While the subtitle of the text seems to tout that A Consumer’s Republic is a political history of economic changes in the United States, it reads much more like a social history of the impact of economic and political systems, rather than a political history. Lizabeth Cohen’s focus seems to be more on the societal implications of the changing economic policy surrounding mass consumption, and the way that American culture is molded by mass consumption, rather than exploring the political changes which thus lead to economic changes in a culture of mass consumption. At least, that was the way that I read it. Her argument, that in the aftermath of World War II a fundamental shift in America’s economy, politics, and culture took place, with major consequences for how American’s made a living, where they dwelled, how they interacted with others, what and how they consumed, what they expected of government, and much else, is strongest when she is discussing the cultural shift, and using economics and politics as an impetus for those shifts. 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. It also seems important to point out the way which she frames her argument, which is focused on the postwar era in the United States. While something fundamentally different happens after World War II (due to changing technology, cultural and governmental expectations, and economic prosperity) she does work to frame mass consumption in a way that shows it was a more general trend as well, with evidence from the beginning of the twentieth century being given.

With her analysis largely focused on changes in social structures due to the growth of a consumer culture in the postwar era, I found Cohen’s treatment of different groups to be really interesting, specifically her treatment of the “normative” figure of the white middle class male. Her discussion of this subset of society treats them more as background figures, rather than central characters in a consumer society, delegating them to the position of what one could describe almost as shadowy villains, pulling the strings behind the scenes of growing gendered, racial, and class divides. They work as the antithesis to what I would call the central figures, or heroes to continue to use the same type of terminology as above,  specifically women, African Americans, “the poor,” and members of the working class, who are much more the focus of the changing cultural lines due to an increasing consumer culture. This is a very interesting choice on the part of Cohen, since it is the white middle class men who were responsible for both the policies which created a rise in mass consumption, and the economic policies of the companies who pushed for a large consumer culture.

There are bits and pieces of this book which I found to be helpful in framing, culturally, what was going on during the postwar era, specifically in the 1950s. The shift, which we have seen before, into a new idea of the American identity, where mass consumption in postwar America was not just a personal indulgence, but also a civic responsibility, growing out of World War II, drove home the importance of maintaining a fully employed population, that the capitalist ideology was still really important to the growing tensions of the Cold War. The technologies of mass consumption are the same as those that have been discussed in previous texts, where mass production meets mass consumption, addressing housing concerns, and the place of women in the household, while providing stable employment for men. I think that that is where this book is the most helpful for me, is in the discussions of the new American identity being directly tied not only to the buying of stuff, but also the residue of this culture of mass consumption which has followed the United States into the twenty-first century, and the expectations which Americans have about the strength of the economy. As we have said before, it is very interesting how the postwar era really worked to create the current guide for the American identity.