THE RETAIL REVOLUTION: HOW WAL-MART CREATED A BRAVE NEW WORLD OF BUSINESS
By Nelson Lichtenstein
Metropolitan Books, $25, 320 pages
TO SERVE GOD AND WAL-MART: THE MAKING OF CHRISTIAN FREE ENTERPRISE
By Bethany Moreton
Harvard University Press, $27.95, 372 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN R. COYNE JR.
Nelson Lichtenstein, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is billed as “the country’s leading expert on Wal-Mart.” As the biographer of Walter Reuther and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, he airs his biases in prose at times turgid, at others over the top. He decries “Wal-Mart’s hostility to a better-paid and healthier work force (as if Wal-Mart execs hoped for less healthy employees),” and charges, in apocalyptic tones, that “Today the commercial and political influence of this giant corporation enables Wal-Mart to rezone our cities, set health insurance and wage standards for millions of Americans, determine the popular music most teenagers can buy, channel trade and capital throughout the world, and conduct … international diplomacy. … Wal-Mart management may [also] have more power than any other entity to ‘legislate’ key components of American social and industrial policy.”
Reaganites, Bible-thumping moralists, union busters, imperialists, deregulating economists, champions of laissez-faire — all with malign intent, and all marching under the Wal-Mart colors. Wow! As one of those music-buying teenagers might observe, “Who knew?” And there we were, most of us, probably agreeing with Ben Stein, who recently wrote: “I am an extreme fan of Wal-Mart, which basically adds several percentage points of extra income to every worker’s pay check by offering such low prices as it does. Plus, the Wal-Mart is a friendly, upbeat shopping experience. You leave the store feeling good.”
In many ways, that’s also the case with Bethany Moreton, assistant professor of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Georgia, and a strong and imaginative writer — not that she leaves the store feeling good, but that she leaves with an understanding and appreciation for the values that underlie Wal-Mart’s success. Her book is a tour-de-force, a sweeping picture of the growth of what we called in the 1970s “the New American Majority,” rising in the South and Southwest, expanding from states like Arkansas through centers like Branson in rough parallel with Wal-Mart, the embodiment of a new “Christian capitalism,” built on an ethos antithetical to the values of the industrial northeast and most of the nation’s campuses — a social, economic and political force shaped and driven by “Wal-Mart Moms” and inspired by family values.
“Family values are an indispensable element of the global service economy, not a distraction from it,” writes Moreton. Family values are key to understanding Wal-Mart and the “the animating spirit of Christian Free Enterprise” it embodies. As she points out, the political rise of the Christian right and the growth of Wal-Mart roughly coincide, with elements of each reinforcing the other. “One American woman in five shops at a Wal-Mart store every week,” she writes. Nor was this lost on national politicians. Moreton quotes former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed: “If you want to reach the Christian population on Sunday, you do it from the Church pulpit. If you want to reach them on Saturday, you do it in Wal-Mart.”
These Wal-Mart Christians were not tools to be manipulated, however. “Rather,” she writes, “the popular faith in Christian free enterprise attracted passionate support among ordinary people not only on the high planes of elite academe or in the hot-houses of well-funded think tanks, but also in the cultural apparatus of the Sun Belt service economy: discount stores, back offices, Christian business courses, missionary manuals, Wednesday night Bible study. It was not a simple matter of elite manipulation; it did not make political dupes of Kansans or Arkansans.”
Ms. Moreton’s book was apparently completed pre-Obama. But in an epilogue she takes note of the “defeat and defection of the Wal-Mart voters in the election of 2008,” and wonders whether, along with the collapse of the economy, this may signal “the end of the free-market crusade.” At any rate, she concludes, “We will need to learn from Christian free enterprise that there is no bright light dividing hard issues from soft, economic concerns from cultural distractions, the bread from the roses.”
Very nicely put, and typical of Ms. Moreton’s eloquent and evocative prose. But in the end, both these books are about a store. True, as ownership of the recession passes from Mr. Bush to Mr. Obama, and as Soccer Moms morph into Wal-Mart Moms, there may be profound sociological implications. But when the philosophizing is done, when the theological, ideological, political, economic and historical implications of Wal-Mart’s success are thoroughly explored — when the professors (who increasingly if somewhat furtively shop there) are finished — most of us will still find it a clean, inexpensive, well-stocked and cheerful place to shop. And class struggle or Protestant ethic aside, what more, really, do you want from a store?
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.