The forced resignation of Mozilla cofounder and CEO Brendan Eich has been seen by many conservatives as a sad dip into democratic despotism, in which conformity to a very recent societal consensus is demanded as the cost of employment. The uproar could be more of a backlash against perceived in-group betrayal than an immediate template for society-wide action, though. As Leah pointed out in her initial treatment of the controversy, gay marriage in-group policing is practiced by both sides of the issue, as international charity World Vision was forced to rescind its new policy of hiring employees in gay marriages. In-group policing is not limited to gay marriage, either, as the Dixie Chicks learned during the Iraq War.
What seems to distinguish the Eich case from World Vision in the minds of many on the right (besides their own group sympathies), is that progressives appear to be winning on gay marriage, thus their in-group policing will be taking place within an ever-enlarging share of society. As Ross Douthat wrote, “the way people behave within their own communities when a debate is seen to be settled often has at least some connection to how they behave when given legal and political power in society writ large.” An ascendant progressivism shedding the shackles of its suddenly constrictive liberalism is a frightening prospect to those determinedly holding fast against the tide.
If this is the beginning of a progressive moment, when the culture war is finally over and the conservative terms of surrender are being negotiated, the victorious side may find the coming years more problematic than anticipated. After all, if they have won, then they will see an ever-increasing range of industries and institutions as “belonging” to their group. We may have already started to see some of this playing out with other internet tempests of recent vintage, involving Ezra Klein and Nate Silver’s new ventures.
When Ezra Klein launched Vox, his new journalistic enterprise, he came under fire for a dearth of diversity among his hires. Later, the hiring of one reporter, Brandon Ambrosino, drew fire for being the wrong kind of diverse. Ambrino’s heterodox takes on gay controversies (including friendly words for Jerry Fallwell) were harshly criticized by former colleagues of Klein and his Vox compatriots. Their roots in progressive journalism caused their former allies to view Vox as an in-group enterprise, and to read any divergence as betrayal. They saw Vox as “one of us” more than Klein himself did.
Nate Silver’s new media venture FiveThirtyEight saw its own share of controversy in its opening days, when it ran an article contesting that criticism of the often-cited claim that the historic increase in the rising cost of natural disasters is due to climate change. Environmentalism is another in-group marker for liberal circles, and, predictably. the climate change draws particular focus and attention. The piece drew its own internet firestorm, including from outlets like Slate, ThinkProgress, and Huffington Post, leading Silver to commission his own rebuttal of the original piece.
The culture war’s victorious side may find their newfound power harder to exercise than they expect, however. I’ve recently started HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series, and in my rush to catch up to the current season, I came across very early advice given from Queen Cersei to her king-to-be son, Joffrey. Joffrey expresses a desire to destroy the tradition of each land fielding its own armies, and to consolidate them under his own hand, responding to any resistance by sacking the land in question. Cersei reminds her son that crushing any soldiers loyal to their own traditions would likely leave him without any army at all. The iron throne theoretically gives him access to more people than his family’s personal army, but those new acquisitions bring with them a complicating diversity.
As the rulers of Westeros likely know, the conquering can be the easy part. Consolidating that rule, however, can be a messy affair indeed. Mollie Hemingway writes that Eich’s toppling risks exposing the still-uncertain grip of progressives to a backlash that would spoil their own narrative of inevitable success: “The dissidents are the ones who, by refusing to put the sign up, or refusing to recant, shine a huge light on the system, including the ones who go along to get along.” A sudden combination of gay marriage, surrogate motherhood, and massive taxes seems to have energized a previously passive Catholic populace in supposedly secular France, for instance.
In fact, progressives need only look as far as their newly “vanquished” opponents to realize how quickly seemingly inevitable victory can escape. The political alliance Jerry Falwell and other religious conservatives forged with the GOP seemed to bear full fruit with the election of George W. Bush, and his 2004 re-election (with the popular vote, this time) seemed to seal the advent of what many progressives feared, and conservatives hoped, was a new age of resurgent public religion ready to consolidate its own grip on the nation.
There are many particular features differentiating today’s triumphant progressives from the triumphant conservatives of 2004. But the wider lesson of inevitability’s fragility should still hold. In “Game of Thrones,” Westeros is bursting with men and women desiring to win wars. The practical wisdom required to make, and keep, peace among diverse peoples is a much rarer commodity. If progressives start treating the Eich case as a template, they may start bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to the young King Joffrey, with all the complications that entails.