The Affluent Society Demanded Conformity

The period after World War II was a period of significant economic growth in America. (See section above on the growth of the suburbs.) For middle‐class Americans, the 1950s were a time of prosperity. Even with three recessions during the eight years of the Eisenhower administration, the country’s per capita income rose and inflation remained low. Americans had more discretionary income, and they spent it on cars, homes, television sets, and an array of other household appliances. By 1960, more than 60 percent of Americans owned their own homes, and three quarters of the households in the country had television sets. Much of this consumer spending was done on credit, with bank loans, installment buying, and credit cards (which were introduced in 1950).

In 1958, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society. Galbraith’s celebrated book examined America’s new post–World War II consumer economy and political culture. While noting the unparalleled riches of American economic growth, it criticized the underlying structures of an economy dedicated only to increasing production and the consumption of goods. Galbraith argued that the U.S. economy, based on an almost hedonistic consumption of luxury products, would inevitably lead to economic inequality as private-sector interests enriched themselves at the expense of the American public. Galbraith warned that an economy where “wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied” was unsound, unsustainable, and, ultimately, immoral

An important factor contributing to the economic growth of the Fifties was government spending. Government expenditures in 1929 were 1 percent of GNP; by 1955, the figure had risen to 17 percent of GNP. The bulk of this increase in the early 1950s came from military spending until the end of the Korean War. After that, highway and home construction picked up much of the slack. Veterans’ benefits (mortgage and education assistance), government-sponsored research (military and space), and other sources of growth helped fuel the economy. Another cause of postwar economic growth was population growth, the tremendous increase in the birth rate in the decade after World War II (“postwar baby boom”). Population grew in the 1940s and 1950s at twice the rate it had grown in the 1930s. Increased population created increased demand and increased consumption, spurs to economic growth.

Americans came to consider affluence a norm, in which the ability not just to subsist, but to greatly enhance the quality of ones life came to be seen as a basic right. Material abundance became one of the ways in which many, probably most, Americans defined their world. Economic growth affected both popular and elite ideas about capitalism. People believed that there were few limits to economic growth. Capitalism was capable of much greater feats than most Americans had once believed possible.

Americans born in the years following World War II—the so-called Baby Boomers—grew up amid a consumer culture more dominated by chain retailers, national brands, and advertising than ever before. Television advertising beckoned young viewers to consume. From 1950 to 1970, businesses’ total expenditures on advertising in the United States nearly tripled. In the quarter century following World War II, chains came to dominate American retail as their share increased sharply from about half to nearly three-quarters of all of general merchandising sales. With the help of a powerful new communications medium and the growth of chains, “big business” became much bigger in the postwar years.

Many middle-class Americans in these years believed in the idea that the American people, for all their diversity, were becoming more and more alike—and could expect to continue to do so in the future. Few ideas became more pervasive in popular culture than the sense that America was becoming a middle-class nation—a society in which everyone was either already part of the middle class, soon to become part of it, or aspiring to become part of it. With this mindset, it is no wonder that social convention dominated over difference and that people focused on the group rather than the individual.

The businessman of the Fifties promoted the interests of the firm (be it business, law, government, or some other organization) and his place in it. He never questioned the authority of his superior; rather, he subsumed his personal wishes to the larger needs of the company, in return for the security and perquisites that guaranteed a continuing life of affluence. (The Century, 329.) This go-along approach was reflected in a rigid corporate dress code: conservative business suits, ties, white shirts, and polished shoes, and the prevalent three martini lunches, and after work cocktails. (Century, p.339.)

Conformity of this kind did not stop at the workplace. “Middle class Americans at mid-century belonged to tight-knit peer groups that told members what kind of furniture to buy, what kind of car to drive, what kind of music to like, what kind of political opinion to have, and so on – in other words, how to live and think.” (Dworkin) David Riesman, a sociologist, developed a theory about “other-directed” people, who used external cues, such as “The Joneses next door” or the celebrity on a magazine cover, to shape their personalities, as compared to “inner-directed” people, who draw character traits from their own personal experiences early in life. Riesman wrote a book about this aspect of American life called “The Lonely Crowd.” (See discussion below.)

The Affluent Society had fundamental flaws. The contradictions of the Affluent Society defined the decade: unrivaled prosperity alongside persistent poverty, expanded opportunity alongside entrenched discrimination, and new liberating lifestyles alongside a stifling conformity. The new consumer economy that lifted millions of Americans into its burgeoning middle class also reproduced existing inequalities. Women struggled to claim equal rights as full participants in American society. The poor struggled to win access to good schools, good healthcare, and good jobs. The same suburbs that gave middle-class Americans new space left cities withering in spirals of poverty and crime. The Jim Crow South tenaciously defended segregation, and black Americans and other minorities suffered discrimination all across the country.

In short, the 1950s were good times for middle-class white Americans, and they were content with their era. But, social-cultural dissatisfaction was growing underneath the surface. The most obvious explanation for this subliminal concern was the Cold War and the fear of communism, fanned by opportunistic and demagogic politicians that accompanied it. It was also a result of a homogeneous popular culture that had little patience with divergent views. The growing intolerance of non-conformity helped produce the staunching of dissent at many levels of society. Hollywood studio executives blacklisted writers and actors not just because of the Red Scare but also because of their own dislike of their politics. Newspaper and magazine publishers banished writers who were too stridently critical of the political and economic orthodoxy of their time. Television and radio executives refused to allow even mildly dissenting voices access to the air. The revered Edward R. Murrow, the first great television newscaster, found his career at CBS derailed after he broadcast a program in 1954 attacking Joseph McCarthy—even though by then McCarthy’s influence was already in decline.