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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|Title of History eBook: A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America|
|Release Date: 12-24-2008|
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|Publisher: Random House, Inc.|
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A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America
Rise of the Citizen Consumer
A paradox arose in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Hard times forced many Americans to struggle to find and keep work, to feed their families, and to hold on to their homes or pay their rent. Yet increasingly they were being viewed by policymakers—and were thinking of themselves—as consumers, as purchasers of goods in the marketplace. Even as many people were barely making ends meet in the thirties, two images of the consumer came to prevail and, in fact, competed for dominance. On the one hand, what I will call citizen consumers were regarded as responsible for safeguarding the general good of the nation, in particular for prodding government to protect the rights, safety, and fair treatment of individual consumers in the private marketplace. On the other hand, purchaser consumers were viewed as contributing to the larger society more by exercising purchasing power than through asserting themselves politically.
Consider these two contrasting depictions of the consumer from the 1930s. When in 1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, it authorized this keystone program of the first New Deal to include representatives of the “consuming public” alongside business and labor. In practice this meant that the National Recovery Administration (NRA) made consumers members of some code authorities as well as established a Consumer Advisory Board (CAB), which, despite a constant struggle to get equitable recognition from NRA officials, gave consumers a legitimate voice in the federal government's efforts to foster recovery. After angry consumer advocates descended upon Wa