The conventional wisdom long has held that conservative boycotts do not work. There is strong logic and evidence to support this view. Conservatives are conservative precisely because they value family and faith above politics. We do not virtue-signal in the manner (or to the extent) of typical progressives, for whom driving a Prius or noisily boycotting Israel is a source of instant self-satisfaction. Rather, conservatives seek to do their best for their families and to lead decent lives within given circumstances. This means that, when it comes to boycotting, they seldom get on board. Boycotts disrupt natural routines, they cost time and often money, and they smack of “mass action” that goes against the grain of a temperament attached to customary practices and softer forms of public pressure.
Overall the conservative attitude is best suited to a society of ordered liberty, in which families and other local associations go about their own business and serve the public good through hard work and small, peaceful acts of public service. Unfortunately, conservative habits and attitudes have, since the cultural tumor of 1960s student radicalism metastasized into a systemic cancer of ideological living, left normal Americans at risk of progressive aggression. Having caved-in long ago to violence and false claims of virtue, political and educational (and some religious) institutions became themselves creatures of the left. And big business in particular long has found it easier to bend with the breaking winds, or even to get in front of them so as to have them blow virtue signaling money into corporate coffers.
As a result, the pressure on the culture has all come from the left. Not only have policies moved leftward—Barack Obama’s socialized medicine being just one example of a massive shift away from freedom toward state control—but so has public opinion. Brow-beaten in school, through media, and even in stores, Americans have simply given up on any real opposition to policies like racial quotas and even same-sex “marriage.” Americans increasingly even go along with the convenient and dishonest narrative according to which only bigots want to “get in the way” of people’s individual choices, whatever their social consequences.
There are signs, however, that the progressive left may finally have overreached. Most obvious has been the outpouring of disgust and no small amount of anger behind the rise of Donald Trump. The relationship between that candidacy and conservative virtues, instincts, and public policies is worthy of much discussion and, sadly, speculation. But here I want to focus on another sign of public backlash against leftist virtue-signaling and the question of whether it has the potential to gain real traction.
The merchandising giant Target has long served as the more pleasant and stylish version of Wal-Mart. By spending more on lighting and displays, Target for years has provided a shopping experience that is frankly more pleasant than its major competitor’s. By teaming up with designers, Target has gained a reputation for “shabby chic” that appeals to young middle-class customers. By mercilessly outsourcing even fairly high-level jobs (e.g. much of their legal department) Target has managed to keep their prices relatively competitive.
Then there is the virtue-signaling. Target has long sought to be on the “cutting edge” of LGBTQ issues (that’s “lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-questioning” for those of you not up on the latest liberation trends—though I probably am behind myself by a letter or two). And, as many of our readers are aware, Target has decided to take a leading role in the so-called bathroom wars. With a great deal of fanfare, management announced that its “inclusive” policies would now include allowing biological males who “identify” as female to use the women’s (and little girls’) bathrooms and fitting rooms in their stores. The response has been unprecedented. More than a million people have signed on to a petition sponsored by the American Family Association pledging to boycott the retailer. Target’s stock price has dropped by 5% and its value by $2.5 billion.
Will this boycott succeed? Target clearly believes it can simply wait out opponents of its policy; its spokesmen continue to talk about “inclusiveness” and patronize concerned parents for having “their own opinions.” Experience would seem to be on Target’s side. But there are important differences between this boycott at this time and previous attempts to bring corporations to their senses.
Perhaps most important, this boycott is not about disagreement with a political position taken by a company. It does not ask families to pay more, or change their behavior, merely to punish some large, faceless corporation for saying or doing something politically left-wing, anti-American, or stupid. This boycott also is not about whether homosexuals or transgender people are to be shown respect, or even whether their lifestyles are to be celebrated in a public space. This boycott is about the safety of our children. There is no concern, here, with any kind of virtue-signaling on the part of those boycotting Target. One can be a strong supporter of the rights of homosexuals and of transgender persons (not the same thing, it should be noted) while being appalled at Target’s policy and, more importantly, not wanting to go to Target so long as that policy is in place.
Customers are concerned that their daughters might be followed into the Target bathroom by an opportunistic predator using the store policy as an excuse to gain access to children. Statistically this is not likely. But then it never has been likely—yet still happens—that a particular sexual predator will abuse a particular child. No parent wants to play the numbers game with his or her child. And when a store says, in essence “we do not believe (or care) that a policy specifically telling people to use whatever bathroom they like will increase the possibility of tragedy,” that parent is right, and even duty-bound, to respond.
Because this is an issue of safety, going to the core of parents’ understanding of their duty to their children, the Target boycott has secured a level, intensity, and duration of support seldom seen for causes that might be labelled conservative. That said, it is rather doubtful that Target will change its policies. The self-satisfaction of virtue-signaling, combined with continued pressure from the progressive left, constitute a strong motivation for the corporation to stay the course in contempt of its clientele. Recent events show that corporations will take on even severe financial costs in the name of progress—and that the mainstream media will reinforce quite strongly activists’ insistence that the company maintain virtue-signaling policies, even as they downplay those policies’ costs (both financial and human).
But we have seen in recent years that even conservatives have a limit to how much virtue-signaling they will tolerate. The University of Missouri’s craven kowtowing to its student crybullies drove so many students (and their parents) away that it had to slash its budget. Sure-fire hit movies have flopped because their stars, producers, and/or story lines have made themselves too offensive to be borne. As important, if less reported, at least one social media company has seen its profits evaporate because its virtue-signaling has spawned police-state tactics that make their product simply too creepy to use.
Despite extensive efforts to restore its user base, Twitter, the online messaging service, saw its stock price plunge yet again in late April after a 62% price drop over the previous year. Why? One reason is Twitter’s institution of an Orwellian “trust and safety council” that users like actor Adam Baldwin say has abused its authority to shadowban and otherwise punish conservative voices. Again, most conservatives will not stick with any boycott because it is not in their character. But seeing popular figures banned, unverified and so on, along with experiencing persistent problems and ever-increasing complications to the Twitter system, has caused user apathy, accelerating Twitter’s problems securing advertisers.
None of this will slow down the social-justice warriors seeking to undermine what is left of our traditions. Even if Target and Twitter go under or change their policies, one can bet that the press will spin the news in a manner that exonerates virtue-signaling policies of appropriate blame. Still, the policies have reached a point where they are costing their perpetrators significant money. Target in particular has much to worry about. While it is true that most Americans who do not already shop at Wal-Mart are unlikely to switch, the big-box retail niche itself is not irreplaceable. One can get lightbulbs and the like at the grocery store. Home stores provide better selection if “shabby chic” décor is the goal. Smaller retailers continue to give better service. And for those items not better provided in other stores, there is the internet.
Perhaps, then, market trends and the bottom line will combine to show Target management the wisdom of signaling a different virtue—common sense.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.