I think Radley Balko has said almost everything I’d want to about the Whole Foods/John Mackey/Obamacare op-ed debacle—in two excellent posts here and here, so I’ll just add some scattered observations. What I find interesting is that the “boycott” doesn’t make a lot of sense in the traditional way: Usually the point is to pressure a company to change some offensive business practices. Here, the actual company seems to be at least as well behaved as the competition, and the focus is on the apparently offensive political position of the CEO. I guess he could announce he’d suddenly abandoned his longstanding views and done an about face on health care reform, but it would be transparently disingenuous, and I can’t imagine anyone really expects him to do this. Yglesias thinks it might be useful less as a specific way of pressuring Whole Foods than as a general warning to CEOs to stay out of politics, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to why that’s supposed to be desirable; isn’t it more interesting to have them publicly explaining their thinking rather than just throwing money at lobbyists? The tenor of the boycott language, in any event, seems more punitive than strategic: This is a bad person I don’t want to support with my money. Fair enough if that’s how you want to make your shopping decisions, I guess, but it is a little odd: Most people, including most people clamoring for a boycott, probably normally make those decisions on the basis of the quality of the product and the actual behavior or practices of the company, not the personal opinions of the management. So something else is going on here.
The first is that with Whole Foods in particular there seems to be a sense of betrayal: the company was, as I saw one Twitter user I saw describe it, “pretending to be progressive.” Now that’s odd, because Mackey’s always been a pretty vocal libertarian. What I think they meant was that the company branded itself as eco-friendly, supportive of humane animal treatment, decent to its workers, and so on, and these are things progressives care about. On the apparently widespread assumption that anyone who thinks these are good shares a standard set of views about what the government should do to promote these goods, then of course you’d infer progressive politics from the private practice. On the same assumption, opposition to Obama’s health reforms can only be explained by a cold indifference to sick people, and so any previous appearance of idealism from the company must have been a clever ruse. The possibility that someone sincerely wants to make the world a better place but has different ideas about how to accomplish that just doesn’t compute. So now he’ll be punished for his deception.
This is, I think, a special case of a bipartisan inability to conceive political disagreements in anything but crudely moralized terms. You see it in the reactions to the subprime crisis too: Either it’s the fault of irresponsible “loser” homeowners or venal financiers who were knowingly risking collapse in pursuit of a quick buck. The possibility that a lot of people just screwed up, maybe for complicated institutional reasons that don’t easily reduce to a story of personal wickedness, doesn’t seem to get anyone’s blood flowing.
Anyway, I’m somewhat satisfied to report that a trip to the Logan Circle Whole Foods earlier this week—it’s not a show of ideological solidarity; they’re just convenient by bus and have a wide selection of fake meats—found it quite crowded indeed, in a city where everyone’s politically hyperattuned. So maybe this is just so much noisy Internet wankery after all.
Addendum: I should mention that Mackey has given money to my erstwhile employer, Reason, and paid for a nice dinner at Nora’s some years back… though I suspect the net lifetime flow of cash is from my wallet to his.