Madison Square Garden Entertainment recently made the news for using facial recognition technology to identify the employees of its enemies and banish them from Rockettes performances. As an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation has commented, the move “sets a precedent for other businesses to identify their critics and punish them.”
To Christians and others with dissenting views, this story has obvious implications: facial recognition technology now makes it feasible blacklist a limitless number of people, not just from banks, but from public accommodations and other brick-and-mortar businesses. It is only a matter of time before corporations attempt to use this technology to systematize the targeting of their political opponents.
By now, all serious right-of-center thinkers recognize a need to build up some degree of alternative economic infrastructure as a bulwark against cultural totalitarianism. We should not think the corner has already been turned. The looming weaponization of facial recognition technology is a reminder that political warfare in the business world has only begun. Alternative infrastructure is an urgently necessary answer, but not a complete one—not even to our purely economic challenges.
As the cultural left has taught us, cultural power in the business world is not simply a matter of establishing or having positions of leadership in the right institutions. The cultural left’s economic power comes, first and foremost, from the incentive structure in which all institutions operate. Even neutral, unaligned, or apathetic businesses fear the opprobrium of cultural progressives and are consistently given no incentive to avoid the disapproval of the right.
If a venue or public accommodation did begin to use facial recognition to blacklist thousands of dissenting activists, would that business face organized backlash equivalent to a progressive pressure campaign? The question answers itself.
While conservatives have made significant first steps towards building a rudimentary economic ecosystem outside of established cultural monopolies, they have made little progress towards affirmatively counteracting the cultural left's one-sided pressure upon the economy. If this dynamic does not change, it will encourage a predictable ratchet effect that will—at a bare minimum—keep conservatives perpetually on the back foot and destabilize their best efforts to make any forward progress.
Consider two illustrations of the right’s abject failure to counteract economic pressure: Chick-fil-A’s 2019 decision to cut donations to Christian charities and the 2020 decision of an election law firm, Porter Wright, to sabotage a lawsuit it had filed on behalf of the Trump campaign and a Republican voter.
In 2019, Chick-fil-A cut donations to the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes solely because both ministries affirm traditionally Christian views of marriage and sexual ethics. This capitulation was the culmination of a sustained, years-long campaign by progressive groups to cow Chick-fil-A into cutting support for traditionally Christian nonprofits. Progressive magazine Esquire celebrated the left’s victory: “On Monday... for the first time ever, I was free to enjoy the delicious, Southern fried chicken of my choosing.”
Many Christians remain in a pitiful state of denial about Chick-fil-A’s 2019 decision, believing it was a coincidence that the chicken restaurant ended donations to Christian charities. Yet Chick-fil-A executives made no secret of the fact that they made this decision to distance themselves from traditionally Christian beliefs.
“There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A [accusing the company of homophobia], and we thought we needed to be clear about our message,” Chick-fil-A’s president, Tim Tassapoulos, told reporters. The executive director of the Chick-fil-A Foundation, Rodney Bullard, told Business Insider that Chick-fil-A was refocusing on being “relevant and impactful in the community… [f]or us, that's a much higher calling than any political or cultural war that's being waged.”
It goes without saying that no “war” was actually being waged: the 2019 controversy around Chick-fil-A was a sustained and unilateral assault by one side—met with fear, capitulation, and bovine indifference from Christians.
Compare the efforts of the two sides in Bullard’s “cultural war.” Since 2012, progressive politicians from Boston to San Antonio have campaigned to ban this chicken restaurant from a city-owned property or from their city entirely. The restaurant has been the target of sustained reputational attacks by a litany of progressive groups. In 2019, GLAAD promoted a clever Johann Tetzel-inspired ad campaign asking progressives who ate Chick-fil-A’s food to pay “Chick-fil-A indulgences” and “pay back your waffle fries” by contributing “reparations” to an LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit.
Yet after Chick-fil-A pointedly and openly discriminated against charities for holding Christian beliefs, it faced essentially no pressure of any kind from the right. Conservatives were simply constitutionally unwilling to “politicize a chicken sandwich” and have therefore lost the battle by default.
Instead, Christians responded with apathy, willful naivete, and brand loyalty. Franklin Graham—coming to his friend Dan Cathy’s defense—said that “[Chick-fil-A] announced that in 2020 they’re giving to fight hunger and homelessness and support education [instead of giving to the Salvation Army]. What’s wrong with that?” Graham’s statement blithely gaslit his audience by purposefully ignoring the fact that Chick-fil-A had terminated funding to Christian charities for having Christian beliefs.
Worse, Christians have remained unrequitedly loyal to a brand that actively discriminates against them. Christian identification with “God’s chicken” is ironic in theory but affectionately brand-loyal in practice, obscuring the fact that Chick-fil-A’s malleability has directly marginalized Christian organizations and put blood in the water.
All of this means that Chick-fil-A has strong incentives to obey the militant cultural left while ignoring conservatives. To rectify this situation, it is not enough for Christians to build alternative businesses or even to boycott Chick-fil-A, as I have since 2019. When a business fails to the degree that Chick-fil-A has, it must face activism of the same kind we see from the cultural left. For example, Christian organizations could take a page from GLAAD and launch advertising campaigns encouraging Christians to repent of eating at a restaurant that discriminates against Christian charities.
There is good reason to think that such a campaign would work: Chick-fil-A has already proven that it can. More importantly, if the current incentive structure is not altered, the ratchet effect will proceed apace and even theoretically Christian businesses will continue to bow before it.
The Chick-fil-A controversy is a microcosm of a larger phenomenon that is not confined to fast food. In 2020, the cultural left successfully deployed a similar pressure campaign to influence the outcome of constitutional litigation. This unprecedented manipulation shows that, if a single faction is allowed to have a monopoly on economic pressure, there will be few limits to the abuses it can perpetrate.
In 2020, Porter Wright, a Pennsylvania law firm with an established election law practice, filed perhaps the Trump campaign’s only legally interesting lawsuit in the aftermath of the 2020 election. The federal suit set forth plausible allegations that Pennsylvania officials had diluted Republican votes, not through hacking or stuffing boxes, but through procedural malfeasance—systematically showing greater lenience towards mail-in ballots and towards votes from heavily-Democratic counties.
The day after Porter Wright’s suit was filed, however, anti-Republican group The Lincoln Project announced a $500,000 advertising campaign aimed at getting Porter Wright’s other clients to fire the law firm. Only three days after filing their complaint, Porter Wright frantically withdrew from the case. Although the withdrawal itself gave no explanation for the move, the Trump campaign has been open about what occurred: the law firm withdrew because of political pressure.
A brave but foolish solo attorney soon volunteered to take over the case and found himself with less than 24 hours to prepare for an oral argument. Porter Wright had plunged its clients' complex but colorable claim into a state of collapse.
By withdrawing in the face of political pressure, the firm did more than put blood in the water. For perhaps the first time in American legal history, a respected law firm affirmed—on the national stage—that a lawyer should be morally identified with his client unless he withdraws from the client's case. This precedent removes a cornerstone of Western legal ethics and threatens the very foundation of the rule of law. This should be alarming regardless of what you may think about the legal merits of Porter Wright's initial complaint. In particular, it means that—in the future—election fraud and similar malfeasance is now unlikely to be detected and remedied if it is perpetrated by those with sufficient economic power.
While this is a difficult truth for conservatives, the fact is that the militant left cannot be allowed to monopolize the incentive structure that will motivate the next Chick-fil-A, Porter Wright, or Madison Square Garden. If only one faction is willing to engage in advertising campaigns like that launched by The Lincoln Project, that faction will wield dictatorial control over all for-profit businesses. The example of Porter Wright illustrates the dire consequences of this dynamic.
To remedy this problem, conservatives must show business leaders, election lawyers, and others that it does not make good financial sense to reflexively grovel before whoever makes demands first. The ongoing development of an alternative infrastructure, especially by Christians, is a critical and promising step. But even if this infrastructure flourishes beyond our wildest dreams, conservatives are unlikely to assemble an entire whole-life ecosystem of businesses run by principled conservatives in the near future.
In a fallen world, any business environment—even an intentionally alternative one—will contain leaders who, like Dan Cathy and other Chick-fil-A executives, are at bottom driven principally by comfort. Accordingly, the Kingdom of God must do more than build institutions led by godly men. It must also participate, just as the cultural left does, in shaping the incentive structure that governs the behavior of the conflict-avoidant and the comfortable.
Ian Huyett is a litigation attorney and a commentator on law, religion, and technology for Staseos and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter at @IanHuyett.