Elon Musk has become the villain liberals always imagined him to be
Things have changed. In a way that was almost naively touching in that it was personal – and transactional -, Musk tweeted a few weeks ago that “given the unprovoked attacks on me by leading Democrats and a very cold shoulder to Tesla and SpaceX, I intend to vote Republican in November.” His politics donations in recent years evolved from predominantly blue, to mixed, to almost entirely Republican. He has promised that if his bid to buy Twitter is successful, he would bring former President Donald Trump back to the platform, a decision he says he made on non-ideological “free speech” grounds but which has an obvious partisan valence.
Many liberals’ incandescent hatred of Musk has always been a bit silly, given that he might be the single most important driver of commercial renewable energy technology in the world. Now that makes more sense. “Wealthy zillionaire entrepreneur goes Republican” is not shocking news. But Musk is sui generis; his publicly expressed views on specific issues have been all over the map. Looking more closely at his conversion can tell us as much about how our politics and culture have changed over the past decade as about his own often confusing mind.
To begin to understand this change, we have to talk about freedom of expression. Or rather, “free speech” as it is commonly understood today, that is, social media moderation.
In a bit poorly worded tweet, Musk recently described Democrats as “the kindness party” that has now become “the party of division and hate.” Whatever he means by that, there’s one thing the Democratic Party has made clear has to become: The party of modules. As social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become the de facto public square over the past decade, liberals have been outspoken about the need for these platforms to remove extremist and misleading content, inspiring a lucrative new industry aimed at to fight “misinformation” on the Internet.
Of which there is, of course, plenty, and just as much evidence that conservatives are more likely to cook it up and share it – hence the liberal appetite for moderation. (In fairness, liberals haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory by policing this news landscape, including pushing for the censorship of legitimate stories about incriminating content from Hunter Biden’s laptop.) The Key to understand Musk’s “free speech” crusade is to understand that for large numbers of Americans, the substance or actual direction of this censorship is mostly irrelevant (except, of course, when it happens to overlap with your new ideological beliefs).
There are a myriad of reasons why “free speech” has become a political value encoded by the right, including progressive shifts in social norms around personal identity. But more important here is the core principle of non-interference – what former Twitter VP Tony Wang meant when he once called Twitter “the freedom wing of expression of freedom of speech day.” For native Silicon Valley quasi-libertarians like Musk, moderation is an emergency glass-breaking tactic if it is to be used.
From this point of view, the Internet is an oasis of humanity in its vast uncontrollable expanse, allowing unlimited freedom of expression. contra the institutions that govern our real lives. It was once a techno-utopian, vaguely liberal idea; now it is one that squarely appeals to, and largely benefits, due to the effects of social media algorithmsthe right. (Although for hardcore activists, of course, this commitment to free speech can always be conveniently abandoned in the service of fight the culture war.)
Another major shift that clarifies Musk’s about-face is the Republican Party’s shift in attitude toward business. At least for now, Mitt Romney’s presidential bid has been the farm’s last gasp laissez-faire, invariably pro-business GOP. Trump’s willingness to reward his friends and punish his political enemies in the corporate world, as in the highly publicized case of a Carrier plant in Indiana from the start of his presidency, was one of his major contributions to the new Republican Party, inspiring would-be heirs like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in his crusade against anti-American purveyors of degeneracy like… Disney World, or a Major League Baseball team.
In one light, one could view this use of government power to censor corporations for their political stances as a matter of free speech, much like the aforementioned book ban. But given Musk’s new political affiliation, it’s incredibly easy to imagine him forgiving a figure like, say, Texas Governor Greg Abbott after he theoretically expanded local exclusions for SpaceX in Texas as a tribute. to the billionaire’s accomplishments in owning the libs.
It has always been a bit insane for liberals to oppose Musk so fervently given his environmentalist in good faithincluding, recall, bashing Trump himself over his nomination of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State; Musk and those to his left have a theoretical common enemy in the party resolutely hostile clean energy Republican Party. But the simultaneous transformation of the Democrats into a pro-moderation party and the Republicans into an old-school party, Huey Long Style Patronage means that it is paradoxically almost impossible for Musk to find common cause with the former. Both are at the heart of media phenomena and linked to the culture war, divorced from the real environment. the impact of Musk’s work even further from his place in American society.
Another bit of bad timing for Musk’s split from the Democratic Party tracks with his evolution from an Edisonian technologist and occasional cultural gadfly into a more direct Fordist political force. Henry Ford was a notoriously hyperactive and reckless political actor, as well as a Nazi sympathizer. Musk, to be very clear, is no such thing, but the two men share the same rare and outsized status as prime movers on a global scale, as best represented in Musk’s case by his purchase yet provisional from Twitter.
All of this, if you’re a liberal, you might look and say, So what? To paraphrase a wise millennial elder icon, Musk has the plant, but we have the power. And furthermore, despite his overall environmentalism, Musk has done much to shred his viability as a liberal ally, from questionable labor practices at Tesla to him, shall we say, backward cultural views. In that light, having one less leading billionaire on the blue team is simply further evidence of the party’s identification with minorities and America’s beleaguered working class.
The problem ultimately has less to do with Musk himself than with his function as a cultural guide. To see his long and contradictory record of political declarations, one can venture to say that his ideological commitments are at the very least superficial. Which surely makes him largely attached to his legions of fans and followers – according to YouGov, Musk is the 25th most popular character in America; predictably, he enjoys 13 more favor points with men than with women.
In a country where politics is increasingly broken down into terms of upbringing and cultural attitudes rather than traditional indicators such as class or family ties, Musk is the high-profile avatar of the exact type of ideologically agnostic, anti-PC, nominally Rogan-loving average American. who, at some point, would have been reluctant to identify too strongly with either party. (For many of them, the “dumb guy things” described at the top of this essay aren’t dumb guy stuff at all, but iconoclastic antics.) There is a plot of these votersand while they may in their hearts identify more with one major party or the other, they have unpredictable and intersecting viewpoints on hot political topics like abortion, the legalization of marijuana or the immigration.
Democrats shouldn’t and don’t have to crawl for Elon Musk’s goodwill or political affiliation. But it is worth wondering why, in a political age where the importance of speech and cultural issues have been massively elevated, they have lost such a powerful and influential figure who would otherwise be aligned with their political goals – and who shares a somewhat inscrutable outlook, but seemingly compelling outlook with the kind of Americans they lose ground with.