The Magazine

Capital Markets

Walmart, D.C. community organizer.

Jan 17, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 17 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Walmart bills its D.C. launch as a chance for “job opportunities and affordable groceries.” This last may sound like an empty boast to a suburbanite, but it is not for an urban community organizer. The poor neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city are well supplied with liquor stores that sell lotto tickets, but they are desperately short of places that sell food. In the parlance of D.C. activists, these are “food deserts.” People who live in such neighborhoods do not worry about the competition faced by their local shops because they don’t really have local shops.

One crucial thing Walmart did when it announced its push into Washington was to release a poll. Taken by Lester & Associates (Mayor Gray’s pollster), it showed that 73 percent of Washingtonians want a Walmart. Then it broke the numbers down by ward, showing that 95 percent of the residents of Ward 8​—​the poor area that former mayor Marion Barry represents​—​favored getting the stores. Walmart, which always enters new markets formidably armed with economic and public opinion data, has set up a Washington website to explain to local shoppers “how they can be an advocate for the company.” Far from thwarting the agenda of progressive interest groups, Walmart increasingly sells itself as embodying that agenda.

Walmart’s problem used to be this: It had a winning argument to make to consumers, but people are not solely consumers. They are also small-business owners and citizens who treasure their familiar institutions. And when people considered themselves something other than consumers, the Walmart argument did not always win. Now it always wins. That is a sign that Americans are just a bunch of consumers, or at least that the area of the American brain occupied by matters other than shopping continues to shrink.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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