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"Libertarian but very pro-government": the distinctive ideology of Silicon Valley

Greg Ferenstein says Michael Bloomberg is the favorite politician of Silicon Valley elite.
Greg Ferenstein says Michael Bloomberg is the favorite politician of Silicon Valley elite.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images for AFMDA

During his time as a writer for the popular Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch, Greg Ferenstein developed relationships with some of Silicon Valley's wealthiest and most influential figures. Since he left the site two years ago, he has embarked on an intensive study of the political views of Silicon Valley's elite.

He surveyed both Silicon Valley elites and members of the general public to determine what topics they agree and disagree on. We published some of Ferenstein's findings back in September, and since then he's fleshed out his viewed at greater length in an e-book.

If you're used to thinking about politics along conventional left-right lines, the Silicon Valley ideology Ferenstein sketches might initially seem like a mass of contradictions — it's simultaneously anti-regulation and pro-government, libertarian and pro-Obamacare. But Ferenstein argues that these views start to seem more coherent once you understand the unique perspective of technology elites.

Ferenstein and I spoke by phone last week; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Timothy B. Lee: What's a Silicon Valley Democrat?

Greg Ferenstein: Silicon Valley represents a new political category. It's like libertarianism but very pro-government. Silicon Valley is used as a synecdoche: a region that represents a broader demographic of urbanized, professional liberals.

The Silicon Valley ideology thinks about government as an investor rather than as a protector, arguing that the government's role is to invest in making people as awesome as possible. Silicon Valley Democrats want to make people in general educated and entrepreneurial, rather than singling out disadvantaged groups and regulating capitalism to protect them. It's pro-government and pro-capitalism. It is not a small-government ideology, but it tends to be a local-government ideology.

In terms of policy, that means things like government support for education and basic scientific research, free trade, and more high-skilled immigration. Silicon Valley Democrats like performance-based funding systems like charter schools. They like mandatory transparency measures, like police body cameras to fix relationships between the police and the public. They also like laws that make people the best versions of themselves, like promoting volunteering among high school students.

TBL: We're having this conversation in the middle of a presidential election. Which candidate or potential candidate comes closest to representing a "Silicon Valley Democrat" point of view?

GF: I would say Michael Bloomberg is the closest to the Silicon Valley ideology. I did a poll of technology CEOs and found that about 41 percent favor Bloomberg. Clinton is a distant second with 28 percent. She is a weak frontrunner among Silicon Valley elites — mostly because she's wavered on key issues that are important to them, like free trade and charter schools.

TBL: Which historical figure comes closest to representing the Silicon Valley Democrat perspective?

GF: Theodore Roosevelt. Progressivism — meaning modernism — jumped from the Democrats to the Republicans in the early 20th century. The idea of government efficiency became very popular in Roosevelt's short-lived Bull Moose Party. Around this time, scientists and engineers started to develop the modern technocratic state.

The word progressive then got co-opted by the labor movement and populist movements a few decades later. But Teddy Roosevelt's progressivism has been in the American timeline for a while. I think it's becoming powerful now thanks to the rise of the tech industry.

Greg Ferenstein.

TBL: A lot of the excitement on the left currently is around Bernie Sanders. How does he, and his ideology, fit into this discussion?

GF: Traditionally, the dividing line between traditional Democrats and tech Democrats is college education. Generally college-educated liberals are much more in line with this Obama/Clinton vision of government than the Bernie Sanders vision. If you have a college degree today, you're more likely to support Hillary Clinton than if you don't have a college degree.

This makes sense, because entrepreneurial professionals need a different role for government than a 9-to-5 blue-collar worker. They're in industries that need high-skilled workers. Free trade is good for them. So in some ways it's a self-interested outlook, because government's role for the creative class is different.

For the last 20 years, the majority of voters in the Democratic Party have been this college-educated demographic. Bernie Sanders represents an unusual surge in what was a trend toward the opposite ideology.

TBL: One possible counterargument here is that last quarter Bernie Sanders raised more money from employees of the five largest Silicon Valley companies than Clinton. Does that suggest Sanders's message resonates in the technology world more than you're giving him credit for?

GF: Bernie Sanders's success probably has more to do with his opponent than anything else. Hillary Clinton should be the new Democratic champion, but she's flipped on so many issues, like charters and free trade. She also has a kind of low-expectations pragmatism that turns off a demographic used to working on large-scale change. She's neither inspiring nor a reliable representative of the Silicon Valley Democrat view. I suspect Bloomberg would inspire the kind of support among the tech elite that Clinton has failed to capture.

TBL: Isn't one interpretation that some Democratic elites are simply out of step with the views of their own voters?

GF: I don't think so. Starting with the 2000s, educated Democrats started to become the majority of voters supporting Democrats in presidential elections. And you saw a concurrent shift in the leadership of the Democratic Party toward cities and toward issues they care about.

I've also done research suggesting that it is no longer just an educational issue, but also one of entrepreneurial occupations. I did polling on gig economy workers — asking people in a representative way whether they worked for Uber or Lyft or other "gig economy" companies. These workers have a political profile much closer to tech workers than conventional blue-collar workers. They're more friendly to high-skilled immigrants and more friendly to Hillary Clinton compared to people who self-identify with a labor union. This makes sense — they don't benefit from unionization any more than the tech industry.

A growing demographic of self-employed workers who also subscribe to this Silicon Valley ideology could form a brand new labor alliance. You're seeing that in places like New York, where low-income and less educated workers are protesting against Mayor de Blasio's anti-Uber policies alongside high-income workers and high-income donors.

I think it is unfair to see this as class warfare. Rather, it's about two different visions of what government can be. Both are reasonable. Both are good for different types of people. I think it's a cheap shot to make it about wealthy people versus non-wealthy people.

TBL: What are some examples of ideas that have particular resonance among Silicon Valley Democrats?

GF: When you start to think about this as a distinct ideology, you can start to wonder what are the signature policies they would support. One example is a pro-urbanization agenda. Urbanization has always been associated with big innovations, and a number of researchers have suggested that the more densely people live, the greater the innovation.

Certainly the tech sector relies on density. You're starting to see a backlash against NIMBY ["not in my backyard"] policies that don't allow tall buildings and dense development. There's been a push to allow dense development, both in [San Francisco] and in [New York]. That was a big push under Bloomberg. Silicon Valley Democrats tend to think that urban sprawl is bad for the economy and bad for inequality.

A second example is a basic minimum income. This has become a very popular idea in Silicon Valley for a number of reasons. The promise of technology isn't income equality but the elimination of poverty. That is making things like food and education and health so cheap that it doesn't matter how much wealthier people make.

But in order to make things cheaper, there's a certain amount of efficiency and automation that goes along with those products — and that can produce unemployment. The answer is direct cash transfers to everyone in the country. So a basic income appeals to Silicon Valley types who love efficiency because it will replace a lot of government regulation and welfare services. But it's also a very large redistribution of wealth, and will probably require a very large tax to pay for it.

It is absolutely false to consider Silicon Valley anti-tax. They are not anti-tax, and they are not anti-redistribution. They are generally anti-regulation, but they are pro anything that uses their wealth to help the common good in way that doesn't inhibit economic disruption and innovation.

A basic income allows for a broad safety net where people can quit their jobs and try new ideas. That's one of the premises of Uber. Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, is a huge fan of Obamacare, and that's what separates him from libertarians. Obamacare is pro-entrepreneurship. It took something that was tied to an employer and allowed people to quit their jobs.

By far the most important issue to Silicon Valley is education. Education is considered a panacea for almost every major social ill in the world. One of the popular ways that Silicon Valley wants to disrupt the education system is by creating their own. Businesses like Udacity, Coursera, and others are creating a vocationally oriented education system that allowed people after graduation to get a good job. One of the not-so-secret secrets about this new industry of educational startups is they're really creating an alternative, without teachers unions, without humanities people creating the curriculum.

Right now people can't get loans and other services to take courses from these education startups. People are pushing for policies to allow them to get academic credit and financial help to take courses at these schools.