Respond to this Article January/February 2003

Long Good Buy

A review of A Consumers' Republic by Lizabeth Cohen. Buy the book

By Nicholas Lemann

What the Second World War is to the "greatest generation," the suburbs of the 1950s are to baby boomers--psychologically hallowed ground to be endlessly revisited. (Let's leave for another day the question of why one generation keeps going back to young adulthood and the other to childhood.) Lizabeth Cohen, a history professor at Harvard, proudly opens A Consumers' Republic with an adorable photograph of herself and her younger sister as little girls in the yard of a New Jersey ranch house in 1956, and follows that with a short autobiographical account of her greatest-generation parents' steady movement up the New York suburban ladder after the war. And the more conventionally historical bulk of her book touches many of the familiar postwar cultural bases, from Levittowns, to David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd and William H. Whyte's The Organization Man, to tailfinned automobiles designed for "planned obsolescence," to the psychologist Ernest Dichter figuring out how to make housewives buy appliances, to the rise of shopping centers and then shopping malls.

The conceptual rubric under which Cohen places all this comforting material is new, however: It's the idea that the mid-to-late-20th-century United States became the first country to organize itself politically around the idea of its people as individual consumers. Consumerism, as she presents it, has its roots in the New Deal, but it took off after the war, when the country became steadily more prosperous and mobile and the Democratic Party retreated from its prewar commitment to a political order based on an ever-growing welfare state and a heavily regulated economy. It turns out that all sorts of apparently disparate material fits into Cohen's category: consumer cooperatives and Keynesian economics, boycotts (especially Martin Luther King Jr.'s Montgomery bus boycott in 1955), the G.I. Bill, Ralph Nader during his consumer-crusader phase, the rise of segmented marketing, and suburban real-estate development patterns. Cohen often uses New Jersey as a specific example of whatever general trend she's discussing.

Journalists don't usually complain about academics being insufficiently theoretical, but in this case, Cohen's interesting basic idea provides so broad a license for going over a lot of fairly well-known history that the book's ratio of information to explanation is too heavily canted toward information.

Liberal intellectuals have generally been hostile to the developments Cohen is writing about, because the notion of a polity based on individuals pursuing their own interests as purchasers, leading to a privatized, atomized society, doesn't conform well to the liberal ideal of a good (meaning communitarian) society. Cohen has a distinct soft spot for the "consumers' republic," and specifically for 1950s suburbia--but it only extends so far. She creates two sub-categories of consumers: "citizen consumers," who organize as buyers around liberal political goals, and "purchaser consumers," who merely look after their own interests in the marketplace. She generally approves of citizen consumers, and generally disapproves of purchaser consumers; it's good when consumers band together to demand safer cars, or an end to segregation, but not when they band together to limit property taxation or to build walls around their suburbs.

Cohen's idea of the "consumers' republic" has something in common with the idea of a consensus, or brokered, state that prevailed in the social sciences during the baby-boom days: Every citizen would merely pursue self-interest, individually or through participation in a group, and the overall result would be good.

The trouble with such a regime is obvious from Cohen's account: Encouraging people to come to politics for themselves, and only for themselves, has the quality of opening Pandora's Box, and it becomes ever harder to maintain a sense of shared purpose and mutual obligation in the society, or to mount political actions that don't have a consumer rationale. Consumerism, in other words, may lead inevitably to conservatism, which is much more comfortable than liberalism with the idea that pursuit of individual self-interest can be the basis of a good society.

As Cohen points out, liberal social critics are usually skeptical of consumerism for just that reason. But if she wants to offer a partial defense of consumerism, then it's important to suggest a way of drawing the conceptual line between the citizen variety she likes and the purchaser variety she doesn't. How to prevent the former from morphing inevitably into the latter? Is there a larger set of principles regarding how citizens should balance their interests and their obligations to the society as a whole, allegiance to which would keep the United States on what she'd consider the right side of the citizen-purchaser divide, while remaining a consumers' republic? More fully worked out answers to these questions would have taken Cohen's book into a higher, though possibly less charming, realm than the one it occupies, in which we are once again immersed in a world we'll never grow tired of.

Nicholas Lemann is The New Yorker's Washington correspondent and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.


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