Wal-Mart just dumped Terry Nelson, the maker of the race-baiting anti-Harold-Ford spot. Nelson, the political director for the Bush ’04 campaign, was running Wal-Mart’s effort to mobilize its employees as Republican voters.
Wal-Mart as it now exists is a paradox. It has been a force for enormous good as the marketing department of China’s consumer-goods export industries, which have rescued half a billion people from $2-a-day penury. Wal-Mart has driven down consumer prices in the United States, especially for goods bought by the lower half of the income distribution.
Moreover — and this point has not, I think, been adequately appreciated — it has provided those low-income consumers with high-quality, well-designed products, taking much of the status insult out of discount shopping. (The contrast with K-Mart, for example, which expresses its contempt for its shoppers by selling them cheap stuff that looks cheap and is unnecessarily shoddy and ugly, couldn’t be sharper.)
On the other hand, Wal-Mart treats its own employees like dirt, uses its market power to bully its suppliers, censors the books and music it sells, and even its pharmaceuticals, to cater to “family values” prejudices, and supports reactionary politics.
Costco has shown that it’s possible to make money out as a discount retailer while treating the employees decently. But Costco is still mostly a food store, not a full-on competitor to Wal-Mart as a full-service discount emporium. It’s obviously in the interests of progressives, and of the country, to weaken Wal-Mart’s market power by encouraging Costco to grow and to broaden its inventory.
But we also have to decide how to deal with Wal-Mart: to treat it as the enemy, or to try to convince Mr. Sam’s successors that running a sweatshop empire with a reactionary political and cultural identity isn’t in the company’s long-term interests. In the long run, I think it’s better to have allies than enemies, and I don’t see Wal-Mart as being as incorrigibly reactionary as, say, GE or Exxon-Mobil. The bigger a foothold Wal-Mart gets in culturally Blue areas, the stronger the business case for softening its hard-right edge.
The two strategies aren’t mutually exclusive; they can even work synergisticly, with anti-Wal-Mart groups to continuing to hammer the company, while some Democratic politicians — preferably those with strong pro-labor credentials — try to work it around to behaving somewhat better. Any Democrat who does so risks being labeled a centrist, squishy sell-out. And of course centrist, squishy sell-outs will be more inclined to take that route (and some of Wal-Mart’s political cash) than hard-core progressives. But I’d regard a Democrat who reached out to Wal-Mart, without giving up on the minimum wage, unionization, and national health care, as smart, not slimy
The bad cops have been doing their job; now we need some good cops. Wal-Mart’s customers are, or ought to be, our voters. There ought to be a way to make peace. And Wal-Mart’s latest move suggests that there’s a peace camp within the company, too.