A huge tech story this year is Elon Musk’s (possibly-serious-but-perhaps-merely-performative) attempt to buy Twitter. In reading some takes on this potentially seismic acquisition, I came across a claim by Matthew Yglesias about Musk’s political standing that I thought was worth reflecting on:
The transformation of Elon Musk into a hated figure in American progressive circles is fundamentally odd. We’re talking about a guy whose fortune is built on electric cars and solar panels and whose big aspiration is going to Mars. These are not classically areas where American liberals have clashed with business.
Yglesias isn’t wrong to see progressive distaste for Musk as a bit of an odd thing—but, contra Yglesias, it’s an oddness that is more superficial than fundamental.
Yes, electric cars and solar panels are progressive-friendly pursuits. (I’m not really sure why having the aspiration to colonize Mars is brought in alongside the others here, but, whatever.) At a prima facie level, you would expect any entrepreneur toiling in these spaces to get a bit of progressive credit for that.
Then again, it’s somewhat culturally naive to think the things Musk pumps out of his factories will necessarily override the things Musk says as the most significant determinant of his public reputation.
It turns out that the oddness Yglesias notices is entirely explainable by our culture’s Hierarchy of Political Reality—think Plato’s Great Chain of Being, but instead of a metaphysical order hierarchically structured to privilege the entities that are more perfect than others, it’s an instrument of political epistemology that specifies which inputs people most often rely on to situate public figures along the Good-Bad continuum. Usually, what you choose to fund is the most decisive consinderation of all—as it is, for example, for Peter Thiel or the Kochs, who are despised on the left on precisely these grounds.
But in this, our Age of Social Platforms, there is something that trumps even funding decisions, something that trumps even business output, and that is culture war involvement online.
Elon Musk’s products could simultaneously reverse global warming, dismantle structural racism, and eradicate global poverty … yet if he follows all that with a tweet urging people to “take the red pill”, or boasting of his newfound support for the Republican Party, he’s going to find himself in progressives’ crosshairs. Simple as that.
That’s why there really isn’t anything “fundamentally odd” about progressives hating Musk. I mean, it’s odd in the sense that people shouldn’t be prioritizing edgelordian drama over material impact—what Musk is doing in the energy technology space is obviously more significant than his shitposting, and it would just generally be great if people’s interest levels were optimized to prioritize real-world impact.
But culture war bullshit covers a multitude of virtues. So his low reputation among progressives is odd in a damn, why aren’t human beings hardwired to care about more important things? sort of way; not really in a For the life of me I just can’t come up with a reason why the left dislikes him way.
What’s fascinating is this actually vindicates Musk’s interest in Twitter. It proves he’s onto something in esteeming it so highly. Let’s stipulate Yglesias is right that progressives ought to be lauding Musk rather than vilifying him. The fact that a few tweets here and there have entirely obscured the material impact of his entrepreneurial and business output, such that the latter don’t even factor into the way he is assessed by large scores of people, speaks volumes about the power of Twitter, about its capacity to shape perceptions.
Presumably, when progressives think about Musk, the first thing that pops up isn’t his progressive-friendly business output, but the things he says and does online that they see as serving the interests of their political enemies.
This, again, is reflected in our era’s Hierarchy of Political Reality—if your online persona involves being an anti-progressive contrarian or an own-the-libs shitposter, that’s going to eclipse literally everything else you do. You can think that’s unfortunate, you can think that’s unfair, but it is what it is.
I'm going to like it while defining Musk as an online troll, just wealthier than the rest. He says some really dumb and/or inflammatory things just to get a rise out of people.
I'm a big fan of Yglesias. I've been reading him since I was a senior in high school back in the halcyon days of 2003. He's probably influenced my political viewpoints (for better or worse) more than any other political writer over the past 20 years. One thing that bothers me with him is he doesn't always seem to grasp the emotional aspect of politics. People aren't purely rational when forming judgements of political and cultural actors. In addition to Musk, he often lauds Joe Manchin and says progressives should be thankful for them. I both 100% agree with this and think it's kind of a useless point. If you are a fan of the child tax credit that died at the beginning of 2022 and you know that Joe Manchin oppossed it saying that parents would use it to buy drugs - it's completely understandable and I would argue, rational to be angry about that. You can be angry at Manchin about that while simultaneously being thankful that there is a Dem senator in one of the most red states in the union.
I guess my point is that Yglesias is great but he seems to either not understand basic human nature (we aren't vulcans!) or gaslights about it.