Lawrence Glickman is a professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America and The Free Enterprise System: An American History, forthcoming in 2019 from Yale University Press.
The speed and breadth of the co-ordinated economic attacks on the National Rifle Association after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., has been remarkable. Airlines, delivery services, tech firms, insurers, car-rental firms and even a bank that produced a NRA-branded credit card all cut ties to the gun-lobbying group within a few days of the school shooting. After intense pressure from economic activists, Canadian outdoor-gear company MEC has cut ties with a company that also sells semi-automatic rifles.
The boycott pressure only intensified after the group's leader, Wayne LaPierre, doubled down on his good-guy-with-a-gun message at the Conservative Political Action Conference late last week.
Although the NRA has called such actions "a shameful display of political and civic cowardice," the boycotters in the United States are engaged in a long, proud and deeply American political tradition.
Far from cowardice, the protesters are using the power of the purse to challenge the outsized and previously unquestioned political power of an extremist group, which has played a large role in preventing the passage of popular gun-control laws.
Long before the term boycott was coined in 1880, Americans employed the tactic of non-consumption and social ostracism to achieve political goals. The "non-importation movement," in which merchants in the American colonies refused to sell British goods, was a key feature of the runup to the American Revolution. Abolitionists in the so-called "free-produce movement" urged their compatriots to eschew goods made by slave labour. Workers in the 1880s initiated the tactic of the "labour boycott" to punish anti-union employers and those who treated their workers poorly. Boycotting is as American as apple pie.
The abolitionists referred to the power of hitting their enemies in what they called the "pocket nerve." What they meant was that people who might be insensitive to moral suasion would feel directly a more economic approach. "We believe their conscience to be most easily affected through the medium of their pockets," wrote one anti-slavery activist in 1859, justifying their strategy for using economic means to force merchants to stop selling slave-made goods.
But boycotts were never purely economic in nature. Boycotting – from the Boston Tea Party through the United Farm Worker-organized grape boycotts of the late 20th century to our own time – has often been a moral campaign designed to use economic forces to raise political questions. The goal of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was not to financially destroy the municipal bus system of that city but to raise awareness of the moral crime of segregation and to promote social justice. Abolitionists who ran free-produce stores, which were especially popular in Quaker Philadelphia, hoped to use market forces to undermine the slave economy, which was national in scope and which Northern businesses benefited from as much as Southern plantation owners. But even more, they wanted to raise consciousness about the complicity in the crime of slavery of every consumer who purchased goods produced by enslaved workers. At the turn of the 20th century, the National Consumers League, a women's reform organization, sought to raise awareness about the issue of how middle-class shoppers often, perhaps inadvertently, perpetuated the exploitation of underpaid female labour when they sought bargains. The NCL referred to The High Cost of Cheap Goods, as one of the group's pamphlets was titled, meaning that to purchase inexpensive items was often to sanction sweatshops.
The ethical point boycotters have tried to raise from that time to our own is that, in an interconnected national and international market economy, there are no innocent bystanders. In an ethical sense, we are what we buy. Whether they know it, consumers endorse and even promote unjust working conditions through the choices they make at the cash register. Abolitionists went so far as to insist that the consumers were more responsible for slavery than slave-owners, since it was their purchase of morally tainted goods that kept chattel slavery immensely profitable. "If there were no consumers of slave-produce, there would be no slaves," as one free-produce pamphlet put it. Taking issue with the narrative of consumer satisfaction promoted by advertisers, they tried to get consumers to look beneath the surface of the pretty packages and tasty food that they bought, to understand the chain, often distant, of events and exploitation that brought goods to market, and which they perpetuated through their actions as shoppers.
The current economic campaign against the NRA is serving similar purposes – using economic tactics for political ends. Although not technically a boycott, the effort to unveil the nature of the economic chain, previously unknown, that has benefited NRA members and charging corporations that offer those benefits with complicity is a tactic drawn directly from the boycotters' arsenal.
Most boycotts are failures, ending so quickly that the vast majority of us never hear about them. But winning and losing is not always easy to measure in the case of a boycott, especially one of a powerful entity such as the NRA. In this case, the boycotters are unlikely to economically weaken the NRA, an organization dependent on huge corporate grants from gun manufacturers and membership dues, not consumer dollars. By making it untenable for large chunks of corporate America to offer economic benefits to members of the organization, however, they have also revealed that links to that organization have become a liability in the eyes of the marketplace. They have made people aware of the previously unpublicized extensive commercial reach of the NRA. As often happens in boycotts, they have benefited from the flat-footed response by that organization's supporters to the boycott, such as the Lieutenant-Governor of Georgia, who threatened to economically punish Delta Air Lines unless the company restores discounted rates for NRA members.
The rapid spread of this movement has shown politicians, in the mode of previous forms of consumer protest, that being implicated with the NRA (for example, by having an A or A+ rating or receiving millions of dollars of funding from that organization) may soon be seen as a political liability.
In 1899, a group of workers in Denver called the tool of the boycott a "weapon of the weak against the strong." Boycotts have always been politics by other means. When they are in action, boycotts work somewhat in the manner that Ernest Hemingway described bankruptcy in The Sun Also Rises: first gradually, then suddenly. Only time will tell whether we are in the gradual or sudden phase of the campaign to end the insanity of the current gun regime in the United States. But a status quo that seemed unchangeable two weeks ago now seems untenable.
Those taking action today can perhaps find succour in the abolitionist boycotters of slave-made goods, who, beginning in the 1820s, tried and failed for decades to weaken the slave power by hitting it in the pocket nerve. Yet by making slavery a national and moral issue that nobody could opt out of, free-produce advocates offered Americans a new moral calculus that gradually, then suddenly, ended slavery. Future historians may, conceivably, look back at this moment as a turning point, a moment when the NRA's outsized political influence and aura of invincibility was punctured by a group of indignant consumers.