My first job was selling guns at Walmart. I was a clerk in the sporting-goods department at our local store in Georgetown, Ky. Georgetown was a much smaller place then. This was years before Toyota came to town, put an immense car plant in a field not far from my house, and started producing Camrys by the tens of thousands. The population was less than 10,000, tobacco farms dotted the countryside, and Future Farmers of America was one of the largest clubs in my high school.
This was also the era when students would roll into class in the morning still wearing hunting camouflage, with their rifles in the trunks of their cars or mounted in their pickups. So when I started my work life selling guns, the only thing that was notable about my job was the wage — $3.70 per hour, a full 35 cents more than minimum wage.
I can’t tell you how many rifles, pistols, and handguns I sold during my brief Walmart career. It was the same procedure every time. The customer would fill out a form, I’d take their money, and either hand them the firearm at the counter, or — if they bought ammunition at the same time — walk them to the front of the store before I gave them their new gun. It was a fun job for a teenager, and I learned a great deal about guns.
So I was more interested than most to read about Walmart’s latest retreat from the firearms business. Responding to the recent string of mass shootings — including one in a Walmart store in El Paso — the company announced that it was ending sales of handgun ammunition and ammunition for AR-style rifles. The company’s CEO also called for a debate on renewing an assault weapons ban and for strengthened background checks. Walmart had already largely stopped selling handguns and so-called “assault weapons,” and now a company born and bred in deep-red America was decisively breaking with the culture that was indispensable in making Walmart the mightiest retailer in the land.
Woke capital is here to stay, and Walmart proves it. At first glance, Walmart’s decision is mystifying. What’s next? NASCAR going all-Prius to save the planet? Even if you grant the reality that Walmart has grown far beyond its original red-state base, why would the company want to alienate half their customer base?
But that’s old America-style thinking. This is new America, and new America is in the grips of profound negative polarization. “Negative polarization” means, simply, that Americans who participate in politics are motivated more by distaste (more like disgust) for the other side than they are by any particular affection for their own. Indeed, affection for politicians on your own side is often dependent on the level of disgust they can display for your opposition.
In this new America, the calculus has changed. It used to be that if you spoke as a corporation you risked alienating customers. Now, you also risk alienating customers if you don’t speak. Silence has costs. In an article last year about Walmart’s corporate turn to the left, Walmart officials cited marketing data indicating that the overwhelming majority of Walmart customers wanted it to “take a stand on important social issues.”
Now, in a closely divided nation, whose values will the corporation champion? All other things being equal, the answer is obvious — the company will stand for the values of the people making the decision. This is the most human thing in the world. Once the decision is forced on a corporation, how many people of conviction will choose to advance ideas they loathe? At best, they’ll stay silent and ride out the backlash from failing to take a stand. A corporate ethos that used to say to leaders, “Keep your head down and do your work,” is being replaced by an ethos that declares, “You have power and a platform. Use them.”
And the values at issue become self-reinforcing. Corporate executives compete for top talent, and the biographies of these people tend to look a lot like the executives’ own — often from elite institutions, frequently from America’s economically dynamic urban centers, and, failing that, still highly educated.
That’s the American demographic that’s blue — and getting bluer every year.
Moreover, aside from a few exceptional moments, companies don’t truly face meaningful market penalties for taking controversial stands. Sure, some consumers may boycott, but others will seek them out. The vast bulk of the dissenters may grumble, but they’ll still shop. After all, if they truly like a Nike shoe, or if they have piles of frequent-flyer points at American Airlines, or if Walmart is far closer and more convenient than any other comparable store, the vast majority of consumers won’t sacrifice convenience, price, or perks for their politics.
In the final analysis, the incentives are clear. Corporate executives are motivated by their own values (and the peer pressure of like-minded colleagues) to take progressive political stands, and the market doesn’t materially punish their choice. As for consumers? They still shop, but their polarization proceeds apace — they’re embittered (or thrilled) by decisions that have nothing at all to do with the products they seek.