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On Confederate flag, Walmart leads the way

The Confederate flag flew in front of the South Carolina State House in Columbia.
The Confederate flag flew in front of the South Carolina State House in Columbia.(AFP/Getty Images)

Walmart for president?

On Monday, the world's largest retail chain took a direct, unequivocal stand against the Confederate flag, declaring that it would no longer sell stars-and-bars flag merchandise online or in its 11,000 stores. Sears, Kmart, and Amazon did the same. Let's hold off, for now, on the medals of courage; apparently, the moves came after CNN asked about flags, T-shirts, and belt buckles it found on the companies' websites. Still, the news is clearly a bellwether of public opinion — and a sign that people often speak more swiftly through their stores than through their politicians.

In a season filled with divisive social issues — not to mention a glut of Republican presidential candidates — politicians have been content to huddle safely in the rear, deferring to states' rights or hewing to their default stance of avoiding offense to the far-right base. There was this past week's sad political dance over the Confederate flag on the South Carolina capitol grounds. And in March, when Indiana passed a bill allowing businesses to discriminate against gay people, Republican presidential candidates lined up to support it. State legislators only amended the law after pressure from companies like Walmart, Apple, and General Motors.

It's notable that Walmart, headquartered in the heart of Duggar territory, hasn't been running scared of the religious right; this spring, the company lobbied against a similar religious freedom bill in Arkansas, taking a vocal stand for gay couples with no apparent fear of backlash. If anything, the company's actions have been a public relations coup, which is as good a sign as any of precisely which policies belong in the past. The people keep on voting, with their pocketbooks. Their would-be leaders are the ones who look like followers.

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Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

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