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Wal-Mart Wars

Moral Populism in the Twenty-First Century

Rebekah Peeples Massengill

Publication Year: 2013

Wal-Mart is America’s largest retailer. The national chain of stores is a powerful stand-in of both the promise and perils of free market capitalism. Yet it is also often the target of public outcry for its labor practices, to say nothing of class-action lawsuits, and a central symbol in America’s increasingly polarized political discourse over consumption, capitalism and government regulations. In many ways the battle over Wal-Mart is the battle between “Main Street” and “Wall Street” as the fate of workers under globalization and the ability of the private market to effectively distribute precious goods like health care take center stage.
In Wal-Mart Wars, Rebekah Massengill shows that the economic debates are not about dollars and cents, but instead represent a conflict over the deployment of deeper symbolic ideas about freedom, community, family, and citizenship. Wal-Mart Wars argues that the family is not just a culture wars issue to be debated with regard to same-sex marriage or the limits of abortion rights; rather, the family is also an idea that shapes the ways in which both conservative and progressive activists talk about economic issues, and in the process, construct different moral frameworks for evaluating capitalism and its most troubling inequalities. With particular attention to political activism and the role of big business to the overall economy, Massengill shows that the fight over the practices of this multi-billion dollar corporation can provide us with important insight into the dreams and realities of American capitalism.
Rebekah Peeples Massengill is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Princeton University. 

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xviii

Writing a book about economic controversies in the early years of the twenty-first century turned out to be a very tricky project. The past several years have witnessed economic events of historic proportions, including a global financial crisis, government intervention in financial firms, and reforms to the nation’s health care market that have perhaps been matched...

Part 1: Why Should We Care about the Wal-Mart Debate?

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1. Constructing Moral Markets

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pp. 3-18

Despite what its title might suggest, this is not really a book about Wal-Mart. Curiosity about the world’s largest retailer has prompted a spate of recent books about the company’s business model, history, and influence on the world’s economy—all worthy topics, to be sure. But as a sociologist, I am less concerned with what Wal-Mart does and more with what...

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2. Contextualizing the Wal-Mart Wars

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pp. 19-42

December 22, 1992, turned out to be an important day for both the history and the future of the Wal-Mart corporation. As Robert Slater tells the story, shortly before Sam Walton died, he had reluctantly agreed to give a pre-Christmas interview to Dateline NBC’s Jane Pauley, whose producers pitched the story as a positive exploration of Wal-Mart’s winning retail strategies. Keeping the company’s commitment after Walton’s death, the...

Part 2: Competing Frameworks for Market Morality

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3. Individuals and Communities

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pp. 45-76

When Sarah Palin addressed a crowd of Americans who had assembled in Boston on April 14, 2010, she was preaching to the faithful. Marking the last stop of the Tea Party Express—a bus convoy that had traveled throughout the country to rally groups of Americans advocating smaller government, individual freedoms, and fiscal restraint—Palin’s keynote speech concluded...

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4. Thrift and Benevolence

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pp. 77-114

Americans’ debates over health care reform raise a host of issues inviting moral reflection from the American people. Is health care a right or a privilege? Who should make decisions about costly end-of-life procedures? And perhaps most important, how much will health care reform ultimately cost? Aside from the ethical issues involved in health care decisions (the...

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5. Freedom and Fairness

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pp. 115-150

As Americans welcomed in the new year in 2009, most were still reeling from the previous year’s financial meltdown. Americans had lost substantial portions of their retirement savings in the fall’s perilous stock market decline, and watched the equity in their homes evaporate seemingly overnight. Economists forecast double-digit rates of unemployment, and cable...

Part 3: Market Morality in Media and Politics

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6. How Wal-Mart Wins the War of Words

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pp. 153-174

Wal-Mart’s critics, like most social movement activists, have a common goal: to be noticed in the press. For groups like Wal-Mart Watch, earning recognition in larger spheres of discourse is a prerequisite for success because these groups have no real constituency, such as a local chapter that meets regularly to discuss goals, tactics, and future endeavors. At best, their core “constituency"...

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7. Moral Populism in the Twenty-First Century

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pp. 175-188

The joke goes something like this: A union member, a member of the Tea Party, and a corporate CEO are sitting around a table looking at a plate that holds a dozen cookies. The CEO reaches across and takes eleven cookies, looks at the Tea Partier, and says, “Look out for that union guy, he wants a piece of your cookie.” Circulated on political blogs and social networking...

Appendix: Methodology

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pp. 189-194


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pp. 195-204


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pp. 205-214


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pp. 215-224

About the Author

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pp. 225-244

E-ISBN-13: 9780814763353
E-ISBN-10: 0814763332
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814763339
Print-ISBN-10: 0814763332

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2013