The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Red Hen and Whig History: Who Draws the Lines?

Over the weekend, angry progressives embraced the view that the owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Va. had every right to refuse service to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

I agree, but because I support freedom of association — not because Sanders’s work for the president makes her a uniquely reprehensible creature who should be barred from every restaurant and grocery store until she is forced to farm for her own dinner.

Progressives appear to be taking the latter view. For them, Sanders falls into a category so heinous that any form of blatant contempt (see: Michelle Wolf’s nasty routine at the White House Correspondents Dinner) and at least some forms of outright exclusion are not only acceptable but eminently justified.

There are, of course, plenty of obvious points to be made here about hypocrisy, though some of the comparisons get a little messy (Jack Phillips’s Masterpiece Cakeshop case being a prime example). More important, this controversy has been the latest to reveal a fundamental flaw in the progressive impulse to suppress or punish certain views: They routinely fail to consider who gets to draw the lines.

What if a conservative restaurant owner turned away Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer over his voting record? Because most on the Left ignore or dislike the concept of free association, many would be incensed at such treatment of the high-profile Democrat, even as they defend the owner of the Red Hen for her treatment of Sanders. For them, the hypocrisy is neatly resolved with a surface-level explanation of how Sanders has violated a certain set of norms that Schumer has not.

By and large, though, they refuse to engage in a debate about what those norms ought to be or, more essential, about who decides what those norms are. It’s a markedly fragile worldview, one whose implicit assumption is that the group on the Right Side of History will always be setting the terms.

The progressive mob cheered when Brendan Eich and Kevin D. Williamson lost positions for holding unfavorable views — all the while failing to contemplate that someday a less-friendly mob might come for their heads, too. By failing to deliberate over who draws the lines, they leave themselves vulnerable to eventually having to play by their own lax rules.

It’d be a mistake to underestimate the cultural clout that the Left exercises, and will likely maintain, and it makes sense to presume that, at least for the foreseeable future, the loudest left-wing voices will indeed be the ones determining which norms may not be transgressed. But their instinct to ignore the question entirely, in favor of the assumption that their mob will always shout the loudest and most effectively, belies an inherent weakness.

In their Whig interpretation of history, we’re progressing slowly and steadily toward a cultural climate where the Schumers of the world will always dine in comfort while Sanders and her ilk starve on the street corner. For now, they might be right. If and when the tides of public opinion shift — as they appeared to in the 2016 election — progressives will wish they had agreed to some standards for deciding who gets left in the cold.

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