Lizabeth Cohen defines a Consumers’ Republic as an economy, culture, and politics constructed around the conviction that mass consumption of goods would create prosperity and produce greater equality and democracy. This belief informed government policy after World War II. The GI Bill aided veterans seeking further education and training, and provided guarantees of loans to buy houses or start businesses. FHA loans facilitated home ownership by non-veterans. A revised income tax encouraged spending by granting deductions for sales taxes, and for mortgage and other interest. In material terms, the strategy succeeded. From 1949 to 1973 median family income doubled. Suburbs expanded and national homeownership rates rose from 46% to 68%, with proportionately greater increases among blacks and urban working families than among middle-class whites.
Cohen questions the value of this development. She asserts that government policies failed to increase social egalitarianism or democratic participation because they depended on unregulated private enterprise. The educational provisions of the GI Bill benefited those persons already most likely to attend accredited colleges, while the large number of veterans who chose profit-seeking vocational schools too often received inferior training or none at all. The Bill provided federal guarantees for veterans’ mortgages, but banks denied loans to black or female veterans. Blacks soon discovered that, even when financially able to afford the suburbs, real estate brokers and banks refused to grant them access to the new housing. By century’s end it was clear that mass consumption had not brought greater social equality and voter apathy led to declining political participation.
By equating incomplete fulfillment of an ideal with its failure, and stressing continuing discrimination, Cohen undervalues the significant advantages that prosperity brought to many American people.