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Doce me faces voluntarem tuam quia Deus meus es tu

Sunday, December 05, 2004
Much has been made in the last week of the horrific Groningen Protocols. I confess to have not focused enough attention on this point personally, but I shall point you in the direction of some who have had a deal of valuable thought to contribute. As always, Hugh Hewitt has served as a clearing house for links on the matter. I would also suggest the work of Mark D. Roberts (who has a great series on the Christmas holidays going: more on that later), DaddyPundit, GotDesign and John Mark Reynolds.

I hope that you will read these sites and follow up on the serious crisis facing people of faith and good conscience in Holland. But to return to a discussion of the economy, Wal-Mart has made the news recently, facing a sluggish start to the holiday season. In this post by John Mark Reynolds, Reynolds talk of his mother. The overall message of the post is on the humility of Mary in the telling of the Christmas story, but he makes this remark about his own mother:

My mother is one of those rare natural aristocrats. We had very little money to spend on clothes when we were growing up...She had, Dad would tell us, "class." This way of carrying oneself shows no matter what a person is wearing.


This idea of "natural aristocracy" that Reynolds speaks of sheds, at least in my mind, some light on the Wal-Mart vs. Target debate. Many people hold to this ideal, regardless of their economic status. They enjoy having "nice" things, whether or not it is something they can attain on an everyday basis. Perhaps these people do not have the money to consistently live the high life, but they appreciate nice or unique things: a quiet restaurant, ethnic food, good coffee, jazz or perhaps a movie based on something more profound than big explosions and fart jokes. David Brooks has certainly explored this phenomenon (see Bobos in Paradise) and while this is not a perfect lifestyle, I think these people can get more right than they get wrong.

Yet there is a flipside to this outlook, and I think it is the crux of the debate between Wal-Mart and Target. There is a large group of Americans, typically within the middle class, who feel that those "nice" things I just mentioned are for the rich, the spoiled, the bratty. To appreciate such things would be a betrayal of their own middle class values. These are the people who enjoy chain restaurants, not because the food is necessarily good (and it can be), but because they would not set foot inside a locally-owned eatery with hip decor because "did you see the cars in the parking lot? Those people wouldn't want me there. They're all stuck up and I don't want everyone staring at me. That's where rich people eat." This is to say nothing of the menu or prices at the eatery, but I do not think I am going out on a limb to suggest that this attitude is common, particularly in flyover country.

I think both Wal-Mart and Target know this, and are seeking to exploit it. Target realizes that even rich people need toilet paper, and people who buy their clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue and their cooking utensils at Williams-Sonoma will prefer to shop in a store that is clean and offers Starbucks coffee. They also realize that there are millions of middle-class bobos, to borrow David Brooks' phrase, that appreciate a store where one can acquire, as I did earier today, Tazo Green Tea, Naked Fruit Juice and the everyday products like deodorant, apples and larger than healthy bag of Holiday M&Ms. And despite the allegations of the Wal-Mart crowd I have just described - I'm working on a name for them (and a book, if any publisher is interested) - many of us make such shopping decisions for less than superficial reasons.

Wal-Mart knows, however, that many of its traditional customers will stay with it for the same reason that O'Charley's will not lose customers to the local eatery I just described. So long as Wal-Mart doesn't look like a store where rich people shop, the eat-the-rich middle class will flock to its doors. The risk that Wal-Mart runs, however, is that demographics seem to suggest that regardless of economic status, American tastes are demonstrating that cleanliness and aesthetics are not property of the upper class.

I think this reveals a cultural divide in America that cannot simply be written off as a war between red states vs. blue states. I understand this quite well. I love country music and its history, but I regard Sean Hannity's pals Sara Evans and Daryl Worley to be absolutely atrocious. The left-wing Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris are creating far superior music. I find Gwyneth Paltrow's politics to be abhorrent, but her movies are superb. I tire of NPR's leftism, but I love jazz and country blues and classical music. I enjoy This American Life and Fresh Air. I've picked up a few records lately. How many Bush voters have bought the Carla Bruni release? I'm not trying to hype my own credentials; I am merely acknowledging something of a contradiction, at least based upon the talk you hear from a conservative like Sean Hannity or a liberal like Ted Rall. Not all conservatives like Daryl Worley, and it's not just liberals who have good taste in music.
Perhaps it is an argument of theory and speculation, but I believe that these sociological matters will eventually reverberate in the political world. Right now pundits are studying the war of values between red states and blue states, but far more remains to be said about the battle between red state tastes and blue state tastes and the manner in which this might affect the economy and the voting booth.

Let's consider a closing example. It is said that John Kerry lost votes in rural areas because he appeared too aristocratic or uppity, as a country voter might say. The Democrats are now regarded as out of touch, yet many of George W. Bush's suburban voters have tastes that are increasinly bourgeois. The President's lack of culture, as some liberals charge, has not cost him a single vote. John Kerry, apparently, had too much of it, and it did cost him votes. What is this saying about the political and social landscape in which we live? I think I shall continue to pursue this idea.
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