“Confusion reigns in the political arena. Old labels no longer fit, and the citizenry seems torn between competing desires for saviors and scapegoats.” So began a 1995 story in WIRED on the state of digital-age politics. Electoral turmoil then amounted to a standoff between “a Democratic president, a Republican Congress, and a slew of voters registering as ‘Independent.’ ” More innocent times, clearly. Still, the public seemed to be looking for new paradigms, which inspired WIRED to ask, “Is there a new politics emerging in the Net/cyberspace/digital culture?” The answer was, cautiously, yes. And that politics was libertarianism, with its zeal for laissez-faire capitalism and contempt for the ponderous institutions of Big Government.
If you asked a similar question today—is there a new Silicon Valley politics?— it would be pretty clear that libertarianism is no longer the answer. Sure, obstreperous free-market utopians are still some of the most quotable members of the tech scene, but truly, the last right-leaning presidential candidate to win Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, was Ronald Reagan in 1984. As the tech industry has grown in power and influence, its politics have moved to the left. Bill Clinton pulled out wins in both his campaigns. In 2012, Barack Obama won with 70 percent of the vote to Mitt Romney’s 27 percent, and employees of big tech companies like Apple and Google donated overwhelmingly to Obama’s campaign. Four years later, Bernie Sanders got 42 percent of the Democratic primary vote, and Hillary Clinton won 73 percent of the general electorate in Santa Clara County, one of the most lopsided results in California. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson? He received 3.64 percent of the vote, close to his national average.
Today many people working inside Silicon Valley, and many on the right who vilify it from a distance, consider the community to be “an extremely left-leaning place,” as Mark Zuckerberg recently put it in congressional testimony. When people want to understand Silicon Valley’s political leanings, they often look to California’s 17th Congressional District. Apple and Intel are headquartered there, as is Tesla’s manufacturing plant. In 2016, the voters of the 17th elected Ro Khanna, a former deputy assistant secretary in Obama’s Commerce Department, to represent them. Based on his 2017 legislative record, GovTrack ranked Khanna the 14th-most-liberal representative in the House.
Khanna is running for reelection this year, and one Saturday afternoon in June, he arrived at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont for a town hall meeting. Standing at the podium wearing a dark suit and tie, he was sharp, funny, and in command of the room. For a time, Khanna was a visiting economics lecturer at Stanford University, and the general impression he gives onstage is of a garrulous professor entertaining his undergraduates.
During the 90-minute session, he delivered statements that would slot perfectly into the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. He began with a homily on the importance of stricter gun control. He spoke up for Medicare for all and railed against the 2017 Republican tax cut, saying he would have preferred to eliminate all student debt. The son of first-generation Indian immigrants, he also made a case for the importance of immigration and diversity in driving innovation. “I went to West Virginia,” he told the crowd, “and they started out by asking me, ‘What do we need to do to get more tech here,’ and I said, ‘You need a few more Indian restaurants.’ ” (Khanna knows his audience: His district is more than 50 percent Asian, many of South Asian ancestry.) Almost everything he advocated involved expanding the state apparatus, not starving it, as libertarians would presumably want to do.
But when you investigate the actual values held by the tech sector, the narrative of tech’s steady leftward march gets much more complicated—and intriguing. A widely discussed 2017 study conducted by Stanford political economists David Broockman and Neil Malhotra, collaborating with technology journalist Greg Ferenstein, surveyed the political values of more than 600 tech company founders and CEOs—the elite of the tech elite. The top-line finding was, unsurprising by now, that Silicon Valley is not libertarian. The founders they surveyed were less likely than even Democrats to embrace the core expression of the libertarian worldview—that government should provide military and police protection and otherwise leave people alone to enrich themselves. They expressed overwhelming support for higher taxes on the wealthy and for universal health care. But in other ways they deviated from progressive orthodoxy. They were far more likely to emphasize the positive impact of entrepreneurial activity than progressives and had dim views of government regulation and labor unions that were closer to that of your average Republican donor than Democratic partisan.
If you plot those values on the matrix of conventional US politics, there appears to be a contradiction: The tech elite want an activist government, but they don’t want the government actively restricting them. (Sixty-two percent of the tech elite told the Stanford researchers that government should not tightly regulate business but should tax the wealthy to fund social programs.) When it comes to wealth redistribution and the social safety net, they sound like North Sea progressives. When you ask them about unions or regulations, they sound like the Koch brothers. Seen together, those are not talking points that play well with either party’s agenda.
The scholars Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles argue that the tech sector has actually stumbled into attitudes that approach a more coherent ideology than it would initially appear, one they have called “liberaltarianism.” Lindsey, who is vice president for policy at the Niskanen Center—a think tank that supports liberaltarian policies—describes the ideology as one animated by “the idea of a free-market welfare state, which sounds like an oxymoron to most people but sounds to us like what good 21st-century governance looks like, combining significant redistribution and social spending with go-go competitive markets.”
This is the new politics bubbling up in Silicon Valley. In an age characterized by ideological “sorting,” Silicon Valley’s fundamental cosmopolitanism puts it all but fatally at odds with the Trumpist Republican Party; that leaves the stray liberaltarians of the tech industry to make do with a home within the Democratic coalition. Whether this ideology has traction beyond the Big Tech hub of Northern California is debatable—as is whether the current progressive backlash against the tech elite makes any such coalition far-fetched. But whatever you may think of Big Tech, it is arguably the single most influential concentration of new wealth and information networks in the history of humankind. It would be good to have an accurate read on what its politics are, and how they came to be.
Few people have a better vantage point to observe the shifting worldview of Bay Area technologists than Stewart Brand. The founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Brand helped record the legendary Douglas Engelbart demo of an early graphical user interface in 1968, organized the first hacker conference in the ’80s, and cofounded the Well, one of the first online communities. Brand lives on a houseboat in Sausalito, and on a typically foggy day in late spring, I met him for lunch in a nearby diner to talk about the political changes he’s observed. “The people I knew in the Whole Earth Catalog days were libertarian, and so was I, in a sort of knee-jerk way,” he says. “I bought Buckminster Fuller’s line that if the world suddenly lost all of its politicians, everybody would carry on without a hiccup, but if it suddenly lost all its scientists and engineers, you wouldn’t make it to Monday—and therefore, don’t focus on politics, focus on real stuff.” Steve Jobs called the Whole Earth Catalog “one of the bibles” of…