A Consumers' Republic

Culture Watch

Ms. Cohen is Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies in the history department at Harvard University. She is a member of the advisory board of HNN.

Following is an excerpt from Ms. Cohen's new book, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Knopf, 2003).

The flourishing of mass consumption was first and foremost a route to recovery and sustained health of the economy, but it also provided a ready weapon in the political struggles of the Cold War era. No sooner had World War II ended than this new war raged, fought with ideological swords as much as stockpiles of armaments and bombs. As the United States justified its superiority over the Soviet Union both at home and abroad, the mass consumption economy offered an arsenal of weapons to defend the reputation of capitalist democracy against the evils of communism. Three rather typical"sponsored films" produced from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s by private corporations and nonprofit foundations for public viewing in movie theaters, community meetings, and workplaces, each about ten to fifteen minutes in length, captured the dominant ideas in circulation linking mass consumption to the"American way of life." Although each film had its own specific agenda, from promoting free enterprise to selling oil, all three--and scores of films like them--assumed the centrality of mass consumption to American supremacy.

The most common way that mass consumption figured in the defense of American capitalist democracy was as evidence of the economic egalitarianism it made possible, a distribution of American abundance that beat the Soviets at their own game of creating a classless society. Widespread American home ownership and high living standards, the argument went, put to rest Soviet charges that capitalism created extremes of wealth and poverty, and secured a firm foundation for American freedom. The documentary film Despotism, produced and distributed by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1946 and re-released in 1954; argued that the broader the distribution of land and other property in a community or nation, the greater the potential for democracy. If wealth proved too concentrated--including in the hands of one state or industry--and information too controlled, then despotism threatened!

The claims of Despotism that mass consumption was creating a more egalitarian American society echoed everywhere during the 1950s. Popular magazines hammered the point home:"Our houses are all on one level, like our class structure" House Beautiful asserted, while Life celebrated how a rising standard of living meant that"people are getting more and more on a level with each other." A Labor Department study of American consumer patterns claimed,"Certainly the automobile has aided wage earners in breaking down barriers of community and class." Likewise, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower on many occasions praised the economic equality accompanying mass consumer prosperity."During the last 50 years," Truman claimed in his State of the Union message to Congress in 1950,"our nation has grown enormously in material well-being." In particular, he stressed,"the income of the average family has increased so greatly that its buying power has doubled." A decade later, Eisenhower was even more confident. At the National Automobile Show industry dinner in Detroit, he praised"the great spread, throughout the peoples of our nation, of the benefits of the American system." In concrete terms that meant"an American working man can own his own comfortable home and a car and send his children to well-equipped elementary and high-schools and to colleges as well. They [the Soviets] fail to realize that he is not the downtrodden, impoverished vassal of whom Karl Marx wrote. He is a self-sustaining, thriving individual, living in dignity and in freedom."

A second film, How to Lose What We Have, presented by the American Economic Foundation and"made possible by" Inland Steel Co. and Borg-Warner Corporation, reinforced Eisenhower's link between a wide distribution of the fruits of American prosperity and political freedom by contrasting them to Soviet impoverishment in both categories. This dramatization, made in 1950, depicted a community facing a plebiscite between American style limited government with an unregulated free market economy and a"master plan" of unlimited government with a planned economy. Soon after the Soviet-style"master state" wins, a pickup truck arrives at one family's comfortable suburban home to move the original owners out and two other families in, not very subtly conveying the inferior standard of living under communism. When"average Joe" householder protests,"You can't do this to me" the"party man" responds that he has orders to move him three hundred miles away to a new job and to take away his home and car. As the truck drives off with family and possessions crammed into the open back and Joe's wife complaining that she didn't even have a chance to finish hanging curtains, the film equates political freedom with exchange in a free market economy: Americans live"far better off than the rest of the world,""freely buy and sell," and have"free choice as customers,""right down to the brand of cigarettes [they] smoke or don't smoke."

This yoking of free choice as consumers with political freedom was made frequently during the Cold War. Probably best known is the"kitchen" debate between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the American Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, where Americans flaunted their latest model homes, appliances, cars, fashions, and free Pepsi as embodying, in Nixon's words,"what freedom means to us." Nixon boasted that with three-fourths of America's 44 million families owning their own homes, along with 56 million cars, 50 million televisions, and 143 million radios,"The United States comes closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society." He likewise sanctified the variety of goods available to American consumers as symbolic of"our right to choose. We do not wish to have decisions made at the top by government officials," whether about"the kind of house" or"the kind of ideas." Demonstrating the ubiquitousness of this perspective, voices much more liberal than Nixon's, such as New Dealers David Lilienthal and Chester Bowles, shared his equation of freedom with, in Lilienthal's words,"a maximum range of choice for the consumer when he spends his dollar."

A third film, Destination Earth, produced by the American Petroleum Institute in 1954, suggested how the link between freedom and mass consumer affluence provided a strategy for recruiting developing countries into the American sphere of influence. In this animated, pseudo-science-fiction film, a space explorer from a repressive communist Mars, under the dictatorship of a Colonel Ogg, visits Earth to learn how to operate the state limousine service more efficiently. Finding himself in the United States of America, the explorer encounters an astonishing prosperity created by competitive enterprise and cheap oil, where"almost everybody has one of those automobiles" of his own. He returns to Mars armed with the tools to remake it in Earth's image, and in no time Martians overthrow Colonel Ogg for a life of free enterprise, free"speech, and universal auto ownership.

In real life, the potential power of American consumer goods to win the hearts and minds of people in the so-called developing world while also fattening American manufacturers' purses was not lost on the postwar presidents. Eisenhower reminded Americans that they must continue to meet Khrushchev's challenge--"We declare war upon you in the peaceful field of trade"--with continued"leadership in world trade" and"unprecedented generosity ... in helping to protect freedom and to promote rising levels of well-being in all nations wishing to be independent and free." Kennedy took up the mantle of encouraging American consumer exports with a sharper eye on developing markets, arguing that"too little attention ... has been paid to the part which an early exposure to American goods, American skills and the American way of doing things can play in forming the tastes and desires and customs of these newly emerging nations." Not only would American products, appeal in their own right, but their obvious superiority to shoddy Soviet manufactures would dramatize the superiority of capitalism over communism. Undergirding this Cold War foreign policy of fostering capitalist democracy through marketing American goods abroad was an assumed hierarchy of material and political development that placed the United States, in its"high mass consumption stage" in contemporary economist Walt W. Rostow's terminology, at the pinnacle of modernization.

Faith in a mass consumption postwar economy hence came to mean"much more than the ready availability of goods to buy. Rather, it stood for an elaborate, integrated ideal of economic abundance and democratic political freedom, both equitably distributed, that became almost a national civil religion from the late 1940s into the 1970s. As ever present as this paradigm was, however, it bore no specific label at the time, so for convenience sake I will dub it the Consumers' Republic. For at least a quarter century, the ideal of the Consumers' Republic provided the blueprint for American economic, social, and political maturation, as well as for export around the globe.

The Consumers' Republic had many appeals, not the least of which was the substantial prosperity it fostered, but perhaps most attractive was the way it promised the socially progressive end of economic equality without requiring politically progressive means of redistributing existing wealth. Rather, it was argued that an ever growing economy built around the dynamics of increased productivity and mass purchasing power would expand the overall pie without reducing the size of any of the portions. When President Truman challenged Americans in 1950 to"achieve a far better standard of living for every industrious family" within a decade, specifically"an income of $4,000 a year," he reassured them that"raising the standards of our poorest families will not be at the expense of anybody else. We will all benefit by doing it, for the incomes of the rest of us will rise at the same time." Eight years later, John Kenneth Galbraith would bemoan in his classic work, The Affluent Society, how much liberals and conservatives, businessmen and economists, rich and even poor were deceiving themselves that an expanding economy was bringing not only"material improvement for the average man" but also"an end to poverty and privation for all." They were blind, he scolded, to"a self-perpetuating margin of poverty at the very base of the income pyramid" that"goes largely unnoticed, because it is the fate of a voiceless minority." Despite critical acclaim for Galbraith's book, his remained an unheeded cry in the wilderness, and the prevailing wisdom persisted that continued economic growth in the Consumers' Republic could sow the seeds of a natural egalitarianism.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 2/25/2003

I like the idea of a "Consumer Republic." I think there is considerable truth in it. I also agree that Galbraith was one of a few voices who worried that as poverty became a fear for a minority, that the majority would forget about them.

I do wonder about the apparently unsympathetic view of conflating economic freedom of choice with other forms of freedom.

For people who experienced the depression and World War II, and who had emerged into the Middle Class of the 1950s, the joy of the department store must have been positively intoxicating.
Maybe even liberating in a psychological way.

Perhaps the present situation makes me more sympathetic with 1950s ideas than usual. Looking back on the 1990s right now, for all its comsumer excesses, I would trade this new age of anxiety for the economic liberty of 1997 in a heartbeat.

It certainly would have been better to addressed poverty more forthrightly (a continuing failure, perhaps because of the continuation of the Consumer Republic ideal) and for our states to have been a bit less insane in their spending (a periodic failure in our history).

But it seems to me that economic freedom of choice may indicate a partial victory for the Freedom from Fear. That people might choose that and hope it spreads strikes me as pretty natural, even if it is also a failure of vision.