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The Political Overreaction to Walmart’s P.R. Strategy

The company doesn't want to lead the gun debate. It wants to exit it.

Newsmakers/Getty Images

Tuesday was a pivotal day in American history, judging from certain corners of the political commentariat. That morning, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon declared that “the status quo is unacceptable,” announcing the company would cease selling handguns, assault-weapon ammunition (it already stopped selling the weapons themselves), and politely discourage its customers from openly carrying guns in its hundreds of stores.

The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin stood and applauded, writing that Walmart’s decision “could give license to other business leaders to enter the conversation.… Mr. McMillon’s move could prove to be a watershed.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote that the decision could “provide at least some cover from the NRA for congressional Republicans who want to do something about the state of gun laws in the country.” Axios trumpeted it as more proof of its co-founder Jim VandeHei’s theory that “CEOs are America’s new politicians.”

The right was aghast. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson declared Walmart an enemy of his ethnonationalist project, saying the company that’s “more responsible than any other company for destroying and degrading rural America ... is now lecturing normal Americans, the very Americans that they have hurt, how immoral they are for daring to protect themselves with firearms.” Daily Wire editor in chief, Ben Shapiro, argued that Walmart had bowed to social justice warriors and trampled on popular sovereignty (even though gun control is quite popular).

It’s true, per Axios et al., that corporations have grown more political in recent years, like almost every facet of American life. But there’s little evidence that Walmart’s decision will have enormous political consequences. The company is not rushing to fill a void left by politicians—a kind of corporate Cincinnatus leaving behind its blue vest to rescue a polarized society. Nor is it bowing to pressure from a handful of loudmouths on Twitter. Walmart’s move, while admirable, isn’t really about shaping the gun debate at all. It’s about protecting the company’s brand in a politically turbulent moment.

VandeHei’s theory that “CEOs are America’s new politicians” rests on the fact that corporate leaders now wade into politics more than they used to. Marking the recent retreat from “shareholder value theory”—the notion, which has dominated corporate America for the past several decades, that a corporation’s only responsibility is to increase shareholders’ profits—VandeHei wrote last month that corporate leaders have “expanded their mission beyond mere wealth creation to include everything from taking care of employees to helping their communities.”

But VandeHei’s supporting evidence undercuts his argument. The increasingly political behavior of corporate America, he wrote, is driven by several trends: Younger employees want to work for companies that share their values. Consumers are increasingly making purchasing decisions based on brand identity and values. The politicization of everyday life puts media pressure on companies to take social stands, at the same time that Washington is paralyzed by hyperpartisanship and unable to pass meaningful gun regulations that force companies’ hands. In this environment, VandeHei writes, “even the most press-shy, introverted CEOs need to be de facto politicians.”

This is not the break from shareholder value theory that VandeHei thinks it is. These companies are not making these decisions to fill a vacuum left by politicians; they’re doing this because it’s good for business. As Axios reported on Thursday, “The majority of U.S. adults in a new poll by Edelman Intelligence would feel more favorably toward a company whose CEO backs tougher background checks for gun purchases.” Similarly, attracting top talent requires this kind of branding jujitsu. Companies must align with the values of their employees—but not go so far as to alienate their consumers.

While companies are becoming more outwardly political, the idea that they’re doing the work of politicians is seriously exaggerated. Walmart is a perfect case in point. The company, once the most hated retailer in America, has been engaged in a decades-long rebranding project. It’s now trying to take advantage of Amazon’s emergence as the black hat of American capitalism. “Out of sheer necessity to survive the Amazon juggernaut’s retail onslaught, [Walmart] is casting itself as the foil,” Axios’ Erica Pandey reported earlier this year, adding that, with some 4,700 stores, “Walmart is perhaps better positioned than any government agency, think tank or company to take the economic pulse of the U.S. It is using that on-the-ground presence to position itself as a champion of distressed and alienated America.”

It’s possible, I suppose, that Walmart’s McMillon will become the kind of social justice warrior that Carlson fears. But it’s more likely that he is trying to tactically exit the gun debate rather than lead it. The controversy around gun control—and the rise in mass shootings, one of which happened in a Walmart store only weeks ago—is a growing threat to Walmart’s business and its branding as the community-grounded corporation with a heart, in contrast to Jeff Bezos’s soulless behemoth in the sky. Like any smart communications expert, McMillion is getting ahead of the story of Walmart’s role in the gun economy, lest he lose control of it. Over the last few years, the company has stopped selling assault-style rifles, then raised the age to purchase guns to 21, and will now limit ammunition and handgun sales. It has done so without damaging its brand or its stock price—or leading any action on gun control.

Everyone in this debate seems to agree on one true thing here: There’s a vacuum left by failing democratic institutions. Congress has proven incapable of responding to the existential issues of our time, whether it be climate change or gun violence, and the Supreme Court has only enabled the corporate forces that are accelerating these crises. Reform-minded Americans understandably are looking elsewhere for leadership, but the fact they’re hoping to find it in those very same destructive forces shows just how desperate we’ve become.