Technology and politics are deeply intertwined in America. Data analytics drives campaign strategy and policy decisions, and social media is an integral medium for political information and discourse. This influence has allowed those who drive that technological growth—the employees and executives in Silicon Valley—to wield their political influence in unprecedented ways.
The outspoken beliefs of technology magnates such as PayPal co-founder Peter Theil have contributed to the trope of some Silicon Valley businessmen as libertarians. While Thiel did donate $1.25 million to Donald Trump’s campaign, he stands out as an anomaly. Technologists wielded their economic power heavily in favor of Hillary Clinton, donating $60 to her campaign for each dollar donated to Trump. But even this comparison ignores nuances in the ideologies of those in Silicon Valley.
A Stanford study released this fall is the first to take an in-depth look at 600 of Silicon Valley’s leaders’ seemingly paradoxical politics. At first glance, this group is consistently liberal: They show overwhelming support for left-leaning causes such as universal healthcare, public investment in education, and redistributive economic programs.
One sharp deviation—opposition to labor regulation—undermines this otherwise straightforward liberal narrative. Just 18 percent of Democrats want to see a decrease in labor unions’ influence compared to 74 percent of technology entrepreneurs who do. Furthermore, 82 percent of technology entrepreneurs believe firing workers is too difficult and the government should relax related regulations. This proportion is quite similar to that of Republicans, while a majority of Democrats support increasing protections from firing.
But this one deviation can’t be used to portray technologists as conservative: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have a propensity to support racially tolerant, socially liberal policies that are typically supported by Democrats. In fact, technology entrepreneurs fell further left than the sample of Democrats on a variety of social and economic issues, from same-sex marriage and abortion to support for programs benefitting the poor.
Still, the Democratic platform itself reads “Democrats will make it easier for workers, public and private, to exercise their right to organize and join unions.” This glaring point of disagreement could upset the equilibrium of the current Democratic coalition. As tech leaders continue to assert influence and grow as a donor base for Democrats, they could challenge labor-friendly attitudes while pushing the party leftward on other issues. Tech’s influence is already strong, as lawmakers have increasingly backed off on efforts to regulate the industry. President Obama’s relative lack of concern over tech’s expanding market power shows how strong the sector has become since President Clinton’s extensive efforts to break up Microsoft’s perceived operating system market monopoly in the 1990s.
At face value, the desire to decrease regulation seems to be self-serving for entrepreneurs. Yet, their tendency to support redistributive policies seems contrary to that very self-interest. In this case, tech elites seem to be overriding their selfishness in favor of socially beneficial programs. But when it comes to regulation, they are not acting only out of self-interest: They oppose regulation on the philosophical grounds that it unfairly stifles entrepreneurial freedom.
A major way technologists can enact this ideology is through campaign donations. Tech analyst Tim Bajarin even expects technology executives to begin seeking office in greater numbers. While the industry wants to stay separate from the government, the current political climate and politicians’ perceived lack of technological knowledge could motivate some to engage more directly in politics. Already, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s 2017 outreach initiative sparked speculation about a 2020 presidential run, despite his repeated denial of the rumors. The US has a long history of businessmen campaigning for office on their corporate record: A tech leader running would hardly be outside the norm.
The wealth of the technology sector is growing, and a skyrocketing share of the wealthiest Americans have made their money in tech. For now, their campaign donations and support are going to Democrats. But with technologists’ dislike of the labor regulations Democrats have traditionally championed, the party could soon face the need to reconcile its historical platform with this powerful bloc’s unique ideology.