Politics & Policy

Snootycrats

Anti-Wal-Mart populism.

Attention Wal-Mart shoppers: Democrats disapprove of your buying habits.

Democrats are fleshing out their domestic agenda with attacks on the company that brings you everyday low prices. The party is divided about how to address the threat of the insurgents and militias bedeviling us in Iraq, but is united by its response to the threat represented by extremely affordable retail goods and groceries. Appearing at Wal-Mart-bashing rallies has become practically mandatory for Democratic presidential aspirants, according to the New York Times.

The Democrats call their broadsides against the super-retailer “populist,” but it’s an odd populism that attacks a company that attracts more than 100 million customers a week with no-frills convenience and rock-bottom prices for everyday consumer goods. If Wal-Mart specialized in selling high-end wind-surfing gear, yes, it might be a juicy populist target. But detergent and toilet paper? Huey Long himself would be mystified at this choice of demagogy.

Attacking oil companies for allegedly price-gouging is unquestionably good (if grossly opportunistic) politics. What Wal-Mart perpetrates, however, is price-gouging in reverse. It sweats every inefficiency out of itself and its suppliers so it can pass those savings on to consumers. Attacking the company for that isn’t populist, it’s perverse. A mom struggling to make ends meet might be angry at spending another $2-a-gallon to fill up at the pump. She’s not going to be so exercised by getting a great deal on diapers.

Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware declared at a recent anti-Wal-Mart rally in Iowa, “I don’t see any indication that they care about the fate of middle-class people.” Who does Biden think is strolling the long aisles of the nation’s Wal-Marts? It’s not the malefactors of great wealth. Wal-Mart prices make the most difference for exactly those families spending the greatest portion of their budgets on the basics. One estimate is that Wal-Mart saves the average household as much as $2,300 a year. That’s nothing to big donors to the “Biden for President” campaign, but for most families, it’s real money.

Wal-Mart’s attackers say that its low prices come at the expense of its 1.3 million wage slaves who are denied decent pay and health benefits. But the wages and benefits offered by Wal-Mart are comparable to those of other retailers. The stumbling automaker General Motors has, in contrast, engaged in a long experiment in paying wages and benefits that are unsustainably high in its industry, and it hasn’t been a happy one. If retail-level wages and benefits are unconscionable in America, perhaps we should shutter the entire sector and ship it overseas. Then, of course, Democrats would complain about the loss of jobs.

Wal-Mart shouldn’t be romanticized. It doesn’t deliver low prices from the goodness of its heart, but because it’s a way to thrive in a competitive economy (nor does it pay relatively low wages out of malice). Its ruthless efficiency drives competitors out of business. This is painful, but there is no reason to believe that America was a better place when it bought retail products from Ames or Caldor, extinct discount chains that never developed a business model successful enough to be pilloried by politicians.

Why do Democrats target Wal-Mart? As in so much else in Democratic politics, from trade issues to the minimum wage, part of the answer is to follow the unions. When Wal-Mart began to sell groceries, it ran afoul of the unions that dominate supermarkets, and they have made Wal-Mart a hate-brand on the left. Something deeper is at work, as well. In Democratic politicians’ contempt for Wal-Mart, there is an element of snobbery. They have a distaste for such a down-market, lumpen-bourgeois operation where few of their voters shop (one poll found that 76 percent of weekly Wal-Mart shoppers are Bush voters), let alone anyone they socialize with.

The Democrats’ anti-Wal-Mart campaign ultimately represents a politically unappealing snooty-populism. Their rhetoric is with the common man, but their noses are in the air.

— Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

© 2006 by King Features Syndicate

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