Brendan Eich, Mozilla, and a post-gay-marriage world

Why this could be a game-changing moment for political donation laws

The removal of Brendan Eich from Mozilla, the company he helped found, has become a flashpoint for many different controversies: about values, about what constitutes oppression, and whether it’s any of our business why corporations do what they do. (Update: My choice of the word “Removal” has been questioned; it was my attempt to deal with the tricky point that when a corporate executive leaves, he usually gets to resign no matter who decided it was time for him to leave. In any case, Mozilla’s own FAQ insists that Eich’s departure was purely his own decision and that they wanted him “to stay at Mozilla in another role” even though he couldn’t be CEO any more.)

The facts themselves were not complicated. In 2008, Eich, who at that time was Chief Technology Officer of Mozilla, donated $1,000 to support California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. (It passed, but has since been overturned in court.) The donation was public, but was not widely known until the Los Angeles Times mentioned it in 2012. This year, when Eich was about to be promoted to CEO of Mozilla, it created controversy at the company, with some publicly protesting his views on gay marriage. There was also a boycott of Mozilla by the dating site OKCupid, and resignations from the Mozilla board. Eventually, Eich stepped down from the company, saying that he “cannot be an effective leader” given the controversy.

The incident chilled many conservatives, as it seemed to them to confirm many of their worst fears about what will happen to traditionalists or religious believers in the brave new world where gay marriage is the norm. A month before Eich stepped down, the New York Times‘ social conservative columnist Ross Douthat warned of a future where “organizations and businesses that promoted the older definition of marriage would face constant procedural harassment,” arguing that bills like Arizona’s notorious “religious freedom” bill might be necessary to prevent conservative Christians from being discriminated against. The fate of Brendan Eich has been seized upon as an example of this type of discrimination. Douthat wrote that the situation was “instructive,” and others have argued more fully that this is only the first step in a broader campaign to punish gay marriage opponents for their beliefs, rather than their actions.

Roy Edroso, a Village Voice writer who specializes in rounding up reactions to a topic from conservative blogs—mostly to make fun of them, but he includes the links to the original posts so we can judge for ourselves—collected some of the conservative outrage at Eich’s loss of his job. Many of the posts bashed the intolerance and viciousness of “the left” in general, though Eich’s ouster didn’t really become a left-wing cause; as Edroso argued, “the actions of a corporation were, in this unique situation, generally confused with the actions of liberals everywhere.” But the right might argue in response that Eich was forced out by a climate of intolerance toward what used to be the mainstream view on marriage: it confirms their worst fears about what’s going to happen to people who aren’t socially liberal.

On the other hand, this is a situation that has not traditionally bothered conservatives when it comes up in other contexts. If Mozilla forced Eich out over his beliefs, then that is something the company has an absolute right to do, particularly in America, where employers have enormous discretion to fire people for any reason. Economic conservatism, which in America usually goes hand-in-hand with social conservatism, traditionally supports the right of companies to do what they want. As Janelle Bouie points out in Slate, the logic of saying Eich shouldn’t be fired aligns with what liberals have been saying about employment, and employee rights, for years. This means conservatives can’t argue directly against Eich’s removal without conceding that a private corporation can oppress individuals, not just the government. Some conservative commentators have seen the danger in this line of argument, and have held back from saying that the government should get involved in this, or that Mozilla shouldn’t have had the right to get rid of Eich. Because, ironically, that would benefit liberals more than it benefits conservatives in the long run.

One thing we are likely to see, though, is a further push against the transparency of political donations. Many important conservative donors, including the Koch Brothers, have argued that publicizing political donations can be used as a tool of intimidation against the people who make those donations. Since Eich wouldn’t be in this mess if his modest financial support of Proposition 8 had been anonymous, we can expect this to be pointed to as an example of the real, unpleasant agenda behind transparency laws. Or as Seth Mandel put it at Commentary magazine: “The left claims it wants full disclosure of political participation in the name of transparency and electoral integrity. We now know this isn’t remotely true. They want disclosure so they can extend the purge of heretics from private life and thus deter libertarian and conservative political participation.” Any time disclosure comes up as a political issue, we can presume that the response will be “What about Brendan Eich?” In this, if in nothing else, this could be a game-changing moment. It won’t do much good for people who have been fired because of their beliefs, though.