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Reviews in American History 33.3 (2005) 431-438

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Consumer Politics:

A New History of the Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order

Meg Jacobs. Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 349 pp. Figures, notes, and index. $35.00.

In 1989, Steven Fraser and Gary Gerstle edited a volume by major American historians that told the story of The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980 (1989). They traced the rise to the 1930s and the fall to the 1960s and 1970s, culminating with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. In the decade and a half since the book's publication, the fabric of the history laid out there has been stretched, torn, and riddled with holes by dozens of historians, including the editors and contributors themselves. The origins of the New Deal order have been tugged back into the progressive era by new political historians even as other historians have shown that New Deal policies and coalitions unraveled before a sixties "backlash" and well in advance of the triumph of conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s. If it was ever stable at all, the coalition of workers and farmers, whites and African Americans, northerners and southerners, who comprised the Democratic Party showed signs of wobbliness and strife as early as the 1940s. The ideals that animated this coalition were also as varied and contentious as the coalition itself.1 Political historians now agree that there was no monolithic New Deal liberal political coalition, but rather a variety of twentieth-century liberalisms, and with them, a variety of liberal agendas, policies, and outcomes.

In her new book, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, Meg Jacobs strides boldly through the shards of the old, broken narrative and, with her eye on previously overlooked actors and events, constructs a new story of the rise and fall of the New Deal order. This extraordinary work offers a fresh narrative about American liberalism. Though its conclusions leave some unanswered questions, its new synthesis of the main political narrative of the twentieth century renders it one of the most important pieces of political history this decade. [End Page 431]

At the center of Jacobs's new story about politics is consumption—a topic that political historians have largely bypassed. The increase in consumption among the twentieth-century U.S. citizenry is probably the greatest in the history of the world. From the rocky turn of the century through the affluent 1960s, Americans became a nation of homeowners, car owners, and buyers of all manner of consumer products. As Americans became consumers of goods that they themselves once produced at home and goods they never dreamed they needed, the country transformed itself into a mass consumption society. Historians of politics and the state, viewing consumption as largely a "cultural" concern, have failed to connect this massive change in the American economy to American politics. When they have, they have by and large invoked it to explain shifts toward political conservatism or apathy, as most histories of the politics of the 1920s and 1950s—classically considered golden eras of consumption—attest.2

But Jacobs's thoughtful merger of political history and the history of consumption shows what has been missed by this oversight. If the nineteenth century was the era of the producer—the farmer, the craftsman, the new industrial worker—the twentieth century was the era of the consumer—the housewife, the salaried worker, the union member. While historians have carefully reconstructed the producer politics of the nineteenth century, with its claims to citizenship and political power on the basis of production, they have not done so for the twentieth century. Yet, just as nineteenth-century Americans incorporated their everyday economic experience into political thought and behavior, so too, argues Jacobs, did their twentieth-century counterparts. Of course, the economic conditions of the twentieth century differed drastically from those of the previous one. In the late nineteenth century, as the economy evolved...