IN THE TINY, FREEWAY-RIVEN TOWN OF Buda, just at the point where the last straggling exurbs south of Austin start to dissolve into rolling blackland prairie, stands the gargantuan outdoor retailer known as Cabela’s. You can see the hulking, green-roofed, 185,000-square-foot structure from miles away. You can also see, if you stand in the store’s parking lot on a Saturday, the astounding number of people who come here to shop. Starting in mid-morning, a seemingly endless line of vehicles streams off the dedicated Cabela’s exit on Interstate 35. By mid-afternoon they will fill much of the 126-acre site, creating a shimmering lake of automotive sheet metal from which emerge some 15,000 men, women, and children in blue jeans and gimme caps. More than half of them have driven at least one hundred miles, one way, to get here. And once inside this Disneyfied hunting-lodge-on-steroids, where scimitar-horned oryx, dama gazelles, and animatronic hunters dot the floor, they stay, on average, for four and a half hours. Clearly, this is no ordinary shop, and these are not mere shoppers. You can tell that they are pilgrims. They are seekers.
They have come, in fact, because Cabela’s is less a store in the traditional sense than a theory of modern America, a retail theme park where consumer preferences become lifestyles, lifestyles become convictions, and convictions become political organizing principles. You do not drive more than two hundred miles with your family crammed into an F-150 crew cab just to buy a crankbait or a box of ammunition. You do not need four hours to settle on a hunting knife or a bottle of Tink’s #69 Doe-In-Rut buck lure gel. At Cabela’s, the notion of buying morphs into something that transcends both the store’s freakishly large inventory and its hand-painted, museumlike displays of stuffed animals—something like a way of looking at the world, a system of values. Those values belong, predictably, to Republican, red-state America, a place inhabited by hunters, fishermen, evangelical Christians, my-country-right-or-wrong patriots, nascar enthusiasts, red-toothed conservatives, Travis Tritt fans, and anti-taxers who do not drink crisp, amusing pinot grigios with their pinkies in the air, thank you.
And so it is a neat piece of geographic irony that a mere seventeen miles up the road in hyperliberal blue-state Austin is a store that is as nearly antithetical to Cabela’s as it is possible to be: Whole Foods Market, the glittering urban flagship of the company that is the largest retailer of organic and natural foods in the world. Though not as large as Cabela’s, at 80,000 square feet Whole Foods is huge by supermarket standards and houses its own full-scale bakery, a raw-food bar, nut-roasting stands, an unimaginably large inventory of oddly named cheeses, machines that allow you to make your own organic cashew and peanut butter, and row after row of vitamins and exotics such as flaxseed oil, Fruit Enzyme Mist, and Korean roasted salt.
The differences between the two stores, which opened in 2005 within four months of each other, are almost humorously stark. Cabela’s sells infant playsuits and diaper covers in camouflage styles; Whole Foods sells organic-cotton infant clothes with the words “Earth Goddess” and “Awareness Generation” printed on them. Cabela’s offers classes on winches, scent secrets, and shotgun reloading; at Whole Foods you can learn about aromatherapy, herbs, and iridology. At Cabela’s you can buy magazines like Field & Stream and Petersen’s 4 Wheel & Off-Road; at Whole Foods you can buy Mother Jones and Buddhadharma, a magazine for Buddhists. At Cabela’s you learn how to kill things with maximum efficiency; at Whole Foods you are told to what lengths the store goes to ensure that the animals whose meat it sells had decent, comfortable lives, complete with bedtime stories and tummy rubs, before they were slaughtered. And so on.
The point of such comparisons should be obvious: The things we buy suggest—as never before—the kinds of people we are, who our friends are, and what we value. We all recognize, intuitively, the difference between the Cabela’s crowd and the Whole Foods set and all the cultural nuances they represent. So, as it turns out, do politicians. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney both campaigned at Cabela’s stores in 2004, seeking the dependably Republican votes of the “hook and bullet” crowd. This was no random strategy. During the presidential campaign, the Bushies came up with the idea that the best indicator of how a person was going to vote was neither his income nor his views on a particular political issue, such as abortion or taxes. Instead, it was the stuff he consumed: from wines and cheeses to cars and footwear to magazines and even television shows. The theory worked brilliantly. By merging voter files and consumer data, the Bush campaign was able to determine, with dazzling and unprecedented accuracy, who its potential supporters were. The Republicans had a record turnout.
The lesson is that in a country where all culture is mass culture and branding is the way the middle class expresses its identity, outfits like Whole Foods and Cabela’s—two of the most muscular brands ever seen in the American marketplace—are engaged in a sort of product-based mass marketing of individualism. They are selling highly customized products to people who buy them not only because they want them but also because the products tell them who they are as individuals. All of which adds up to the rather startling fact that, in 2006, a person’s views on education, taxes, abortion, homosexuality, gun control, and school prayer may ultimately line up behind a wedge of imported Fourme d’Ambert cheese or an Ol’ Betsy friction-based turkey caller.
Cabela’s customers may regard Whole Foodies as self-indulgent, herb-swilling, Volvo-driving nihilists, and the latter may see the former as fundamentalist, knuckle-dragging Bambi killers, but the truth is that the companies are extraordinarily similar in many ways. Both are capitalist machines that started from humble, heartland roots. Cabela’s was built from a kitchen table in rural Nebraska for a core of fanatical hunters and fishermen.