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Thursday, March 13th, 2003


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


A review by Alan Wolfe

Whether responding to world events or proposing domestic policy initiatives, the Bush administration seems to be guided by one simple imperative: buy. The way to demonstrate our resolve against jihad, the president asserted with considerable conviction after September 11, was to shop; and not even the administration's plan to go to war in Iraq has provoked the president to consider the possibility that in the name of national security Americans ought to consume less energy. At home, the Bush administration's response to what is increasingly perceived as its own recession is, similarly, to put as much money into the hands of consumers as possible. In fact, the more money people or corporations have with which to consume, the more money the Bush administration wants to give them.

The administration's emphasis on buying is in part a carefully considered strategy. Republicans discovered during the Reagan years that tax cuts constitute a pre-emptive strike against future public policy. Pre-emption, indeed. Why wait to kill a program until it has popular support and powerful interest groups behind it, when you can abort it — so to speak — before it even comes into being? Although polls consistently show that Americans are willing to support tax increases if they finance credible services, voters (or so legislators of both parties agree) cannot resist the promise of more disposable income. When the Framers talked about the power of the purse, little did they know that the most powerful purses would prove not to be the ones in the government's hands.

Still, the administration's emphasis on spending teaches us that not all talk of consumption is willful. The terrorist attack against us was so completely unexpected that we must assume that the president, when he urged us to consume, was not reading from Karl Rove's playbook. Instead Bush spoke in a language so ingrained in the American consciousness as to seem perfectly natural. Consumption is the first thing that came to mind when he required a definition of the American way of life because consumption has become the American way of life. Our freedoms are enviable and ought to make us inordinately proud, yet it was not the Bill of Rights to which the president called our attention — which is understandable, given his administration's contempt for some of its provisions — but the right to buy and to sell what we choose. It made intuitive sense to us that a man as devoted to unfreedom as Osama bin Laden would choose to ally himself with the poorest country in the world. Over there, they wear veils because they cannot buy skirts. Here, we can speak our minds and we can satisfy our desires anytime, as long as we have the cash.

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. Persuaded that real life is often more complicated than sweeping generalizations about "modernity" or "progress," they brought to life the factories in which people worked, and the families in which they were raised and raised others, and the communities in which they lived. As important as social history has been, however, it has also been mind-numbingly narrow in its evocation of detail and in its reluctance to consider the larger meanings of its findings. But Cohen thinks big. Although she pays homage to social history by focusing on one place, the northern New Jersey suburbs in which she grew up, she has also taken on a large subject — in important ways, the largest of all subjects in its ubiquity and in its power to influence the kinds of lives that Americans lead. 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.

While Cohen breaks with one academic convention, however, she adheres faithfully to another. For her, storytelling must have didactic purposes, and her purposes are all conventionally left-wing. She wants to bring into the picture the experiences of women and African Americans, often doing so in ways that seem dutiful more than enlightening. And she makes no bones about who, in her opinion, are the good people (New Deal regulators, World War II price controllers, Betty Furness, Jesse Jackson, and numerous grassroots folks who opposed suburban malls and racist companies) and who are the bad people (corporate executives, sprawl developers, market researchers, and nearly all Republicans). Cohen is entitled to her views, of course; but the truth is that consumption is an activity difficult to weave into a progressive understanding of how the world is supposed to work. There is no necessary linkage between buying things, no matter what is purchased or how, and the struggle to create a more equal or more democratic society. Indeed, trying to organize people around consumption frequently results in a petty-bourgeois approach to politics that is sharply at odds with a progressive agenda.

Cohen's history is impeccable; her almost superhuman investigations into obscure sources and archives bring many rewards, and she writes well enough to sustain a reader's attention throughout a very long book. Yet the very thoroughness of her narrative serves to undermine the conclusions that she wants her reader to draw from it. A Consumers' Republic is best read as an account of how consumption came to play such a pronounced role in American public life, not as a guide to what we ought to do about it.

Cohen begins her book with the New Deal, appropriately enough, since the Great Depression, at least in the view of Keynesians, was the consequence of insufficient demand. The Roosevelt administration was intent on spending more, but it was divided, Cohen argues, over the proper means by which to do so. One method, more explicitly Keynesian, relied on what she calls "the purchaser consumer," the American whose spending would lead us out of economic despondency. Among Roosevelt's famous "Four Freedoms" was freedom from want, represented in the equally famous Norman Rockwell magazine cover, which, Cohen writes, can best be viewed "as a celebration of the plenitude that American families reaped through their participation in a mass consumer economy." Against this rather limited notion of the obligation to spend, Cohen much prefers what she calls the ideal of the "citizen consumer," which "sought consumer representation in government and new legislation and regulation to protect consumers better in the marketplace." The 1930s, in her account, are notable for the number of grassroots consumer movements, often led by women or African Americans, that tried to mobilize purchasing power for political ends such as equality and solidarity.

The ideal of the citizen consumer received considerable energy from the need to mobilize domestic support during World War II. Wartime, in Cohen's view, came as close to realizing the proper model of consumer conduct as America would ever experience. Cohen cites the patriotic "Consumer Pledge Song" that one American in 1942 set to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Its chorus proclaimed:

I will be a wise consumer,
Gladly do so with humor,
That's the way to win the sooner
To Peace and Victory.

The Office of Price Administration, Cohen is eager to point out, was run by enlightened policymakers such as Chester Bowles, who listened carefully to the consumer advocates, many of them women, whom Cohen so admires. Price controls, in her view, made everyone a bit more equal, contributing to the sense of fairness required for effective wartime solidarity. So laudatory was the consumer ideal developed during World War II that Cohen views it as a model for the postwar economy. "Essential to the success of this conception," she observes, "was the extension of price and rent controls beyond victory into peacetime, so as to prevent the spiraling effects of inflation that had proved so damaging after World War I and to protect the progress toward economic equality made during wartime."

The country, needless to say, did not follow such advice. In 1947, Walt Disney's Scrooge McDuck made his first appearance in American popular culture, underscoring William F. Whyte's comment that "thrift is now un-American." The force of consumption had been unleashed, and its power could not be curtailed. "Wherever one looked in the aftermath of war," Cohen writes, "one found a vision of postwar America where the general good would best be served not by frugality or even moderation, but by individuals pursuing personal wants in a flourishing mass consumption marketplace."

To demonstrate the hold of consumption on postwar Americans, Cohen chooses to focus on what, for most Americans, was their single biggest good: their house. Twenty-five percent of all American homes in 1960 were built during the 1950s. (Cohen has a special talent for finding telling bits of evidence to support her story.) The homes themselves, the appliances with which they were stocked, and the cars necessary to reach them together gave birth to what Cohen calls "the Consumers' Republic," which she defines as a society bent on achieving "the socially progressive end of economic equality without requiring politically progressive means of redistributing existing wealth." Mass consumption settled the dispute between competing conceptions of the good citizen that had fought each other during the Great Depression and World War II.

The tale of America's preoccupation with consumption in the postwar years has been told many times, including by contemporaries such as Vance Packard and David Riesman. Cohen's objective is to link that tale with a political one. Consumption, she argues, shaped not only our bodies but also our body politic; it influenced our public life as much as it responded to our private wants. We, not the Russians, had created the first classless society, our politicians of the 1950s declared. Businessmen could proclaim themselves true stewards of our society, responsible for the goods we all came to enjoy. In Cohen's consumers' republic, credit cards replaced the voting booth as the proper means of registering opinion. Although critics such as John Kenneth Galbraith warned that we were engaged in mass deception by seeking satisfaction through consumption, we paid little heed, so certain were we that we had discovered "an elaborate, integrated ideal of economic abundance and democratic political freedom, both equitably distributed, that became almost a national civic religion from the late 1940s into the 1970s."

The birth of the consumers' republic, in Cohen's account, also shaped our understandings of gender, class, and race, transforming more compelling ideals about responsible consumption revealed by depression and war into passive ones that left the status quo in place. Women may have been active in the New Deal and in wartime experiences with price controls, but in the postwar years they not only retreated from the ideal of the citizen consumer, they even lost their hold on purchasing power. Seen through the lens of gender, legislation such as the GI Bill or consumer practices such as credit cards seem like efforts to re-impose patriarchy. Since most GIs were men, men benefited disproportionately from legislation designed to reward them. Not only that, but women, as the head of New Jersey's Advisory Commission on Women Veterans put it many years later, "don't categorize themselves as veterans." Men also received special advantages in the private market. Mortgages and credit cards were issued in their names. As late as the 1970s, Cohen reports, women whose incomes were listed on mortgage applications were asked by the Veterans Administration to submit letters certifying that they were sterile or — where is the religious right when we need it? — committed to birth control or willing to undergo an abortion. We all know that after the war Rosie the Riveter was sent home. Cohen shows that the means of transportation upon which she relied was the gravy train that made America so prosperous.

With so much of her focus on housing, Cohen has no trouble demonstrating the ways in which consumption reinforced racial inequality, for the segregation of home purchasing and home financing that continues up to the present is one of America's greatest shames. In 1953, the largest town in America with no black residents was Levittown on Long Island; by 1960, it had only 57 blacks, and by 1980, that number actually went down to 45. When Cohen shifts her attention to New Jersey, the most suburban state in the country, the record is even more sorrowful. It took three major decisions of the New Jersey Supreme Court and an act of the legislature before the residents of Mount Laurel, a rapidly expanding suburb about twenty miles from Philadelphia, would accept mixed housing in their community.

New Jersey is also the state that pioneered the development of suburban malls, with a prime example in Paramus, seven miles from the George Washington Bridge, which in 1957 was the largest mall in America. (Cohen provides a picture of herself and her sister in 1956 as properly dressed little girls in front of their Paramus home, perhaps on their way out to shop.) The mall did not so much replace the city as re-create it in controlled circumstances located at some remove from where people actually lived. Offering everything the consumer could possibly want — except, as one reporter cited by Cohen commented, a funeral parlor — the mall not only sold goods but also established a new model by which democracy would be organized.

Speech, Cohen goes to some length to show, would be less free in the mall than it was in the town square, because under these new arrangements the First Amendment came into direct conflict with property rights and, at least in some places, was considerably restricted. (New Jersey was actually one of the states in which speech in malls was protected.) Along similar lines, malls undermined equality, in Cohen's view, because they were quickly segregated by gender; wives spent their time there spending what their husbands made in the city. Intent on offering low prices, shops in the malls wanted to hold down labor costs, which undercut the ability of unions to organize their employees. "Overall, an important shift from one kind of social order to another took place between 1950 and 1980 with major consequences for Americans," Cohen writes, and the mall was responsible for that shift.

To get people into malls, it is important to stimulate their wants, which leads Cohen into the dark realms of marketing and consumer research. One theme dominates her discussion of these subjects. In theory, consumption, whether we like it or not, ought to unify us, because we all become consumers of roughly similar goods. In reality, marketing specialists discovered in the postwar years that the best way to sell goods is to segment the audience that is buying them. A handful of beer makers replaced many local and independent ones, but in order to mimic the diversity that they abolished they proceeded to market a variety of beers with different names appealing to different kinds of beer drinkers. The same happened with cars, breakfast cereals, laundry detergents, and even newspapers and television stations. "Much the way suburban residential communities and shopping centers, originally conceived to be widely accessible new postwar spaces, became increasingly stratified by class and race as they targeted distinct populations," Cohen concludes, "so too as the post-war era progressed did the mass market itself fracture into numerous constituent parts." Once again, consumption determined politics. We shopped alone before we bowled alone. Segmented into our zip codes, is it any wonder that our politics became so contentious and our unity around a common conception of the good so impossible?

One ray of hope broke the depressing downward spiral away from the enlightened consumer: the Kennedy years. Seemingly out of nowhere, books began to appear showing us how unsafe were our cars and how unattractive were our homes. As difficult to believe as it may seem in the age of George W. Bush, legislators rushed to regulate industries, establishing standards to reverse environmental degradation and to ban unsafe products. This was the time when we worried about inflammable pajamas and began to give up our Liebestod with tobacco. Celebrating this "third wave" of consumer activism, Cohen nonetheless concludes that it made no real dent in the creation of the consumers' republic. Protection and regulation were not accompanied by incorporation; consumers never achieved "a permanent voice in government through a separate department of the consumer or other such agency within the executive branch." Without secure footing, it all eventually came to naught. Jimmy Carter scolded us for our "worship [of] self-indulgence and consumption," and we responded by electing General Electric's Ronald Reagan in his place.

Cohen, like America, runs out of energy during the Carter years. She devotes just a few pages to the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush II administrations. Still, she does not shy away from big themes. Briefly surveying the consumer landscape of the present, Cohen sees ever more depressing consequences of the historical events that she has recounted. Catalogue buying and Web-based commerce threaten to undo the malls with even more privatized forms of shopping. Public spaces such as libraries attract patrons by opening branches of Starbucks. Housing developments put up gates. "A history that extends into our own lifetimes, that continues to shape our daily lives, is hard to bring to a conclusion," Cohen remarks. Indeed it is, for we are in the middle of a period in which modes of consumption are changing before our eyes — difficult enough terrain for economists to capture with their models, let alone historians with their archives.

On her largest point, Lizabeth Cohen is right: the way we buy does influence to a considerable degree the way we come together as citizens. Considering how much time we spend shopping or inhaling messages urging us to shop, how could our politics not resist modeling itself on economics? Both the ways in which Americans elect their politicians and the means by which those politicians fashion programs and policies bear an eerie resemblance to the segmented markets, the focus group techniques, the short-attention-span messages, and the consumer-driven product development Cohen chronicles. It is a long way from The Federalist Papers to The O'Reilly Factor.

The problem that Cohen faces is that consumption has proved so powerful as to render pathetic — if not obsolete — the alternatives that she hopes our history offers. This problem revealed itself right at the birth of the consumers' republic. In the years after World War II, the United States debated whether and for how long price controls would be maintained before quickly deciding to abolish them. Cohen says that there was nothing inevitable about the outcome. But her discussion shows the exact opposite. It is hard to imagine why anyone would allow the supply and the demand for houses and cars to be regulated by blue-nose patricians such as Vassar College's Caroline Ware, who urged "keeping down with the Joneses" as if that were a good thing. Citing statistics seeming to prove that Americans liked the World War II-era wage and price controls and wanted to keep them, Cohen underestimates the everyday longing for unrestrained spending unleashed by the war's necessary restraints. "The defeat of price control was a slap in the face to the tens of thousands of women who mobilized for its extension." Yes, and it brought cheers from millions more who could now begin to buy what they wanted.

"Rent control was the sole survivor of the massive wartime price-control machinery," Cohen writes, failing to appreciate how devastating that comment is to her larger political argument. Rent control in places such as Manhattan served few, if any, progressive ends. The primary beneficiaries of rent control were not the poor who needed housing but the middle-class people who already had it. To find an apartment during the era of rent control, you needed to have connections, and to be willing to pay exorbitant "key" fees, and to know how black markets operate, and to have been lucky in your choice of parents. Imagine, then, if controls on other valued goods had somehow been allowed to remain in place during the years after World War II. Manufacturers of cars and houses would have let the quality of their products deteriorate (even more than they did) in order to capture profits not allowed by higher prices. Instead of paying more for the goods that they purchased, consumers would have paid exorbitant prices to have them repaired or serviced (assuming that those prices were not also controlled). Mostly, though, price controls in general would have frozen into place advantages that well-off people already had, harming the poor more than anyone else. The enthusiasts for price controls during World War II were the kind of people who lived in Greenwich and sent their children to Ivy League colleges. Cohen never stops to reflect that for all their talk of responsible consumption, they may well have been trying, like privileged people throughout history, to protect their position.

Race is another subject that fits uneasily into Cohen's political agenda. She does fill an important gap in our understanding of recent race relations by reminding us how much of it — from the sit-ins at Woolworths to the urban riots of the 1960s and 1970s — was focused on goods. The dream of racial equality came to life by insisting on an equal right to buy things, just as it started its descent into marginalization by violently protesting the inability to do so. But none of this meant that African Americans could serve as a vanguard for a consumer movement that would inevitably serve the needs of middle-class buyers. The affluent society scorned by Galbraith was, for them, a dream to be realized.

This, after all, would seem to be the real meaning of the riots that shook so many American cities, including Newark, on which Cohen, true to her New Jersey roots, concentrates. One of Cohen's most effective visuals is two pictures of a Newark resident named Foy Miller taken in the same spot, one in 1967 and the other thirty years later. In the former, she is being asked for identification by a National Guardsman against a backdrop of scarred but nonetheless visible buildings. In the latter, she stands before empty lots, a downtown denuded of activity. Yet what point, precisely, is being made here? Cohen includes her discussion of what she calls the Newark "rebellion" in the same chapter that deals with the consumer activism of the 1960s, as if black attacks on Jewish shopkeepers were the African American equivalent of Nader's Raiders. But to see the 1960s riots as a protest against consumption downplays the extent to which, in their own self-destructive way, they were about obtaining goods by any means necessary.

In one of her ingenious asides, Cohen contrasts two Newark-born writers, Philip Roth and Amiri Baraka. Yet what the writers actually had to say undermines her more didactic treatment of these issues. Cohen tries to link the Newark riots to the larger picture of consumption by showing that urban devastation sent more whites to the suburbs and the malls, but Goodbye, Columbus was published in 1959, and by then the Patimkins had already moved out to Short Hills. And Baraka, whose angry screeds Cohen takes as progressive, illustrates how little the New Jersey riots had to do with politics of any kind. "Families worked together, carrying sofas and TVs collectively down the street. All the shit they saw on television that they had been hypnotized into wanting they finally had a chance to cop," Baraka observed. He seems more aware than Cohen of the desperation of many African Americans to join the consumers' republic, not to tear it down.

Cohen faces her greatest difficulties trying to reconcile her politics with her history when she discusses the tendency of marketing strategists to segment consumers into ever more refined categories. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, when Cohen's story begins, progressive consumer advocates would have had no problem denouncing such tactics. Those were the days of the Popular Front, and leftists, including those in or close to the Communist Party, outdid themselves in appealing to unity and solidarity. But in the intervening years many progressives have found themselves sympathetic to identity politics. No longer can one appeal to solidarity, either because (in the manner of Stanley Fish) there is no such thing or because solidarity is a distraction from a person's "real" interest as a woman, or a homosexual, or an African American. If she is to cast herself with her heroes from times past, Cohen should denounce market segmentation without hesitation. But if she is to identify with identity politics, she needs to tread more carefully. Is not affirmative action a way of segmenting a market — and in the case of a college education, a market for one of life's most valuable goods?

Realizing that she finds herself on "fragile ground," Cohen waffles. She cautions that "one must beware of promoting false or nave notions of a universal `common good' and unified `public' and thereby denying the more diverse and complicated multi-cultural America that has greeted the twenty-first century," but then she goes on to add that "not all divisions among Americans are sacrosanct." The best that Cohen can do here is to call for a "concerted effort" to find a way to express our diversity while committing ourselves to common purpose. Compared to that, the Popular Front politics of the consumer activists of the 1930s, as naive as they may have been, were at least consistent. Cohen wants us to "assume collective responsibility for each other," but if the cost of doing that is to insist that our multicultural proclivities have to give way to our common identity, that price, for her, is too high.

Where is an obvious reason why leftists hope to be able to organize people through their consumption: just about everyone is a consumer. Displaced farmers, angry workers, racially oppressed minorities: none of these groups has the sheer numbers represented by consumers. Desperate to find historical agents whose discontents would usher in a new era, consumer advocates from the New Deal to the 1960s chose, rather opportunistically, to organize people around their most ubiquitous contacts with capitalism. But in so doing they ran the risk of strengthening the capitalist order that they hoped to alter or to supplant. This is a dilemma that Cohen never squarely faces.

But face it she must, for the weakness of consumption as a means of pursuing progressive politics certainly complicates her story. Cohen tends to treat the history of postwar consumption in America as one long retreat from the idealists who urged us to shop more responsibly in the 1930s and the 1940s. In significant ways, however, those reformers triumphed, even if the venue of their victory became the conservative wing of the Republican Party. "Consumer benefit is the bottom line," said Christopher deMuth of the American Enterprise Institute when he was executive director of the Vice President's Task Force on Regulatory Relief in the Reagan administration. If all of us shop but only some of us vote, politicians seeking broad public support will appeal to the one thing we all have in common just as opportunistically as New Deal progressives.

This is not a conclusion that Cohen wishes to reach. To avoid it, she argues that in the years since Jimmy Carter "the Consumers' Republic transmogrified into the Commercialization of the Republic." All of our recent presidents, but conservative Republicans in particular, by deregulating government and promoting greater inequality, gave up on the promise of abundance for all in favor of benefits that "increasingly became reserved for those who paid for them." Cohen then goes on to contrast the ideology of conservative America — "what's best for me is what's best for America" — with what she calls the message of the consumers' republic at its most idealistic: "the interests of individual purchasers as citizens and of the nation were one and the same." But her own book demonstrates with exceptional force that the idealism was only for show. In reality, the denizens of the consumers' republic were instructed to buy as much as they could to satisfy their individual needs. Consumption is like that. It is always about buying. Those who think that they can urge people to buy less or more responsibly delude themselves.

The real lesson of Cohen's book is that if you want to re-distribute income or to promote equality, you should try to redistribute income and promote equality. And if you try to make your agenda more popular by appealing to consumers, you will only make people more avid consumers. It was not just perversity that led Ralph Nader, a hero of Lizabeth Cohen's youth, to work so hard on behalf of the Republican Party. He must have realized on some level — and if he did not, then consumers certainly did — that if small cars are unsafe at any speed, one ought to buy SUVs instead. And for that ignoble end, conservative Republicans are the ones to have in office.

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