In This Review

A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America
A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America
By Lizabeth Cohen
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, 480 pp
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This ambitious and sometimes insightful history of the post-World War II transformation of American society gamely struggles with the big questions. Yet despite some illuminating discussions of the class, race, and gender implications of federal education and credit policy, Cohen dissipates her attention on too many marginal phenomena to tell a coherent story. For example, various inspiring examples of "progressive" grassroots activism receive ritualistically lavish attention, even when on Cohen's own evidence they prove to be historical dead ends. Consequently, Cohen's attempted critique of the Consumers' Republic (her evocative name for the post-World War II era of mass consumption) dissolves into a series of gripes. Cohen must decide whether she wants to be a historian of a more left-wing America that, in her view, should have been, or of the America we actually have. Her gifts are such that, whichever choice she makes, she can produce interesting and valuable work. Until then, even well-disposed readers may find her analysis not just too left but too muddled.