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

Lizabeth Cohen
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 30 2003
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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From Publishers Weekly

After WWII, Americans' lives were shaped by economic, political, social and cultural structures premised on the notion that mass consumption would bring widespread prosperity and social equality. In an ideal America, mass consumption would "provide jobs, purchasing power, and investment dollars, while also allowing Americans to live better than ever before, participate in political decision-making on an equal footing with their similarly prospering neighbors, and to exercise their cherished freedoms by making independent choices in markets and politics." Although the postwar era offered a period of unprecedented affluence and encouraged certain forms of political activism, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Cohen (Making a New Deal) powerfully illustrates the consumer culture's failures in terms of social egalitarianism. The postwar housing shortage spawned suburbs that starkly emphasized class and racial differences; well-intentioned innovations, such as the G I bill, had little impact on women, working-class men and African-Americans; targeted marketing segmented citizens along class, gender, age, race and ethnic lines, accentuating divisions and undermining commonalities; and economic inequality expanded greatly during the past three decades. Cohen's sharp and incisive history particularly highlights the struggles of blacks seeking civil rights and women pursuing greater representation within the republic, illuminating the ways that mass consumption both helped and hindered their progress. Ultimately, Cohen asks whether mass consumption has successfully created a more egalitarian and democratic American society. The answer is balanced, judicious and laced with suggestions for how American citizens can begin to articulate a common vision for the future, even as the nation's population grows ever more diverse. 64 illus., 3 maps.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Without question, this is a difficult, demanding, and dense book--but it is also a greatly significant contribution to this season's business literature. Cohen, author of the prizewinning Making a New Deal (1990), submits a copiously researched, brilliantly conceived, and ultimately quite instructive study of American economics since the Depression. Stated in its simplest terms, her thesis, which she elaborately, even excitingly develops, is that from the 1930s until the present day, particularly since WW II, the U.S. defines what she calls a consumer republic: "an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption." She posits that within the second half of the twentieth century, good consumerism and good citizenship became twin concepts--ideals that were mutually inclusive. The belief arose and gained veracity that to maintain American might, the good citizen must also be the good consumer. The ramifications of this political notion are explored in various aspects of how and where Americans lived over the past half-century, with considerable attention paid to the effect of the consumer republic on black Americans. Not just for business readers but also for those who are serious about history, political science, and sociology. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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4.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable piece of research Feb. 1 2004
By Malvin
Lizabeth Cohen's "A Consumers' Republic" does much to explain how citizenship has been significantly redefined by consumerism in postwar America. The thoroughly readable book is full of insights and should interest all readers of 20th century American history. It will also prompt many to ponder how America might try to heal its frayed society while there is time available to do so.
In the Acknowledgements, Ms. Cohen explains that this impressive book was written over the course of ten years. Her thesis profited from audience feedback at numerous college lectures and presentations she made during this time and with able assistance from a number of talented student researchers. With over 400 pages of text and 100 pages of notes, the book represents a remarkable achievement and is a testament to Ms. Cohen's intelligent use of the academic research process.
Ms. Cohen is in top form when she chronicles the struggles of women and African-Americans to assert their rights in what she calls the "Consumers' Republic" of 1945 to 1975. The author provides background material by documenting how a variety of bread-and-butter consumer issues mobilized millions into action from the Depression through WWII. Ms. Cohen then shows how power gained by women and minorities through their contributions to the war effort later found expression in the Civil Rights, women's liberation and other movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
However, Ms. Cohen explains that policy makers in the aftermath of WWII were influenced and corrupted by, among other things, unparalleled levels of corporate power and ideological rivalry with the Soviet Union. Mass consumption was seen as a solution to help keep manufacturing profits high and was propagandized in order prove to the world that the U.S.
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To say you are an America is to say that you are, de facto, a consumer.
This word is a defining aspect of our American world... Consumerism covers daily life, whether it be drug discounts, tourism, marketers, insurance, cars, homes, technology or just plain old product reviews. We Americans are defined by our consumption.

Lizabeth Cohen has given us a thoroughly researched, readable history on consumerism, and how it came to be such a force and part of our lives in America. She argues that after WWII the "Consumer Republic" was launched, full force, affecting life styles, government and even belief systems. Though the beginning of a consumers movement had occurred before 1940, the "Consumer Republic" took form and force after the second world war.
Cohen's writing style is informative, to the point of being academic. "A Consumers' Republic" is a history book. Thus, it may be a bit more pedantic than most general readers would like.
I found a few omissions that distracted from the overall excellence of the book. One being that Cohen does not investigate how consumerism has been incorporated into, and seriously affected, American Christianity. She does not address how Christianity, especially considering the 'Protestant work ethic', helped to shaped and drive consumerism into being. She does not explore 'why' Americans live to consume, "shop til they drop." Neither does she reflect on the effects that unbridled consumption have on both the social fabric of our nation or the ecological impact on our land.
That said, this book is a "need to read" for students of American history, marketing, those involved as consumer activists, and business. Recommended. 3.5 stars
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4.0 out of 5 stars Consumption and Greed March 11 2003
Over the past decade Lizabeth Cohen has been at the forefront of a new type of American history: consumer's history. In this fast growing field historians look at the development of consumption and consumers, both as an ideal and as a reality, and as a new source of identity. There were reasons to be wary of this trend. Were economic realities and questions of power going to be ignored in a celebration of growing affluence? Was the integrity of culture to be ignored in a vindication of mass consumption?
Now that Lizabeth Cohen's new book has been published we can see that those reasons were misguided. This is a thoroughly documented book that is unusually scrupulous in the attention that it pays to problems of class, gender and race. Cohen starts in the thirties, looking at consumer movements and boycotts, and at two differing ideas of the consumer. One is the "citizen consumer," who is the hero of the book, the consumer who protects his (and very often her) rights and does not placidly accept what businesses deign to give them. The other, more prominent, consumer is the Consumer as Purchaser, the Keynesian consumer who stimulates the economy by his purchases. We then go to the war, and see how the government sought to limit price increases with the help of citizen cooperation. We learn about the many female volunteers, while we also learn that African-Americans, who most needed it, got the least help and the least employment with the OPA. Then we go to the postwar world where, despite popular support, Congress abolishes the OPA. Meanwhile the new consensus, the GI Bill, and the boom of suburbia promise a brave new world of abundance for all, or almost all.
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