No, Silicon Valley cannot “disrupt” politics


Daniel Drezner wrote a column in today’s Washington Post about the foray of some “Silicon Valley thought leaders” into politics. The short version: Zynga’s Mark Pincus and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman have launched a platform aimed at rallying people into political causes outside of the current party structure, forming some sort of center-left, pro-business movement and basically “disrupting” political engagement. Or something, in the way that only Silicon Valley types talk about such things. 

Many have been sharply critical of this and similar initiatives. Drezner is critical, but less so, noting that even though Pincus and Hoffman are bound to fail, we should nonetheless take them and other Silicon Valley types seriously when they wade into politics, saying that Democrats should keep “their neoliberal billionaires inside the tent.”

My distaste for neoliberalism notwithstanding, I don’t necessarily disagree with Drezner. I don’t believe anyone should be kept outside the tent if it can be helped. If they advocate good policies and want to make the world a better place – of if they are open to discussion about making the world a better place and share at least some common ground — I want them in that tent. That’s the point of all of this, after all.

At the same time, I share some of the skepticism many have about tech giants wading into politics, mostly because of the frankly odd manner in which tech giants tend to wade and the manner in which the media and the public has tended to discuss such wading.  

So let’s put it all into perspective, shall we?

By accident of my age and some friendships I made years and years ago, I know a number of people who are either Silicon Valley denizens themselves or people who at least orbit that world. They used to be programmers or startup employees, now they’re mid-to-upper management guys. Some have made a lot of money. Others haven’t. Some are academics now. But they all speak that odd Silicon Valley language and, at times, share a bit of it with me. It’s a strange world, but so too is any somewhat insular subculture with which one is unfamiliar. Like any other, there is jargon and custom and behavior that those of us on the outside don’t quite understand.

The people in that world, however, aren’t fundamentally different than those of us who are not. Contrary to how tech moguls are often described, they have needs, desires and opinions that are not of some other planet. 

When the election hit last year, a lot of Silicon Valley types freaked out, just like a lot of the rest of us did, because it did not conform to expectations. Most of them never thought that Trump would win and, like a lot of us, they started to question the assumptions they harbored. Assumptions which they thought were safe. As I said, Silicon Valley culture can be insular and, of course, Silicon Valley sits in the Bay Area, which is far more politically homogenous than a lot of places. While I disagree with so much of what has been written about so-called “bubbles,” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that many of the political assumptions held by Silicon Valley types were less-challenged and more strongly held than those held by some of us in the Midwest, making the freakout of the Silicon Valley types a bit more pronounced than our own.  

There are a lot of transplants in Silicon Valley. My friends are from Ohio, many others are from other places. During the post-election freakout, a lot of them asked me or their friends back home, “WHAT HAPPENED TO OHIO?” or “WHAT HAPPENED TO MICHIGAN?” Soon those panicky questions turned to more thoughtful ones like “what can I do to help Ohio?” or “what can I do to help Michigan?”

Some — like venture capitalist-turned-author J.D Vance or former Uber executive Brian McClendon — have moved back to their home states and have vowed to take an active role in politics. Some, while staying in California, have vowed to funnel money back home to political causes or to otherwise become engaged in local politics from afar. Some are still trying to figure it out the answer to that question. Some only asked that question for a while and then got back to the business of Silicon Valley.

Others, like Pincus and Hoffman, are simply trying to apply what they know to the problem. To combine their life’s work with politics, while bringing the jargon and weirdness of their particular subculture along for the ride. Thus you read articles about entrepreneurs wanting to “disrupt democracy” and about how “thought leaders” are going to bring bold new innovation to a tired industry, just like they did so many times before. Because most in the media don’t have a super strong grip on either business or technology, the coverage, like all the coverage of these folks which has come before, is often comically credulous. 

Here’s the thing, though: you can’t “disrupt” politics, let alone public policy. Not in any fundamental way. Politics and policy will always come down to one’s values and ones goals and how clearly those values and goals are communicated to voters. Voters who have shown, time and time again, that they will respond to ideas and promises, not branding and cultural framing on its own. You can try to sell them “innovation” and “the future” all you’d like, but they will not get on board with you unless you tell them what you plan to do, in very basic terms, or what it is you stand for, in very plain terms. Voters do not do Silicon Valley cloudspeak. 

In light of that, I’ve talked to my friends in Silicon Valley about what, exactly, Silicon Valley actually wants. What are its political values. They have some ideas. They’re not crazy or disruptive or innovative, really. They’re a lot of things many people support and some things only a few people support, but they’re pretty conventional, politically speaking:

  • They don’t want wars, because wars are bad for international business;
  • They want free trade and open borders because that’s good for business and hiring;
  • They’re amenable to the government covering health care and retirement because that’s way better if you’re into hiring contractors as opposed to full employees;
  • They still want to be able to buy private insurance if they want to, though, because tech billionaires are on the bleeding edge when it comes to wanting to buy their way out of an egalitarian society;
  • Most want social justice, equal rights and the package of goods that come along with it. They’ve lived in the Bay Area a while and they like those sorts of things;
  • They want to aggressively tackle climate change both because science tells them that’s an imperative and because it’s the sort of work will require a massive amount of applied technology to deal with, and that’s right up their alley; 
  • They run businesses and they’re rich so, like any other business and rich people, they want low taxes. And like a lot of other people who like low taxes, they still want all of the stuff listed above that costs a lot of money because they’re people and people are often irrational when it comes to this stuff. 

All of this adds up to Silicon Valley being just like and other industry, sector or collective of activists. It wants what’s good for it, in its conception of the world. And those wants are all things that have been discussed over and over again by any number of parties, politicians and interest groups. It’s not sui generis.

In light of that, the next time you hear about a tech billionaire getting into politics or a group of entrepreneurs putting together some killer app that purports to change the game forever, note their status, but just for a moment. Note their financial power, but not in any way you wouldn’t note the financial power of a media mogul or an investment banker who enters the political fray. Then: ask them what it is, exactly, they stand for and ask them if they have a good idea about how to implement it or to convince a majority of people to get behind it. If they stand for good things and have good ideas, join them. If they don’t, don’t. As I have argued before, there is no magic bullet when it comes to this stuff.

What we should not be doing is what so many in the press have been doing lately, which is treating these guys as if they’re magical unicorns with heretofore unprecedented ideas, with plans to disrupt democracy forever. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.