12/21/2010 01:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Walmart Mom Goes to Washington

[Blog previously posted on the Harvard University Press Blog.]

Earlier this month the Supreme Court agreed to a limited review of Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., to determine whether the largest class action suit in history can proceed. Named for Betty Dukes, a Walmart greeter in Pittsburg, California, the nine-year-old case asserts only what internal Walmart sources acknowledge: that despite lower turnover rates and better performance evaluations, women within the company were for decades passed over for promotion and paid less than men for the same jobs. A 1995 memo from the company's own lawyers, reported the New York Times, warned management that "men in salaried jobs [were] earning 19 percent more than women. By one measure, the law firm found, men were five and a half times as likely as women to be promoted into salaried, management positions." The Supreme Court will not rule on the discrimination itself, but rather will air Walmart's challenge that the class of 1.5 million women itself is too big to be meaningful. According to the company that determines the temperatures in each of its stores from its Arkansas headquarters, the women should sue their individual managers one by one.

Few legal observers expect much for these Walmart Moms from the Roberts Court: five of these justices, after all, unleashed the flood of corporate campaign cash via Citizens United and protected the Goodyear corporation's right to discriminate against Lilly Ledbetter as long as it managed to keep her in the dark for more than six months. But the bigger story is a challenge to our national moral imagination, and can be addressed in fora beyond the reach of pro-corporate judicial activists. The simple fact is that the nation's wealth, like Walmart's, has all too often been built for some by systematically undervaluing the work of vast classes of people. Putting those constituents at the center of our economic thinking--treating the majority as the majority--is the change of heart that would remake the "kitchen-table conversation." This case presents another opportunity, then, for the left to listen to the concerns of Walmart Moms, something at which progressives failed miserably in this fall's midterm elections.

You remember the Walmart Mom: In the 2008 election cycle, she was the swing voter to watch, but her identity changed radically depending on just who was watching. For Democrats, she was one of Obama's strongest supporters--the white woman without a four-year degree making under $60,000, regardless of where she shopped. But defined as a woman who shopped at Walmart at least once a week, she was typically a religious, conservative, older white woman, struggling in or retired from a Walmart-type job herself. In this latter incarnation, she represented that persistent American political enigma, the Reagan Democrat who promoted conservative positions on so-called social issues like abortion and gay marriage but showed strong support for classic progressive goals like universal health coverage and an increased minimum wage. The Republican ticket ultimately carried Walmart, and the company itself launched an aggressive effort to brand the electorate as broadly as possible. By identifying the multinational with its customers rather than its public subsidies, labor violations, and sex discrimination, Walmart hoped to deflect the criticism that had steadily mounted: who's going to attack Walmart if by some measures seventeen percent of voters embraced the moniker for themselves?

In the summer of 2008 Walmart assembled a volunteer team of Walmart Moms to blog for its new Money Saving Community Project, an effort to shed its "Bully of Bentonville" image and co-opt a choice segment of the electorate. Its ad agency created a private online community of 900 moms, then went to them daily with questions about their priorities, the effects of the recession on their families, the demands of parenting, etc. Economic decisions, it turns out, are not strictly rational cost-benefit trade-offs. The moms embrace frugality as the opposite of consumerism, a badge of their intelligence and good values. They interpret the money that they save on products as an investment in relationships, from easing the stress of debt to financing a family outing.

Walmart has turned this insight into a marketing campaign, of course, but also into a straightforward political intervention. In 2010, Walmart commissioned a new series of surveys to measure the ideological and electoral preferences of the Walmart Mom, now redefined to represent a more commercially and politically prized demographic. The new poll attached the "Walmart Mom" title to the mothers of children under eighteen who had shopped at the store at least once in the last 30 days. These younger, more racially diverse Walmart Moms represented about 15 percent of the electorate, and the early polls showed them strikingly available for bipartisan wooing: they supported "the gay rights movement" in equal proportion to "conservative religious groups," and fully three-quarters of them embraced "environmentalist groups." Sixty percent felt that government was not doing enough to help people.

But as the frugal blogging moms could have predicted, the most vivid data concerned the women's experience of the economic crisis. The majority described themselves as working or lower class, and two-thirds said they had been directly impacted by the recession. Their top concerns included the price of gas and groceries, and they were cutting back on everything from restaurant food to home repairs. More than half were postponing medical care to save money. Whether married or single, most continued to bear sole responsibility for all major domestic tasks. And forty-two percent said their relationships were suffering under the economic strain.

In other words, the women "have personalized the nation's economic struggles" and candidates should learn to communicate with them "NOT on national economic stuff, but on kitchen-table economic issues," one of the polling firms told journalists. A Washington analyst marveled that a gathering of polite, mutually respectful Walmart Moms seemed thoroughly unconcerned with the issues as defined by red-faced men hollering on cable shows. In the months leading up to the midterm elections, more nuanced observers of the Walmart Moms like the pollster Margie Omero and the strategist Celinda Lake argued that Democratic values--equal opportunity, equal pay, health care, compassion, education, and jobs, jobs, jobs--could connect directly with the Moms, if only Democrats themselves were willing to address them in those terms. "Listen to us," pleaded a Missouri Walmart Mom in the September focus group. Instead, national leaders shrank before the histrionics of the Tea Party, and the Moms ultimately voted Republican almost two-to-one. Round one, then, went to Walmart. Not only did it successfully force both parties to address the company as the political broker of its own customers, it also saw its favored candidates walk off with the prize.

But now, with the spotlight on the Supreme Court's review of Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, the champions of equity have another chance to win the Moms' respect, if they can rouse themselves to recall that women's issues are economic issues. According to Walmart, its two-year program of listening in on the Moms produced "more than just an ad campaign; it's also a strategic framework for the company, a whole new way of thinking for Walmart, showing how a deep connection to a mom's world can ultimately transform a company." Try substituting "America" for "Walmart," and "country" for "company." Isn't that a winning platform, for all the right reasons?

(Bethany Moreton donates royalties earned from the sale of To Serve God and Wal-Mart to Interfaith Worker Justice and its local affiliate in Athens, GA, the Economic Justice Coalition.)

[Blog previously posted on the Harvard University Press Blog.]