Joel Kotkin wrote a thought-provoking piece in The Daily Beast the other day about how Silicon Valley’s elites are predominantly supporting Democrats.
It wasn’t always this way, Kotkin argues. While firms were in the business of manufacturing hardware, they were concerned with much of the same things as any other business: minimizing onerous government regulations which impact the bottom line, ensuring that utilities such as electricity were as cheap as possible, and making public-funded education good enough to keep their employees content. The Valley was not a lock for either party, but the voting pattern was predictable: Republicans and business-minded Democrats were favored.
But with the switch away from manufacture into software engineering, the calculus has changed:
Today’s digital aristocrats manufacture virtually nothing here; anything made in volume is produced outside California and usually out of the country. Software-based firms don’t worry about energy costs, since they can simply place their heavy user server farms in places like the Pacific Northwest with low electricity rates. They do not use much in the way of toxic chemicals or groundwater, making it easier to avoid scrutiny and harassment from California’s hyper-aggressive environmental regulators. Because they rely on an increasingly narrow band of highly educated employees from elite schools, the secular decline of the state’s higher education system hardly impacts them. And as many of their employees are young and tend to buy houses after collecting the spoils of an IPO, even high housing costs and poor public K-12 education don’t matter much.
Silicon Valley types support green causes because doing so does not impact their bottom line while aligning broadly with their comforting self-image as being broadly progressive. One can go even farther; shifting as much of the tax burden as possible from income and payroll taxes to energy and carbon taxes would shift the tax burden away from Silicon Valley onto conventional mining, manufacturing and agricultural interests. And since tech companies have a virtually union-free workforce and no pension burden, they’re not forced to reckon with the ever-widening cracks in the Blue social model which we’ve been writing about here for months. On cultural issues as well, the tech meisters tend to go Dem. Issues like IP protection through legislation and trade diplomacy matter hugely to the Valley as well; it makes sense to keep presidents sweet. President Obama, who just opened a field office for his reelection campaign in the Valley, is keen to harness his new constituency’s enthusiasm.
American politics has always been a complicated business in which party and ideological allegiances don’t always track perfectly with class interests. Some of America’s richest and most dynamic tech firms are perfectly happy with blue model politicians because the model’s flaws scarcely touch them. This won’t save the blue social model — just like Silicon Valley can’t save California — but it can make the struggle to replace it longer and more interesting.
Building bridges to Silicon Valley is one of the things that a movement to recast the American Dream will have to figure out how to do.