A Nation of Consumer Republics: Suburbanization, Media, and Cultural Production in Postwar America

When reflecting on postwar American prosperity, many scholars have celebrated government enacted programs such as the G.I. Bill for creating social mobility and spurring the expansion of homeownership among Americans. The idea that a rising tide raises all boats held sway over conceptions of how Americans internalized their citizenship. The postwar shift in which terms like consumer and citizen grew to be interchangeable created both opportunities for expanding rights and access to resources, while also foreclosing them in regard to specific communities. For example, Black Power advocates who emphasized a self-help, business oriented, consumerist nationalism did create space for their marginalized constituency but did so in a way that embedded their movement within the mass consumption ethos of the postwar period. However, economic individuation and market segmentation functioned to reduce people and communities to market variants, separated and divided along demographic lines.

The emergence of the citizen-consumer as a public ideal has reverberated widely within American media and culture. Works by Lisa Lowe, Glen Mimura, Eric Avila, Lizabeth Cohen, Ben Bagdikian, Ed Herman, and Noam Chomsky explore this tension in numerous ways and venues from the postwar mass media to contemporary Asian American literature. Ultimately, the consumer citizen identity reshaped peoples’ relation to each other, the government, and the cultural productions of the post WWII era.

In A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003), Lizabeth Cohen argues that the desire to create a consumptive middle class was achieved through an appeal to a “middle class consciousness of aspiring consumers over the working class consciousness celebrated by a militant labor movement during the 1930s and World War II.” In this context, the G.I. Bill and VA home loans were meant to encourage social mobility through suburbanization. To some extent this occurred as Cohen points out that 42% of all returning veterans became homeowners. However, Cohen suggests problems emerged out of this development: first, by making the house a site of capital accumulation. Property values emerged as the overarching concern of nearly all homeowners as Cohen suggests that the source of egalitarian hopes – suburbia and mass consumption – “made market concerns paramount in decisions about how and where one lived.” The home became “a mass consumer commodity”, appraised and traded unemotionally in the name of “property values.” This had two primary effects:

  1. the commodification of the home, out of the socioeconomic hierarchy of communities, intensified localism
  2. the inequalities of postwar America expanded past housing into public services that had been paid for by municipal governments.

Control over zoning and education remained under the purview of local officials. Thus, localism undermined central authority. Cohen notes that one might assume federal postwar expenditures might imbue faith in the central government’ but did not in “large part to the impact of postwar suburbanization and mass home ownership.”

Second, Cohen argues the G.I. Bill privileged white male veterans and the formation of patriarchal domesticities. If the Office of Price Administration had influenced gender norms in the 1930s and 1940s, empowering women to occupy central positions as protectors of the public interest through consumerism, postwar policies undermined this development. For example, the aforementioned G.I. Bill disproportionately gave “men access to career training, property ownership, capital, and credit, as well as control over family finances, making them the embodiment of the postwar ideal of purchasers as citizen and limiting wives’ claim to full economic and social citizenship.” Moreover, fewer individuals climbed from the working class to the middle class via the bill. Instead, the bill tended to reinforce class patterns that enabled many already middle class veterans to attend college, while their working class counterparts found the G.I. Bill less applicable in regard to vocational training. Obviously, race intervened as Black veterans’ benefits failed to match those of their white peers. Women found their educational opportunities constricted as many colleges, universities, and professional schools limited or eliminated female applicants in favor of returning veterans. If the G.I. Bill privileged some groups over others, the tax code in the late 1940s was altered in ways the “reinforced the G.I. Bill in favoring the traditional male breadwinner headed family and the male citizen over the female within it.” In this way, the consumer republic privileged the nuclear family, forcing women to remain financially dependent on men, while limiting some communities access to the very market based freedoms such republics promised.

Of the many ways the consumer republic reshaped America, perhaps one of the most prominent was a marked shift toward suburbanization. However, as Cohen points out, the suburbs remained closed to numerous groups and individuals. As demographics changed, whites attempted to construct a “white suburban” imaginary to prevent what many saw as the excesses of a dark or racialized city. Few regions represent this shift as clearly as Southern California, and within Southern California few metropolitan areas illustrate this development as clearly as Los Angeles. Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles explores the construction of a “privatized, consumer oriented subjectivity premised upon patriarchy, whiteness and suburban home ownership.” As government policies attempted to reconstruct American identities along consumerist lines, white suburbanites attempted to build a “classless” ideal that separated them from the “darkened” inner city. For example, the postwar decline of neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and Watts, a decline due in great part to HOLC/FHA policies, and the rise of suburban enclaves like South Gate meant suburban residents hoped to differentiate themselves from the evils of urban living. Thus, as “the expansion of suburban California provided a mythic space for the construction of a new ‘white city,’” Bunker Hill, Boyle Heights, and Watts provided convenient straw men for the emerging “cinematic vision of a black and alien Los Angeles.” Here Avila juxtaposes the portrayal of the inner city in Los Angeles film noir with the rise of Disneyland, each representing an idealized/demonized version of metropolitan regions.

If film noir highlighted the threats of a city inhabited by untrustworthy women and non-white citizens densely and dangerously packed into urban spaces, Disneyland symbolized the epitome of decentralized, privatized white suburbia, functioning to provide “a space where white Southern Californians could affirm their whiteness against a set of racial stereotypes.” While writers such as Matt Lassiter have argued for an end to division in scholarship between the surburbs and cities, Avila seems to have addressed this relation in the negative. For Avila, in many ways like a post war American Orientalism, the “vanilla suburbs’” identity depended on the symbolic “chocolate city” as the “other.” Similarly, Lisa McGir’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right explored Orange County’s middle and upper class residents’ contributions to the construction of the conservative ideology that fueled the Reagan Revolution, while Avila credits Disneyland for cradling this “racialized conservatism that informed the nascent political struggles of the New Right,” providing a popular culture touchstone for a burgeoning social movement.

Though Disneyland and L.A. film noir represent one strand of popular culture, the news media serves as another. In addition to suburban spatialization and racialization, the rise of the consumer republic reshaped news organizations as capitalization shifted media towards more entertainment based news programs while shrinking the number of independently owned media outlets such that by the twenty first century five corporations owned nearly all global media. Originally published in 1983, Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly asserts that the capitalization of the media serves to consolidate its ownership while diminishing its informational saliency. Bagdikian’s work served as a harbinger of things to come. Later critics built on Bagdikian’s work, arguing that the nightly newscasts and cable news outlets now offered a product more akin to what Bagdikian refers to as “infotainment.”  One might suggest that this move toward infotainment increased the relevance of cultural productions as they creep into newscasts, providing some level of legitimacy to the viewing public. In many cases, this was an unfortunate development.

Bagdikian’s updated book, entitled The New Media Monopoly attempts to insert his 1983 offering into the context of the past 25 years. The narrowing ownership of the big five media firms results in unprecedented “communications power” that exceeds even history’s greatest dictatorships. Though careful not to draw direct causality, Bagdikian suggests this shrinking distribution of media ownership may have contributed to rightward political shifts that frame formerly liberal political positions as fire breathing radicalism. Going further, Bagdikian notes that news now reflects stories that interest ownership, often the kind of pieces that increase viewership and ad sales. Unfortunately, this means that issues important to the people are obscured and the neutral tone of “modern news” reifies issues rather than interrogating them. Even worse, Bagdikian expects ownership to impose its views: “Editorially, corporate causes almost invariably become news media causes.”

Like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Bagdikian points out that before one takes issue with the news itself, he/she must look at what “is chosen or not chosen – for print or broadcast. Media politics are reflected in the selection of commentators and talk show hosts.” Manufacturing Consent drew similar conclusions pointing out that government and corporate sources were privileged over others. This resulted in news reports/articles that fundamentally reflected the views of those institutions. In the 1980s, this meant media sources that parroted the neoliberalism of Ronald Reagan and conservatives who arose out of Avila’s all too real “suburban imaginary.”

Five years after Bagdikian’s 1983 work, Herman and Chomsky published the aforementioned Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. If The Media Monopoly provided a concise opening discussion on problems in the media, Manufacturing Consent organized its ideas into a theory suggesting the media functioned in relation to five filters that determined its content. Many of these filters appear in The New Media Monopoly but not with the same formal theoretical structure:

  1. The size and ownership of media outlets
  2. Advertising’s influence
  3. Sourcing
  4. Flak and enforcers – outside pressure and lobbyist groups
  5. Anti-communism

Of course, the fifth filter could probably today be replaced with anti-terrorism. Manufacturing Consent then applies this five-layered filter to several cases in Central American, Indochina, and Eastern Europe.

Obviously, both works explore the corporate/government dominance of media but one particular example from The Media Monopoly proves useful, as Bagdikian explores the ramifications of the New Yorker‘s 1967 decision to oppose the Vietnam War. The New Yorker proves useful as a example of another development, market segmentation. As Bagdikian notes, post-1967 New Yorker circulation rose but the average age of readers fell from 48 years to 34, meaning more college and high school students had gravitated to the magazine for its anti-war writing.

Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic addressed the issue of segmentation, or the practice by advertisers to segment products and market them to specific demographic groups. While some argue this made life more democratic, Cohen suggests otherwise: “What resulted was a new commercial culture that reified – at times exaggerated – social difference in the pursuit of profits, often reincorporating disaffected groups into the commercial marketplace.” By the 1980s, class segmentation in marketing expanded as advertisers targeted the upper middle class and upper classes as a new market unto themselves. Clearly, Cohen views such developments negatively, arguing that when marketers abandoned the mass, they contributed to individual stratification as well.  “Individuals soon learned that their own good fortunes as homeowners, shoppers, and voters depended on identifying with special interest constituencies with clout – for example, localistically minded suburbanites, Yuppies, African Americans, senior citizens or gun owners,” Cohen says.  Though news sources may have proliferated, the audience segments along the lines Cohen points out. The kind of news people pursue increasingly seems to be the news they want to hear. In this context, Fox News and its liberal counterpart MSNBC would seem to be two sides of the same coin.

If Eric Avila’s exploration of popular culture helped historians excavate gendered, racial, and class influenced spatializations and imaginaries, Lisa Lowe and Glenn Mimura further his efforts employing Asian American cultural production to question the kind of normatives Cohen’s consumer republic promoted.

Published in 1997, Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts privileges Asian American cultural production as a key site from which to questions ideas about citizenship, democracy, capitalism, and multiculturalism. Like Avila, she locates an American Orientalism at work in Los Angeles cultural productions. For example, Lowe argues that the movie Blade Runner characterizes the city’s diversity as a “third world” metropolis created by “a largely Asian invasion” thus, rearticulating “orientalist typographies in order to construct the white citizen against the background of a multicultural dystopia.” In a second example, Lowe deconstructs the documentary “Sa-I-Gu,” which explores the observations and experiences of Korean American women during the Los Angeles Riots, to disrupt the “linear, developmental narrative that seeks to assimilate ethnic immigrants into the capitalist economy.” Lowe points out that the interviews challenge the uniformity of the Korean American community, the same uniformity upon which a “classless” white suburbia rested. Immigrant Acts fundamentally questions the consumerist identity constructed by government policies in Cohen’s Consumers’ Republic and the white suburban imaginary of Los Angeles’ postwar popular culture.

Glen Mimura’s Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video (2009) builds on Lowe’s observations while sharing her distrust of post war American democracy, capitalism, and multiculturalism. Both authors view multiculturalism negatively suggesting that it substitutes aesthetic equality for true material and political equivalents. Lowe and Mimura argue multiculturalism symbolically embraces Asian Americans culturally while failing to address the social, economic, and political “material exclusion” imposed on them. Or as Lowe suggests, it masks “exclusions by recuperating dissent, conflict, and otherness through the promise of inclusion.” In this way, Mimura and Lowe support Cohen’s conclusions regarding the consumer identity, though it articulated a classless/raceless existence, minorities did not have equal access to markets, wages, and housing.

Spectrality haunts Asian American representation and identity. Accordingly, Asian American “symbolic racialization … disappear[s] ghostlike, in public cultural and national political discourses, only to reappear as ‘strangers’ or perpetual foreigners – that is symbolically out of place and outside of history.” Attempts by Asian Americans at claiming “political or cultural subjecthood” result in reactions of “disbelief, skepticism, disavowal,” responses not unlike those of a “scientific, rational, secular society to the presence of ghosts, and the fantastic more generally.” The emergence of ghosts threatens the normal historical consciousness, thus, undermining the idea that modern history remains stable, progressive and linear.

Moreover, Lowe argues that Asian American identity remains connected to U.S. military adventures in the Pacific and Far East. The presence of Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos disavow the linear, developmental, anti-imperial history of the US domestically and abroad. Forced to “forget” Asian wars while adopting national tropes constructing the US as a benevolent international force opposed to colonizing projects, the “political fiction of equal rights” falls into question. As Lowe comments, “the ‘past’ that is grasped as memory is, however, not a naturalized, factual past for the relation to that past is always broken by war, occupation, and displacement. Asian American culture ‘re-members’ the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.” Thus, Asian American culture critiques the nation state. It occupies other spaces altering national terrain, which then reconceptualizes narratives and historiographies, establishing techniques that birth “new forms of subjectivity and new ways of questioning the government of human life by the nation state.”

Here Lowe and Mimura illustrate clear connections to Bagdikian, Herman, and Chomsky. The mass media’s coverage of international issues undermines the public’s understanding of foreign affairs and the United States’ place within them. Such coverage often lacks any real grasp of American actions, the policies themselves, and the effects of these policies on other nations. In the wake of 9/11, Bagdikian traces the numerous examples of media culpability in failing to report the actual ground effects of US foreign policies, citing examples from the exploits of the United Fruit Company in Central America to C.I.A. skullduggery in Guatemala and Chile. Even worse, in revisiting such stories Bagdikian points out that “the Times and other American major news media repeatedly failed to mention that Pinochet had been directed in his crimes by U.S. agents and had been supported by Washington during his long bloody, regime.” Again, Chomsky’s work complements and often reinforces Bagdikian’s. For example, regarding the Guatemala episode, Chomsky illustrates how the media, in the context of the Cold War, privileged certain political actors suggesting that the coverage given to Eastern European dissidents led to a suspicious silence concerning the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan government. Relatedly, Lowe and Mimura suggest similar episodes regarding coverage of American military efforts in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.

To be fair however, the anti-communism hysteria of mid-century America may have led to favorable coverage of United States efforts in Asia. This reinforced the very otherness Lowe and Mimura point out, while reiterating typical Cold War tropes about democracy, capitalism, and freedom. Still, a strain of American Orientalism emerges as well. Media portrayals of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam ignore histories previous to United States interventions. Thus, as Mimura, Lowe and others note, residents appear outside history, while obscuring the reasons and affects of American interventions.

Postwar government domestic policies contributed to the development of a consumerist identity that promoted mass consumption over production. Unions and others oriented themselves within similar alignments as HOLC/FHA policies, the G.I. Bill, and VA home loans contributed to suburban spatializations that promoted a gendered household and residential segregation along both class and racial lines, despite the rhetoric of a “classless” surburbia. As these policies/legislation unfolded, popular culture envisioned a symbolic divide between city and suburb, marketed through postwar amusement parks like Disneyland that promoted a decentralized, private, white suburban ideal that defined itself in opposition to the other of the “darkened” racialized city as represented in film. As advertisers and political operatives adopted the methods of market segmentation, these differences became exaggerated both in cultural production and broader media. A postwar American Orientalism emerged defining non-whites and urban areas as the “other.” Mass media reflected these developments as the profit motive overtook the civic responsibility aspects of news. Corporate consolidation pursued market segmentation and sensationalism at the expense of informational accuracy.

As the century entered its last decades embroiled in “identity politics” knife fighting (and the New Right practiced this as much as any other group; see Matthew Lassiter or Lisa McGir for examples), such news coverage only reified difference. This reification can clearly be seen through the site of Asian American cultural production, which questioned many of the underlying principles of the consumers’ republic. Moreover, media coverage of Asian Americans and American military adventures in the Pacific and beyond expanded the modern orientalist bias, as often entire peoples’ histories were leveled as American tropes about democracy, freedom, and capitalism obscured all other factors. Thus, Asian people and their nation’s appeared outside of time, only relevant when cold war conflicts came to fore. For Asian American, this fractured their own identities and histories while encouraging their persistent presence in American culture as foreigners. A nation of consumers segmented along such demographic lines remains less a nation than a collection of overlapping memberships whose legitimacy in relation to each other rests too heavily on market based dynamics.

Ryan Reft