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Michael Dawson

Michael Dawson

Best Book in Political History Prize


Michael Dawson, Selling Out or Buying In?: Debating Consumerism in Vancouver and Victoria, 1945-1985

Buying In or Selling Out?  is a short book on an apparently small topic that has something big to say about the historical origins of our contemporary politics. Dawson’s topic is the prolonged struggle over shopping hours from the 1940s to the 1980s, but his subject is how the relation between state and society has changed. The changes he describes there are, in microcosm, the changes in the public sphere during these years of Cold War and democratization. He shows populism taking its modern form, along with the complex debates over the regulatory state, amid a suite of changes in meanings of class, gender, and religion. Both the courts and politicians figure as agents of the state. As for political actors, aldermen appear as one voice among many, but mayors and provincial politicians figure in a distinctive role as leaders who try but fail to steer the ship, overwhelmed by the complexity of the publics to which they must respond. Dawson deftly and sympathetically describes that complexity, and so renders vivid the genuine challenges of making policy for plural, highly engaged publics. Shopping is revealed as not merely a trivial matter of local politics. It is a battleground on which competing interests and values play out in relation to political leadership, to work and leisure, and to property rights and consumer rights. The claim of this book to a prize for political history rests especially on its sharp understanding of the importance of municipal and provincial politics as a place where citizens’ experience of the state and of political leadership is shaped. The lessons learned in the shopping hours struggle left a legacy for contemporary national politics.