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Is American Liberalism Splitting in Silicon Valley?


A new Stanford University study hints at a coming divide in American liberalism, and the rift seems centered on California’s Silicon Valley. This emerging technocratic movement on the Left breaks with traditional liberalism for its support for minimal regulation and opposition to labor unions.

The study’s results appear to confirm a growing split evidenced by recent controversy in the tech hub. When Barry Lynn, a researcher at the left-leaning New America Foundation’s (NAF), was fired allegedly for his criticism of Google—which donates millions of dollars to the foundation—many called into question the authoritarian political and ideological leanings of elites in the technology sector.

After Lynn and his research initiative, Open Markets, advocated for stricter anti-trust regulations and enforcement of tech giants, NAF wasted little time severing ties with his team. Lynn praised the European Commission’s decision to levy a $2.7 billion fine on Google, prompting complaints from Eric Schmidt (chairman of Google’s parent company) to NAF president and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter. Slaughter soon informed Lynn that NAF would no longer partner with Open Markets, and he was terminated after fifteen years with the foundation.

It isn’t hard to see why. Eric Schmidt’s foundation has provided more than $21 million to NAF since the foundation was established in 1999. Slaughter later admitted that part of the reason for Lynn’s firing was because the researcher violated the foundation’s unspoken “norms about providing a heads-up when you are doing something that could have an impact on the funding of your fellow directors.”

It’s no secret that Google’s leadership holds left-wing political views, and Lynn is no conservative. But the clashes between tech firms like Google and the European Commission showcase a significant rift in the West Coast’s technocratic Left and the union-dominated Left on the East Coast, whose policies have traditionally dominated American liberalism.

Stanford University’s September 5 study, “Wealthy Elites’ Policy Preferences and Economic Inequality: The Case of Technology Entrepreneurs,” makes a data-backed case for a coming divide within the Left over the role of government regulation and labor unions in the coming decades. The study surveyed “over 600 elite technology company leaders and founders,” finding that liberals in the tech industry are often more conservative than Republicans on some economic issues and their

hostility to government regulation, especially of labor markets, and their extremely negative views towards unions appear likely to lead to high-profile conflicts within the Democratic Party coalition going forward.

But the survey showed that 75 percent supported Hilary Clinton, while only 9 percent supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. (Most attribute this to the fact that the tech sector emerged out of the countercultural movements of the 1950s and 60s.)

The contrast between these branches within the Left are striking. 82 percent of responders believe the government should make it easier to fire people, compared to three out of four rank-and-file Democrats surveyed who believe it should be harder to fire people. Seventy-four percent of tech entrepreneurs would like to see labor unions’ political influence decrease, compared to 33 percent of Democratic voters and only 18 percent of non-tech, Democratic donors. They’re also as likely as Republicans to believe that government regulation does more harm than good.

Traditional liberals have often castigated Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as being disruptive, greedy libertarians who contribute to income inequality, which many liberals see as one of the country’s worst evils. However, the Stanford study shows that only 23.5 percent of tech founders agree with libertarian philosophy as opposed to 44 percent of rank-and-file Democrats. Part of this stems from tech elites’ belief in income redistribution. Three-fourths of tech founders support the government raising taxes on those making more than $250,000, while 82 percent support government-provided universal healthcare.

On domestic policies, however, tech elites are significantly to the left of rank-and-file Democrats. They strongly favor cosmopolitanism and globalism. They also favor loose immigration policies, bolstered in part by the way their industry has benefitted from high-skilled immigrants. A larger percentage are pro-choice in abortion than rank-and-file Democrats, and they are more likely to favor same-sex marriage (96 percent, compared to 74 percent) and gun control laws (82 percent, compared to 52 percent). They are also far more likely than typical Democrats to favor free trade policies.

CRC’s Matthew Vadum has shown how the secular, social liberalism of pro-free market tech elites has made it difficult for them to find a political home as their potential for political power has increased. In December 2014, Vadum noted that, according to the Financial Times, Google had already surpassed Goldman Sachs in political donations—“a sign of Silicon Valley’s increasingly assertive efforts to shape policy and counter critical scrutiny in Washington.” Currently, the majority of the ten wealthiest Americans have made their fortunes in the technology sector and their increasing political involvement has led recent federal candidates to refer to northern California as “America’s political ATM.”

The entrepreneurial environment in which tech elites accrued their wealth incentivizes them to oppose government regulation of businesses and the unions which so strongly characterized the American Left in the 20th century. The study concludes that they “are likely to push the Democratic Party to be more conservative in these areas.”

As the fallout with Google and NAF shows, the growing rift in economic policy between traditional liberals and tech elites is likely to take center stage in the struggle for the heart and soul of the American Left.