Lizabeth Cohen. A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopff, 2003
While Michael Denning attributes the failure of the cultural and Popular Front to the left’s inability to appeal to Southern migrants, Elizabeth Cohen argues that ultimately the failure of the Popular Front in the Postwar Era occurred because American consumers shifted from acting as citizen consumers or purchaser consumers in the 1930s and 1940s to purchaser as citizen. Ultimately, by the 1980s, this new identity devolved into the consumer/citizen/taxpayer/voter. By focusing on Americans’ identities as citizens and consumers, she intervenes in the notion that the public interest and private consumption are opposite spheres.
According to Cohen, the citizen consumer arose during the Progressive Era, when mkudcracking journalists forced the federal government to pass consumer protections laws such as the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Acts of 1906. But the citizen consumer really came to fruition during the 1930s. This identity was driven mostly by women in an effort to save capitalist America in the midst of the Great Depression, but also safeguard the rights of individual consumers and the larger “general good.”
During the 1920s, the cultural front of Stuart Chase, Frederick J. Schlink, and Arthur Kallet published books titled The Tragedy of Waste (1925), Your Money’s Worth (1927) and 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics (1933). The rising awareness of food quality influenced a number of Women to form a 15,000-member American Home Economics Association to improving standards in home living and improving consumer issues. Although Mark A. Swiencicki, in “Consuming Brotherhood: Men’s Culture, Style, and Recreation as Consumer Culture, 1880-1930,” argues that historians have overstated the role women have played in consuming goods, Cohen persuasively argues that they formed the backbone of the “second wave” (first wave being Progressive Era) consumer movement. The League of Women Shoppers of New York was founded in 1935 to picket and boycott employers whose workers were on strike. In the summer of 1935, white working-class women in Hamtramck, Detroit forced all butchers to close down after a boycott to secure a 20 percent price reduction. Thanks in large part due to the “cultural of unity” that Cohen discusses in Making a New Deal and the potency of the “cultural front” in Denning’s Cultural Front, women consumers formed collectives with the Women High School Teachers, Fur Workers Local #45, Postal Clerks Union #1, the American Lithuanian Literary Society, and the Parent-Teacher Association.
Black consumers also formed the backbone of this second wave citizen consumer movement. Instead of demanding fair practices within the marketplace, they were simply demanding entry into the marketplace. As Cheryl Greenberg noted in Gilckman, Black Americans organized massive “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” rallies. Booker T. Washington’s National Negro business League (1900) formed the foundation of that movement, which by 1930 had become adopted by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.’s Abyssinian Baptist Church to secure an agreement with the Uptown Chamber of Commerce to force all Harlem stores under its jurisdiction to increase the proportion of blacks among their white-collar workers to at least one-third and promote them equitably with whites. Thanks to their efforts, they forced the creation of a number of federal sympathetic programs such as the Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply (OPA, 1941).
While a consumer citizen movement was burgeoning thanks to Black and women contributions, another identity ran alongside: the purchaser consumer. In John Maynard Keyne’s 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Keynes embraces “Say’s Law” which argued the root cause of the depression was underconsumption and increased purchasing power was the key to recovery. As a result, purchaser consumers, largely driven by businesses set out to discredit the consumer movement as “red” and “exposed the left-wing sympathies of the League of Women Shoppers.”
Ultimately the ideal of the purchaser consumer “won” against the citizen consumer. As an OPA staffer cynically remarked “never in the history of human conflict has there been so much talk of sacrifice and so little sacrifice.” Economic fortunes were improving in the Post-Depression years and Congress, with pressure from business, did not feel the need to renew the OPA.
However, while the federal government removed itself from regulating business, they did insert themselves in promoting consumption. They created the 1944 GI Bill of Rights, supported housing and highway construction, contributed social programs such as unemployment insurance, social security, public assistance, and minimum wage legislation to help maintain purchasing power. American Express and Bank of America began to issue credit cards in the 1950s in order to aid the purchasing of the largest good in Cohen’s Consumer’s Republic: the suburban house. These purchasers as citizens may have pursued their individual economic interests in the housing marketplace under the assumption that they thereby were serving the general good as well (i.e. a combination of citizen consumer and purchaser citizen). However, that pursuit did not benefit the larger public nearly as much as expected.
In an ironic story, the postwar Consumer’s Republic promised a socially progressive end of economic equality without requiring politically progressive means of redistributing wealth. The GI Bill discriminated against women, particularly after Congress decided to make military units such as the Women’s Air Force Services Pilots “”civilian” outfits as opposed to “military.” Likewise, Mortgage lenders backed by the Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Association, discriminated against single women. By the 1940s, women, who previously lead the citizen consumer movement, were seen as incompetent consumers.
The passage of the Taft-Hartley in 1947, which restricted the power of labor unions, further damaged the consumer citizen movement of Denning’s Popular Front. The University of Chicago discovered in 1951 that the GI Bill offered little social mobility to working-class veterans. And don’t even mention the postwar's discrimination of African American veterans, best summarized by the title of Ira Katznelson’s book on federal loan policies, When Affirmative Action was White (W.W. Norton, 2006).
The commitment to rebuild the American economy and society around a mass consumer market was inequality distributed, in a story that’s similar to the “false promises” of a Chicago factory’s “welfare capitalism” in the 1930s. Nevertheless, a large portion of American society, mostly those who already were middle class, participated in the suburbanization of mass consumer culture. Although 38 percent of early settlers of Levittown, Long Island were working-class and 62 percent were middle class (1950), that ratio became 45:50 as more white collar residents moved to more affluent towns (1961).
Suburbs implemented class-based zoning (after Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948 outlawed restrictive covenants) in order to segregate residents and cordon off their property. Real estate brokers and White homeowners discriminated against Blacks and helped ensure that their neighborhoods remained White by redlining against Black neighborhoods and, in some instances, buying up property themselves if they noticed their neighbors might be selling to a Black family.
The suburbs, in essence, recreated the separate ethnic neighborhoods that Cohen described at the beginning of Making a New Deal. When a “cultural of unity” could persist, as it did when Blacks and Jews lived in the same municipality, a coalition could form to integrate the Newark City Hospital in support for the reelection of City Commissioner Meyer C. Ellenstein (1945). But when suburbs create their own homogenized communities, what Cohen calls “localism” in the Postwar Era, there’s no need to form coalitions or broad networks. Rather, discriminatory zoning policies and property tax implementation privileged suburbs over inner cities.
The creation of “localism” lead to a segmented America. Marketers tapped into this segmentation of the American mass. In 1956, Wendell Smith noted in Journal of Marketing that “many companies are finding their core marketings have already been developed . . . to the point where additional advertising leads to diminishing returns. Attention to smaller fringe markets can yield greater consumer satisfaction.” Estée Lauder began to add male toiletries, followed by Clinique for young women, and as Richard E. Weems discusses in Glickman, cosmetics for the environmentally conscious, or for darker-toned women. The “classless” advertising that Marchand writes about in 1920s America became targeted advertising that separated customers into “groups who bought for the lowest possible cost; those who bought for product quality; and those who bought for prestige.”
With the shift to market segmentation, marketers turned class differentiation from an income to a lifestyle decision. In an argument that echoes EP Thompson’s discussion of the British working class in the 19th century, marketers believed “ three families could have the same $8000 a year income, but be from different social classes.” Smoking a Camel, listening to country music, or driving a pickup became as much a badge of working-class identity as a union membership card.
Ultimately, by the 1980s, Ronald Reagan tapped into this segmentation. Long was the idea that you appealed to a “common denominator” as a presidential candidate. Rather, Reagan invited certain targeted voters to join his Presidential Task Force by saying “I’m not asking everyone to join this club–only proud, flag-waving Americans like you.” On the very same black in Miami, one homeowner with children might receive a mail piece addressing mortgage tax deductions and federal aid to education, while her neighbor, a renter without children and with a Latino surname, would get a message about relations between the United States and Cuba with no mention of mortgage tax breaks or education.
This new consumer/citizen/taxpayer/voter identity under market fragmentation has lead to increased deregulation, a shift from Keynesian economics to trickle-down Reagonomics. A number of “third wave” grassroots organizations such as Ralph Nader’s “Raiders” continued the fight as citizen consumers, but ultimately lost out to the Consumerization of the Republic.
Cohen’s final call is to continue to link politics and consumption, because this is the “playing field,” but reinstitute the ideas of the citizen consumer that gained strength in the 1930s, and were shown glimpses of throughout the rest of the 20th century.