AMAC Exclusive – Daniel Berman
Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter is a seminal event not just in American but also in global affairs. It might seem insular to suggest that Twitter is somehow the center of current events, but it is in fact the center of elite discourse in the modern world. It is where journalists and opinion-makers canvass for stories, and where governments and PR firms seek to place them. At the end of the day, its true value has always laid in how no one could fully control it. Ordinary people could choose to discuss the things they felt were important, and the media and government officials, also on Twitter, were forced to respond. In a world where debates in the media, at universities, and in workplaces are all strictly controlled, Twitter was perhaps the most democratic space left.
Elon Musk’s economic bet in buying Twitter is clear. It was not about personal politics or opposition to content moderation in principle (though Musk clearly believes “content moderation” had become outright censorship) but rather that the value of Twitter was being diminished by ideological censorship. If it was the lack of control that had made Twitter one of the last places where real people could talk about the issues that mattered to them, and that was what kept companies, advertising firms, and governments on the platform, then censorship was killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Even the “disinformation” journalists and “experts” who made crusading for censorship of opposing views core to their identity would not have jobs without Twitter’s freedom of speech. As much as they hated hearing some of the views real people had, there was no other place where real people had not been intimidated into silence.
This made the narrative that emerged from Musk’s takeover superficially perplexing. In the first days of Musk’s new order, following the termination of nearly 70% of the company’s workforce, journalists and discontented former employees insisted that Twitter was on the verge of collapse. Even many conservatives were joking on the night of Friday, November 18th that Twitter might not be there at the end of the weekend. Advertiser boycotts and rumors that the app could be pulled off the Apple and Android app stores have received disproportionate attention, especially as Twitter has failed to collapse, even while the rhetoric from Musk’s adversaries has escalated to absurd levels of hysteria. A Washington Post piece declared that Musk’s changes amounted to “opening the gates of hell.”
Watching the narrative evolve in real time from “Musk is crashing Twitter” to “if Musk’s Twitter is not stopped the gates of hell will be opened!” revealed the true fear motivating the coverage. The elites feared not that Musk would fail, and Twitter with it, but that Musk might succeed, and a stronger Twitter would emerge. Not only would this allow voices that many of those in the media and academic elite despised, it would also set a broader example that freedom of speech was profitable and that censorship loses money.
It is easy to see how this would worry a broad class of elites. The premise of ESG policies for major investment firms, and the “equity” bureaucracy in government, is that “woke” values lead to productivity. “Diversity,” as defined by the left, by which they mean the exclusion of incorrect or “wrong views,” is a strength. Allowing disagreement on politics or values invites conflict and inefficiency. The idea is that companies that adhere to creating the culture of a policed college dorm will be rewarded with the most talented employees. Those that fail to embrace the new fashion will find it increasingly hard to hire a workforce drawn from the ranks of “woke” generation Z and millennials.
If instead Musk can prove that Twitter’s value as a marketplace, and value to the marketplace, are increased, not decreased, by reducing censorship, it will raise questions about the premise of the vast majority of corporate and governmental HR policies.
This has legal as well as policy implications. Companies often have fiduciary obligations to their shareholders. ESG policies are defended on the grounds that they produce concrete, economic returns. If that is called into question with hard evidence, then the legal standing of those policies will be undermined. This may be why Apple appears to be threatening to remove Twitter from its app store without explanation. Either Apple, its capital investors, or both, stand to lose on their ESG bets if Musk succeeds.
Musk is also undertaking a wider challenge to premises about HR and recruitment. His termination of nearly 70% of Twitter’s workforce called into question two assumptions within the tech sector.
First, that management was at the mercy of employees. A myth has developed that software engineers are in such demand that companies must do whatever the engineers demand to keep them happy. The result is that if employees disapprove or protest actions of management, as Netflix employees did in response to Dave Chappelle’s supposedly “transphobic” comedy special, management will have to give in. The result has been a “digital cancel culture” where companies have been forced to drop clients who were both profitable and had not violated any policies because a far-left workforce demanded it. How much of Twitter’s “moderation,” especially regarding transgender issues or the Hunter Biden laptop story, was driven by management and how much was driven by a woke workforce that viewed disagreement with trans medical procedures for minors as akin to “genocide” and a Trump reelection as likely to trigger the apocalypse remains unclear. But Musk has taken on the idea of an unaccountable left-wing workforce that makes its own decisions, and if he wins, he proves it is possible.
Musk is also proving a second point. The rapid proliferation of jobs in ”Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” roles and HR bureaucracies run amok has affected every major institution in America, public or private. It is conceded, even by many on the left, that a large proportion of these roles are unneeded and do little or nothing. Yet it is widely believed that removing them would be so painful that it would bring down the entire structure. This has been the argument about why universities cannot reduce administrative overhead, or why any, even marginal reforms to the State Department or Department of Justice under Donald Trump threatened to “destroy” them.
If Musk can remove 70% of his workforce, including nearly the entirety of these departments, and Twitter continues to function, he will have set an example for everyone else. Companies may delay in following the example, and it is hard to see universities doing so unless coerced by external pressure, but it would have massive implications for the federal workforce under a future Republican administration.
The federal workforce has long reflected the values of the classes from which it is recruited, which has meant that as the median postgraduate has drifted to the left, so too has the government “deep state.” But under Obama and now Biden, it has been flooded with woke “equity” initiatives which have sought to politicize recruitment and promotion, while making life intolerable for the few conservatives who remain until they quit. Previous efforts by GOP presidents to change internal policies, including training, have been obstructed.
Musk’s actions at Twitter imply another path. They suggest that a GOP president, rather than embarking on years of “study” about how the bureaucracies should be reorganized, only to have those plans undermined by a hostile administrative state, could just eliminate entire offices and even departments without causing the system to cease working. It seems increasingly clear that only such radical action could allow the sort of reversal of trends a future Republican administration will want, especially within the first term.
Special interests ranging from the media, to universities, to DEI-promoting hedge funds are invested in Elon Musk’s failure at Twitter. But everyone else should be invested in his success. Because if he can succeed, he will not only save free speech online. He will also prove the shibboleths which have come to dominate the American elite wrong, paving the way for a societal revolution in the years to come.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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