People everyday are consuming products that have been influenced by democracy, but most of these consumers have no idea just how long or in what way this has been going on in the United States. The relationship between the two has been a positive and negative on the country, but has ultimately brought much opportunity and stability to the nation. Lizabeth Cohen, in her book A Consumers’ Republic, has given the reader a clearer understanding of how consumption and democracy have developed and built a lasting relationship since 1932. Understanding how this relationship has been built and can be viewed, we shall take a look at a few different aspects of how democracy and consumption have been joined.
The idea of consumption and democracy being involved with each other first can be a surprise. Although, it has been made much clearer how each affects the other, and this can be viewed as a net plus for the nation. With the growth that the United States has had since 1932, the expansion of homes, education, and even shopping areas, was a needed aspect for all cities. With the influx and growth of people and homes, the nation needed someone to look over all the developing needs that would arise. That is where democracy came in with the establishment of stricter taxes to help build up the areas. The property taxes that would be put into place in suburban areas would have an effect, “as property values and tax rates vary by community and put unequal amounts of revenue per capita at town’s disposal (pg. 232).” However, the growth of the suburban towns did cause much segregation in class and race while the consumption of new products did help boost the economy. This was after the war, so many veterans coming home now had the GI Bill at their disposal. This brought much attention to job training, college, and home buying. This was all a democratic move that helped each veteran become a consumer, and even to this day it is still operating in the same manner. The battle between the two has taken on many different shapes in the last seventy years, with many policies in the beginning discriminating against gender and race. It is, however, seen that many of those have been lifted over the years through the democratic process that the nation provides. In the eyes of many around the nation, and especially this student, it is believed that the net plus for the country does come in the strong relationship that comes from consumption and democracy.
For Lizabeth Cohen, the relationship between consumption and democracy was a developing dependency on one another from 1932 to 2003. They both grew and developed based on the others needs. The government needed to assure it did not repeat its mistakes from the past, and the consumers needed the products to build the new life styles they desired. She demonstrates this clearly through many different parts of her book, but we are going to look into the GI Bill, suburbia, shopping malls, and the gender and race aspects. Through these four areas, the relationship of dependency will be shown in a clearer manner for all to understand.
With the government trying to help out the country in 1944, they introduced the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill of Rights. In the attempts to avoid the same economic problems that happened after WWI, this was a way for democracy to take control and spur the consumers. “It sought to jump-start the postwar economy by expanding purchasing power, by injecting new capital into existing institutions ranging from colleges to banks to the housing industry, and by creating higher-earning and home owning consumers who would make secure credit risks for future buying (pg. 137).” This was a way for democracy to take control and develop policies for the reconversion and shift from the war production economy. With the GI Bill, veterans would flood the colleges and training schools in the attempt to better educate themselves to make more money. The housing market would become a much sought after consumer product because they had loan programs especially set up for veterans to acquire a home at low interest rates and backed by the VA (pg. 141). Another luxury that the government had put into place for returning veterans through the GI Bill was that they could receive small business loans with ease. This was developing another consumer product for society, but it was developed in a democratic manner. Much of the GI Bill was a way for the government to get their hands on a consumer market that was returning from war and wanting to reestablish them in society. They had new goals and dreams in life after a time in combat, they wanted to share new things with their families, and this gave them the means to do such things.
The development of new homes outside of the cities quickly became known as the suburbs, and these homes grew into a large consumer market. With the large amounts of construction, consumption of these homes started to divide the public and broke out what would become a larger class system. “New housing developments were particularly easy to peg at a particular consumer market through homes prices, lot sizes, and community amenities, giving new suburban areas instant socioeconomic, and therefore market, identities (pg. 202).” These new areas even became a power for democracy with local elections and taxes. The public would get to vote into the local office the candidate that they preferred, and those individuals would get to fight for the local property taxes and how they would be used. Consumption was prevalent in these suburban areas because it was becoming a mass consumption market, and through this the government was getting what it wanted in the nation recovering and prosperity (pg. 195). The suburban living fueled many other things in the view of consumption. Not only did the home- owners need to buy new goods for their home, but since they were now further from work, they would be purchasing automobiles. The availability that democracy gave to the consumers in the home loans also established debt on many levels. The government was building the economy that it wanted with the simple availability and direction of creating a buy-it-now society. Home loans and car loans flooded the suburban areas, and new things like credit cards added to a person’s debt.
In the ever-growing populations around major cities, the citizens would need new places to shop. In the development of the shopping centers and shopping malls, consumption and democracy would take turns battling and benefiting from one another. These shopping centers would become the prime location for consumption and would even give the local area more ideal property values. “In other words, a town well enough off to attract a shopping center was rewarded with higher property values and a big boost to its property tax and sales tax revenues, resulting in improved local services and potentially lower tax rates for residents (pg. 266).” The population would easily be rewarded with property values, but democracy would also benefit with the taxes it would receive. With them being established in the center of towns, democracy would take hold and become the ideal place for many town activities such as campaign appearances by political candidates, and even community outreach for local charities (pg. 264). The new availability to products and the assortment of stores that would be available for consumption was an appealing aspect to many suburbanites. The shopping center life was not always sunshine, though, and the battle over “public place” and “private property” was soon brought to the forefront. In the 1960’s, the Supreme Court was hearing cases about the rights of free speech and private property due to protestors and picketers (pg. 274). This showed that democracy was stepping into the avenues of consumption locations. Everyone in society today lives by these types of shopping locations, but the way that they developed was a democratic and consumer dream.
The battles for civil right between gender and race have played the biggest part in the relationship between consumption and democracy. During the war, the United States government called on the women and blacks to step up and keep the economy thriving. They wanted these people to put every last penny they had into consumption. The problem was when the men got home from war, the gender and race lines became more obvious. The white men would be the breadwinners in the household, and the blacks were almost completely left out. “The Consumer’s Republic developed a structure of taxation that rewarded the traditional household of male breadwinner father and homemaker mother, thereby making women financially dependent on men at a time when the transformations of depression and war might have encouraged alternatives (pg. 146).” The democracy that went into this was that women had to depend on the men to get the loans or credit, because the establishments did not recognize the female’s money. Even the government’s GI Bill was leaving the blacks and women veterans out in the benefits that they had earned. In the search for homes, blacks thought they would have the same rights as the whites to secure the VA and FHA home loans. “Not only was it difficult for blacks to pass muster at lending agencies and to secure the lowest interest rates, but VA and FHA financing respected, even reinforced, a hierarchy of neighborhoods that “red-lined” areas where many blacks lived and hoped to buy, coloring them red on government maps to mark them as poor investments (pg. 170).” In the view of consumption, though, the economic stability of this nation depended on every living person regardless of his or her race, gender, or sex. Everyone depended on everyone, and even the shopping centers started to realize this. They would need every class to survive in a world that was run by money. “Over time, shopping centers moved beyond simply aiming at “middle-income groups” to become even more class stratified, with some like Bergen Mall marketing themselves to the lower-middle class, while others like Garden State Plaza went upscale to attract upper-middle-class consumers (pg. 288).” Society had to readjust itself so that it could survive, and the government began lifting the segregation markers to keep its afloat in the times when it was not so stable. It became more evident that gender and race do not matter when our nation all runs on green money.
The United States since 1932 has made consumption a large part of the responsibility for the public, and democracy has overseen most aspects of this. They have built a relationship that is dependent on one another, and the nation has fought back at times for it to be done correctly. Through projects like the GI Bill, suburban development, shopping centers, and the gender and race discrimination, Lizabeth Cohen has shown that the consumer and the government play side by side. As a nation, it has not always been easy and, at times, things did not go correctly, but democracy and consumption have built this nation into what it is today.