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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.
“No one has made the importance of the politics of consumption clearer than Lizabeth Cohen whose recent work, especially her magisterial A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post-war America (2003) underscores the importance of understanding the connections between consumption, politics and economic policy. Indeed, her scholarship exemplifies an important trend, far more apparent in nineteenth- and twentieth-century research than in work in the early modern era, and also conspicuous in the projects sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council and Arts and Humanities Board programme into the Culture of Consumption, directed by Frank Trentmann of Birkbeck College. Here the emphasis is not just towards treating consumption as a social and symbolic practice, or in the context of a debate about economic growth and development, but as a locus of political conflict and engagement.” —John Brewer, Times Literary Supplement
“A Consumers’ Republic is a richly detailed, carefully argued, and altogether sobering history of the postwar politics of mass comsumption. . . . As Cohen patiently retraces the increasingly balkanized map of postwar suburbia, one sees how the same historical imagination that so brilliantly illuminated the social geography of working-class consumption in interwar Chicago in her Making a New Deal has delivered an even more ambitious, if considerably darker, panorama when turned upon the postwar United States.” —The Journal of American History
“[An] impressive new book. . . . Cohen challenges the myth of the ever-expanding American middle class with solid evidence.” —American Quarterly
“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
“Lizabeth Cohen has done it again. Following her award winning book, Making a New Deal, A Consumer’s Republic is another innovative study of social and political history. This interesting and well-researched volume on mass consumption in the U.S. after World War II will be widely discussed and cited for many years.” —William Julius Wilson, author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor.
“Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic is pure joy: a brilliantly revealing, sometimes painful portrait of consumer activists of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, situated in rich, but until now unexamined historical context. Here, too, are the lessons for the future if the next generation is to reclaim the buoyant democratic promise of the best of our consumer impulses.” —Michael Pertschuk, Former Chair, Federal Trade Commission
“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
“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
“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
“Few accounts are as provocative or original as A Consumers’ Republic . . . a book rich in detail and perception.” —David Oshinsky, New York Times Book Review
“An ambitious attempt to fuse deep scholarship with journalistic reporting techniques to produce a work accessible to general readers . . . the book is full of useful insights.” —Allan Sloan, New York Times
“Cohen teases out the subject . . . into a big-canvas narrative format while tending closely to the critical question of how fitfully the consumers’ paradise of our postwar social order lived up to its bold promise of prosperity for all.” —Chris Lehmann, Washington Post Book World
“This magisterial work illuminates the complexities of social and economic mobility in modern America . . . The significant strengths are manifold. The research is rich and deep [and] Cohen’s organization a model of clarity.” —Michael Kammen, Boston Globe
“Refreshingly bold and ambitious.” —Alan Wolfe, The New Republic
“Superb. . . Cohen’s sweeping account. . . provides a wealth of insights—and cautions.” —Nancy Tomes, The Women’s Review of Books
“A Consumers’ Republic is a formidable study that will force historians of the postwar era to place consumption at the center of understandings of America’s postwar development.” —Journal of American Ethnic History