“Use Your Buying Power as You Use Your Ballot”

Lizabeth Cohen’s book, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, guides the reader to understanding the economic, political, racial and social needs that drove the United States’ need for consumption in the name of democracy during the time frame of post World War II to 2003.    Unfortunately this push for consumption and democracy did not benefit all groups of people within the United States.  Specifically, African Americans suffered from: limited financial means, oppressive laws, racism, and the societal need to exploit minorities.  This relationship between consumer culture and democracy has, and continues to, erode the much needed integration and participation of the African American community.  The drive for consumerism, by benefitting some groups over others, widened the gap between dominant and minority groups within the United States and did not help democratic participation among the minority groups; furthermore, it created an unsustainable economic climate while commercializing politics.

At the conclusion of World War II, the country was going full-tilt with wartime production, a high employment record, and frugal citizens saved. Reevaluation of the economy was necessary with the conclusion of the war and decisions were necessary to keep the proverbial economic ball rolling – for the best interest of the country and subsequently, the people of the United States.  Cohen describes this as, “a vision of postwar America where the general good would be best served not by frugality or even moderation, but by individuals pursuing personal wants in a flourishing mass consumption marketplace” (p. 121).  This took on the form of pushing consumption by every day citizens in order for them to do their democratic duty for the benefit and well being of the United States and her citizens.  This push towards consumerism came at a cost; the well-being of citizens who’s lives became more complicated by the acceptance of the Consumer’s Republic which translated to the consumption, expectation, and desire for more items than ever before in American history.

Consumption equality was not to be easily procured for two groups of citizens – African Americans and women.  These two groups of citizens played a vital, yet peripheral role in this new consumer democracy model.  African Americans had long tried to break the clutch of the Jim Crow laws and hoped that with their service to the country, their purchasing power would be enhanced and “testified to the widespread appeal of the inclusive ideals of the Consumers’ Republic” (p. 167).  Historically, African Americans were only given the choice of second rate, more costly goods at the hands of the Caucasian storeowners.  Basic “consumer rights” such as eating in restaurants, bowling, sitting in “normal” seats at the theaters and on buses that were overlooked and “politicized black consumers had already spent years agitating at the grass roots, for literally, a place at the table” (p. 167).

Women began to play a more prominent role in American society during the war years.  Women, as well as African Americans, filled in at jobs vacated by men going off to serve in World War II, that were traditionally conducted by males.  Both women and African Americans were paid fewer wages than the male counterparts that they were replacing.  Women also continued the role as caretakers of the public good, which was started during the temperance movement, through their roles as consumers and keepers of the households.  Yet as the war concluded and men returned home, women were again stripped of their political power through the G. I. Bill and new income tax codes.  “The fabled ‘corporation man’ of the 1950s, then, was as much a product of federal policy as corporate priorities and was by no accident a man” (p. 141).  These governmental actions again restored the economic power to the white males of the United States while excluding African American and women veterans.

One social group that benefited from the advent of new consumerism was the working class.  New industrial jobs provided a good income along with benefits that ushered in a new era of homeownership, the purchase of consumer goods to furnish the accomplishment of reaching the “American dream”.  Housing developments became easily identifiable to a “particular consumer market through home prices, lot sizes, and community amenities, giving new suburban areas instant socioeconomic, and therefore, market, identities” (p. 202).  As time progressed, communities would no longer be composed of workers and bosses living together, in the same neighborhoods.  In fact, as more industrial and manufacturing jobs moved further out of towns, average workers could not find affordable housing near their jobs and social stratification of the suburbs began more earnestly.

African American citizens worked hard to gain the economic rights granted by the Civil War, but white citizens saw these economic rights as a threat to their perceived world order.  African Americans generally had to pay more for consumer goods that were second rate than their white-counterparts did which lead to a great deal of resentment.  Consumer boycotts and cooperatives led to “organizing at the point of consumption a viable racial strategy” (p. 50).  Consumer boycotts by African Americans were first tried in the South at the turn of the twentieth century, on trolley car companies who mandated segregation.  While the boycotts ultimately failed, the end result was that a few companies went bankrupt, while other companies along saw decreased profits for several weeks up to a few years, and finally and most importantly, the pride and sense of resistance that was spoken of and shared with future generations of African Americans.  Here lay the seeds for several economic steps that were taken by the African-American community.

Generally, conducting business with white operators of the time meant “economic exploitation and racial discrimination” (p. 43).   Black businesses were generally limited to barbershops, funeral homes, independent grocers, and a few larger insurance companies.  African-American leaders began to realize that racial solidarity in the market place would enhance the economic and social power of African Americans.  This solidarity could be achieved with separate, black owned business who could be supported by black consumers and run by black entrepreneurs (p. 42).  Lack of capital, business loans, and overall business knowledge led to the downfalls of many small businesses and made business startups difficult.  Yet one arena that African-American consumers could make their voices heard was through the proven use of boycotts, which happened in many major cities like Chicago and New York City.  Stores that refused to hire African Americans into positions other than janitorial or elevator operators were boycotted as well as other businesses that practiced unfair trade practices such as utility companies, unfair rent rates, discrimination in public places.  At last, African Americans realized the strength of consumer power lay “with the potential for mobilizing mass action by individual consumers (p. 53).

Through consumer mobilization, African Americans could be viewed as a legitimate and effective agents of protest that challenged the Consumer’s Republic and who was “eligible” to participate.  The advent of World War II offered hope to many African Americans that their lives would undergo a change, whether from serving in the military, or taking on a new job with the increased number of vacancies and that their rightful roles as participants in the Consumers’ Republic would be allowed and even welcomed.  With the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments, blacks theoretically gained equal access to all public accommodations – schools, parks, inns, theaters, and other common establishments.              Yet reality set in when African Americans were excluded from the OPA (Office of Price Administration) boards or continually denied service in restaurants and stores.  African Americans supported OPA policies because they saw this as a chance to make up for past exploits by white owner/operators of consumer goods – here was finally a chance for equality – to pay the same prices for quality housing, goods, and recreational activities as their white counterparts.  Sadly, this concept of equality did not happen for African Americans during and post World War II both in the South and growing in the North.  Rather, a growing segregation within metropolitan America continued with fervor, distinguishing residential areas by class and race.

Citizens living in the Consumers’ Republic began receiving a consistent barrage of effective marketing techniques in all aspects of their lives, personally and publicly.   The marketing sector also started impacting politics, as Republic Party chairman Leonard Hill declared, “you sell your candidate and your programs the way a business sells its products” (p. 333), with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s election runs in the 1950’s.  This ushered in a new phase of politics in conjunction with mass media and advertising.  Yet people began again demanding, “the Consumers’ Republic be accountable to the ideals upon which it was founded; that a flourishing mass consumption economy could be safe, democratic, and equitable” (p. 386) while calling for more government involvement with the goods and services being offered to consumers.

The Consumers’ Republic has done more harm than good to the strength of the United States because the push for consumption and democracy did not benefit all groups of citizens in the country.  The entire focus of the country over the last seventy years has been to produce vast quantities of goods for consumption yet these goods were designed to be temporary, consumable items that would need to be continually replaced.  Couple the temporary lifespan of products with more sophisticated marketing techniques, which ranked its success by “maximizing the middle-class market…with enough discretionary income to support the mass production and distribution of goods” (p. 310), with further market segmentation by gender, age, race, and other demographic information.

The continuing end-result of these techniques is more government involvement in all parts of our lives.  The constant stream of media and the marketing techniques designed to persuade us who to vote for, what programs we should support, which medicines to take, how new of a car should sit in your driveway, what kind of food you feed your children seems to be winning in main stream America.  This drive for consumption has also spread throughout the world with the growing demand for cars, material objects, and consumerism.  Ultimately, the concept of supporting democracy through consumption in the Consumers’ Republic, is based on very faulty logic, evidenced by history and the depletion of finite resources needed to keep this Republic continuing.

Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic:  The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America shows how the need for consumption in the name of democracy from post World War II to 2003 benefitted one particular group of people – Caucasian, middle class males and their families.  African Americans and women did not see the huge gains politically and economically that their male Caucasian counterparts saw.  In fact, mass consumption has caused greater social inequalities and greater voter apathy.