The Right Coast

March 02, 2004
Boycotts and the Conservative Mind
By Gail Heriot

Note: Ok, I admit it. I wrote this essay more than a year ago, but I couldn't think of anything to do with it. I ran across it in my computer files over the weekend and figured it might be appreciated by someone in the blogosphere.


It was beautiful--the perfect dress for a warm summer afternoon in San Diego. And since it was cut just slightly above the knee, it allowed me to indulge my belief that, for a woman over forty, my legs still look pretty good.

When I got it home, I took it out of the bag and gazed at it. It was cobalt blue–and I’d gotten it for 50% off its original (absurd) price.

“Don’t you love it?,” I asked my friend.

“Sure,” he said reflexively. He had been well-trained. “Where did you get it?”


“But I thought you said a few years ago you were going to boycott that place for the rest of your life.”

Me? Boycott Nordstrom? Perish the thought. A few years ago, I had indeed worried that Nordstrom would follow the lead of other trendy Seattle-based businesses, like Eddie Bauer, Microsoft, and Starbuck’s in opposing the Washington State Civil Rights Initiative–the Pacific Northwest’s version of California’s Proposition 209. Having worked hard to ensure the passage of Proposition 209 a few years back, I felt I needed to do whatever I could to support the Washington State effort. When Seattle’s business elite took the position that race and gender discrimination was just fine as long as the right groups are benefitted, I figured I should do my part to remind them that many of their customers disagree.

“You’re mixing Nordstrom up with Starbuck’s,” I told him. “I’m boycotting Starbuck’s.”

Thank God it was only Starbuck’s. During the tense weeks in 1998, when it looked as if Nordstrom might weigh in on behalf of the opposition to the Washington State initiative, I had been preparing the rationalizations. I figured that I could boycott Starbuck’s and not Nordstrom because both Starbuck’s and its CEO had contributed significantly to the opposition. Nordstrom’s corporate management, on the other hand, had been split. One retired executive had supported the initiative; another had sent money to the opposition. It was relief when Nordstrom ultimately decided to stay out of affirmative action politics. No rationalizations would be needed.

The real reason for my distinction had nothing to do with either company’s management. I feared I simply wouldn’t be able to make good on a threat to boycott Nordstrom. Starbuck’s just sold coffee, and although I appreciate a good cup of coffee as much as the next person, I figured I could always find a just as good a cup somewhere else. (A special boycott of Eddie Bauer never crossed my mind, since I have been boycotting it all my life. I don’t look good dressed as a lumberjack, and my mother, a fiercely loyal Down Easterner, keeps me supplied with flannel nightgowns from Eddie Bauer’s Maine-based competitor L.L. Bean. As for Microsoft, well, you know the story.)

But looking back, even my boycott of Starbuck’s has been a failure. I didn’t mention it to my friend, but at least a dozen times in the past several years, I had walked right into Starbuck’s, plunked down my dollar and left with my shot of caffeine. One such occasion was a particularly hot July day in our nation’s capital, when I might have bought a Frappacino from Benito Mussolini. On the other occasions, however, my excuse is somewhat embarrassing. I just forgot–not just once but over and over again. My brain’s filing system has no place for “boycott.”

I’m fascinated by the left’s ability to stage consumer boycotts. As one Jesse Jackson admirer put it, “If Jesse says ... that African Americans are planning to boycott the XYZ company during, say, the Christmas holiday, just the threat ... moves the company ....” Leftists even have a web site listing “leftist/progressive boycotts” courtesy of an ominous-sounding “Boycott Board.” Anyone can propose new targets to the Boycott Board. The web site gives you a form with a list of approved reasons for the boycott: environmental abuses, racist policies, sexist policies, homophobic policies, animal rights abuses and a few more. It’s all very high tech and efficient. Sort of anyway. If you try to get a list of current boycott targets, you’ll find the web site is broken. Still, I was impressed.

While conservative groups, too, have attempted to use the boycott as a political weapon, their successes have been more limited than at least the Reverend Jackson’s. Perhaps too many conservatives are like me; they just can’t seem to remember which companies we’re supposed to be boycotting.

Maybe I’m just weak-willed. That’s certainly a plausible explanation, although the consensus among my friends and acquaintances seems to be that I lean in quite the opposite direction, perhaps to a fault I prefer to think that my forgetfulness is the result of a deep-seated ambivalence about boycotts in general.

On the one hand, I hate to cede this weapon to my political opponents. Although many of the left’s boycott efforts are as comically ineffective as mine, some are not. Why send a message that only the left is to be feared in this way?

On the other hand, I prefer to live in a world in which nobody thinks about whether his dry goods sellers agree with him about the issues of the day–at least so long as they aren’t out there advocating that is wholly beyond the pale . It’s part of what makes the American political system work tolerably well; only a few of us are so tribal about our politics that we prefer to do business only with our ideological allies. I would like to leave insistence on political purity to the fringe left and to let the wheels of commerce turn.

But I can’t think about things like that right now. I’ve going to be working late tonight, and I need a cup of ... uh ... Peet’s coffee.