking album of local life's texture across four turbulent decades of incessant change." Viviana A. Zelizer, author of The Social Meaning of Money
"A Consumers? Republic is a magnificent, path-breaking achievement. Lizabeth Cohen lays bare the deeply transformative impact of mass prosperity on the texture of American social, political, and cultural life in the post-World War II era - its triumphs and costs, as well as its limitations. An unflaggingly provocative, indispensable book." David Kennedy, author of Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945
This social and political history is a fascinating exploration of how Americans' participation in mass consumption became a basic component of citizenship in the second half of the 20th century. 3 maps & 64 illustrations.
About the Author
Lizabeth Cohen is Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies in the Department of History at Harvard University. She is the author of Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (1990), which won the Bancroft Prize and the Philip Taft Labor History Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written many articles and essays and is coauthor (with David Kennedy) of The American Pageant. She lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, with her husband and two daughters.
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