President Barack Obama Talks With Mark Zuckerberg. Source: White House

An Attempt To Measure What Silicon Valley Really Thinks About Politics And The World (In 14 Graphs)

Quantifying What The Internet Elite Believe (Version 0.5)


5 sentence takeaway:

This is a chapter from a data-driven series about Silicon Valley’s unique political ideology: a pro-business liberalism, which often gets mistaken as libertarianism.

The data is based on a first-of-its-kind representative poll of Internet startup founders’ political and moral beliefs.

Philosophically, the people who found internet startups (“founders”) are best described as idealists: a belief that there is always a better solution that benefits most people and reduces conflict. Politically, many founders reject labor unions, sovereignty, regulation, smaller government, and militarism because all of these assume some conflict of interest between citizens, the government, other nations, and corporations.

Internet founders believe the best role for government is competitive and direct funding for non-government agencies to solve social problems, whether it’s parent-run public charter schools, loans to immigrant entrepreneurs for an alternative energy startup, or scientific research at a public university.

(click here for all available chapters).

3-Minute Visual Summary

I argue that Internet startup founders are best thought of as a completely new political category that mixes pro-capitalism libertarianism and government-friendly liberalism, taking root within the Democratic Party.

“Most of Silicon Valley, most of the executives, tend to be Democrats” ~ Early Facebook investor and PayPal co-Founder, Peter Thiel

Politicians that mistake Silicon Valley as libertarian and ignore their staunch collectivism can end up embarrassing themselves (like Senator Rand Paul did during a campaign event in San Francisco, when he asked “Who’s a part of the ‘leave-me-alone-coalition’ ” and only three people clapped).

Philosophically, founders’ beliefs are based on both a radical optimism about the future and the interdependence of all of humanity.

Traditionally (and in the survey I conducted) Democrats tend to worry more about a conflict between corporations and citizens, while Republicans see a conflict of interest between the government and citizens. Comparatively, founders are the most likely to say that there is no conflict between any major institutions or groups in society. As a result, many they reject labor unions, immigration limits, smaller government, and regulation.

Founders also tend to believe that all change, inherently, makes things better over the long run — whether in politics or in business. Whereas the public is more likely to believe that change can often make things worse — and more change won’t make it better — founders see all change as evolutionary. Things may get worse initially, but the faster anything is disrupted, the quicker we find better ways of doing things.

“Wanting to connect people is a pretty deep thing to me. It’s something that I’ve cared about since I was a kid. My mom told me these stories that a lot of boys when they’re younger have like Ninja Turtles or some toys and they’re fighting. I just wanted them to make them connect, and form villages and be peaceful and communicate. ‘Why can’t you guys just talk to each other and workout your problems?’ Why do you need to be kicking each other?’ ” ~ Mark Zuckerberg, recalling stories his mother told him on the unique way he played with action figures as a child.

This moral idealism takes shape in a unique political ideology: a belief that the purpose of government is to help people from all over the world collaborate, share ideas, and become the best versions of themselves

Founders believe in massive investments in education because they see it as a panacea for nearly all problems in society; they want more global alliances at the expense of sovereignty, few restrictions on immigration, and believe in state incentives to make people healthier, more educated, and civically active.

“It’s the hacker ethic that a lot of problems in the world are information inefficiencies” ~ Facebook Founding President, Sean Parker (personal communication)
“I believe in the elimination of borders and free commerce as a route to peace. Barriers necessarily imply violence.” ~ Wikipedia Founder, Jimmy Wales.

Section I: Unconventional Political Loyalties

Alphabet (Google) Chairman Eric Schmidt working directly with President Obama’s campaign team

Nearly every billionaire under 40 has come from the tech industry. They will likely exert a strong influence over our lives.

Source: Forbes

Q: What party do most tech founders belong to?

Overwhelmingly Democratic: 83% of employees top tech firms gave to Obama in 2012, 64% of all donations from founders and investors have gone to Democratic candidates, and 43% of startup founders self-identify as Democrats (31% don’t identify with a party).

“Most of Silicon Valley, most of the executives, tend to be Democrats” ~ Paypal Co-founder, Peter Thiel (personal communication)

Q: Why do tech founders get stereotyped as Libertarian?

There are a lot of critiques of Silicon Valley’s politics. Nearly all of them claim, in some form or another, that the tech elite are apolitical technocrats who just want the government to get out of their hair while they build products that solve problems much better than bureaucrats ever could.

Indeed, many startup founders seem like libertarians — at least when it comes to free trade and labor unions:

“Nothing good comes from organized labor, just increased cost, slowed productivity and politicized policies.” ~ Robert Bingham, Founder, SimpleNet.

Q: Then Why Do Founders Fund Democrats?

Because founders are often fans of some federal programs. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who, for a long time, prominently displayed Ayn Rands’ Fountain Head for his Twitter avatar, actually seems to like Obamacare:

“[Obamacare] It’s huge…The democratization of those types of benefits allow people to have more flexible ways to make a living, they don’t have to be working for The Man.” ~ Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Moreover, when a viral Wall Street Op-Ed came out discounting the role of government innovation, Google Executive and “Godfather” of the early Internet’s prototype, Vint Cerf, went livid, accusing the author of a blatant misreading of history.

“The U.S. government, including [military agencies] ARPA, NSF, DOE, NASA among others absolutely facilitated, underwrote, and pioneered the development of the Internet. The private sector engaged around 12 years into the program (about 1984–85) and was very much involved in powering the spread of the system. But none of this would have happened without this research support.” ~ Google Executive Vint Cerf

And, it’s true, many founders love some of the most controversial big government programs. These are not your run-of-the-mill libertarians.

“Libertarians are good, but they don’t stop nazis or build roads” ~ Jonathan Caras, Co-Founder, Glide.me

Q: So, is there a label for this kind of thing?

A lot of writers have scratched their heads trying to classify the Valley’s unusual politics, calling it “quasi-libertarian” and “peer-progressivism”. Back in the 80s, a tech-obsessed faction of the Democratic party called themselves “Atari Democrats”.

I suspect these terms never stuck because nothing ever really captured this novel ideology. So, I set out to study it more thoroughly.

Section II: Studying Something Entirely New

Photo Credit: The Atlantic
“I’m pro-knowledge Economy” ~ Mark Zuckerberg, on how he describes his political identity

What is the survey you conducted?

I conducted what I believe is the first randomized political opinion poll of startup founders. For two years, I spearheaded politics at TechCrunch, a leading Silicon Valley tech blog. TechCrunch built the largest database of technology founders and investors in the world, called CrunchBase.

I randomly emailed a subset of founders in CrunchBase. 1,200 were emailed and 129 founders are in the official survey sample (for a margin of error of roughly +/- 7.5%, which is standard for so-called “elite samples”. See methods below for more details and for calculating margin of errors for subsamples).

How did you come up with your questions?

Initially, I tried giving founders standard survey tools, collected from established Pew polls or psychology questionnaires. My first batch of respondents, pulled from my personal network, immediately rejected the very premise of many of the questions. It was a disappointing failure.

For instance, I tried asking the standard libertarian litmus test, whether founders believed more in government regulation or the free market; too few of the respondents would give me a good answer. They supported both the free market and government.

It became evident that one of the reasons we didn’t really understand technologists was because political researchers were trying to cram them into a pre-existing bucket.

So, after dozens of failed interviews, I came up with a rotating series of more than 30 questions based on the way founders described their philosophical and political beliefs.

How do founders describe themselves?

Almost universally, founders describe themselves, first and foremost, as optimists:

“What makes Silicon Valley special? Eternal optimism of the innovative mind” ~ Noted tech blogger, Om Malik
‘I’m a pathologically optimistic person” ~ Wikipedia Founder, Jimmy Wales
“I am an optimist. I think you need to be, to be an entrepreneur.” ~ Mark Zuckerberg
“I’m maybe the most optimistic person I know. I mean, I’m incredibly optimistic. I’m optimistic arguably to a fault, especially in terms of new ideas.” ~ Netscape founder and investor, Mark Andreessen

What does it mean to be an ‘optimist’ or ‘idealist’, exactly?

Calling oneself an optimist is more than just fluffy rhetoric; it’s founded on two core philosophical assumptions about the world: 1). Change will nearly always make things better, and 2). There’s no inherent conflict between major groups in society (workers vs. corporations, citizens vs. government, or America vs. other nations).

In other words, it’s a belief that most of humanity has the same goal and anytime we think we’ve found a good solution, there’s always a better solution worth exploring.

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often” ~ Anonymous Internet founder survey respondent
“This is the purpose of Twitter: if you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you’re less likely to want to kill them and more likely to want to help them.” ~ Biz Stone, Co-founder, Twitter, Aspen Ideas Festival 2015

Why do Founders love “disruption” and change?

In the Valley, “Disrupt” is a buzzword that startup founders frequently use to describe how their businesses will make money. One of the largest tech conference in San Francisco is literally called, “Disrupt,” and showcases startups that will completely overhaul health, education, or energy.

Tech critics often slam this odd tendency, since in much of the world, “disruption” is not always a good thing. After all, change can be bad.

But, most Founders believe there exists some ideal point: a perfect solution to any given problem. Change, over the long run, is nearly always good. To disrupt simply means to shed imperfection, exposing ever more perfect solutions beneath.

Indeed, to give readers a flavor of how their idealism plays out in product and politics, Alphabet’s (the parent company of Google) Eric Schmidt has admitted that Google should never display more than one search result:

“When you use Google, do you get more than one answer? Of course you do…Well, that’s a bug. We should be able to give you the right answer just once. We should know what you meant. You should look for information. We should get it exactly right.” ~ Alphabet Chairman, Eric Schmidt to Charlie Rose

Why do founders really think that everyone can get along?

Because they hold extreme beliefs in interdependence; this faith is more of an organizational strategy than a moral code. They believe that nearly everything people do, even what someone eats for breakfast, makes a significant impact on other people’s lives. They reject an atomistic view of society.

In explaining his decision to give away Tesla’s patents to the public, Elon Musk compared the economy to a sinking ship.

“If we’re all in a ship together and the ship has some holes in it, and we’re sort of bailing water out of it, and we have a great design for a bucket, then even if we’re bailing out way better than everyone else, we should probably still share the bucket design.” ~ Tesla Founder, Elon Musk

Founders often criticize a “zero-sum” view of the world.

“Most economic fallacies derive from assuming there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another” ~ Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt, tweeting a quote from economist Milton Friedman.
“We are an interdependent society — one’s obesity and/or diabetes affects how much I pay for health care.” ~ Andrew Fischer, Founder, Choozle.

Section III: Info-topianism


So, then, what is the philosophy of founders?

Founders believe that the solution to nearly every problem is more innovation, conversation or education. That is, they believe that all problems are information problems. The purpose of life is just a matter of discovering the ideal solution.

“It’s the hacker ethic that a lot of problems in the world are information inefficiencies” ~ Facebook Founding President, Sean Parker (personal communication)
“In my opinion, if everyone had a perfect education, I believe there is no problem that could not be solved” ~ Alex Wood, Co-founder, Waggle.com

Don’t founders just want more information so they can advertise?

Yes and no; founders build information products because they seem to believe that transparency is a panacea. For instance, founders believe that we should prioritize sharing information at the expense of individual privacy and also believe that dialogue alone can solve disputes between military enemies.

That is, to measure faith in information, I asked two questions:

  1. ‘Some people believe we must choose between saving lives and keeping sensitive health information private. If this conflict ends up happening, and we must choose, do you value privacy or saving lives more?’ (For background on this controversy, more here).
  2. ‘How often do you believe that military enemies can resolve their differences through dialogue alone?’ If a respondent answers “rarely,” it means they don’t put much stock in the idea that conflict is just a matter of failing to understand the other side.

As an example of transparency as an ideology, tech investor Tim Chang explains why he thinks virtual reality technology can solve centuries-old religious strife and social inequality:

“One way that you could potentially solve against wars and poverty and all these things is if a billionaire could live a day in a life of a homeless person…Don’t you think he or she might have more empathy for what that person’s situation is like? If you know that an Israeli and someone from Palestine were to swap their day in each other’s lives through this kind of technology, it would create more room for common ground discussion.”

So, there’s no doubt founders want to make money. But, they also believe it’s profitable to solve endemic issues through transparency. Hence, I describe them as idealists.

Is “belief in information” a new ideology?

Oh, definitely not. Belief in wisdom is a very old, somewhat forgotten ideology, made famous by the Ancient Greeks, European Renaissance philosophers, and American Jeffersonians.

“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”~ Socrates

About 1,500 years after the Athenians, the patrons of the French Revolution replaced Christian churches with monuments of Reason. Below is a depiction of the ‘Temple of Reason”. This was during the “Enlightenment Era,” one of the few times in history when the belief in Reason (big “R”) was the reigning ideology.

About a century later, Thomas Jefferson would propose an unorthodox idea — a universal education system — premised on the idea that it would alleviate partisanship, extremism, and indifference.

“If the legislature would add to that a perpetual tax of a cent a head on the population of the state it would set agoing at once, and forever maintain, a system of primary or ward schools, and a university where it might be taught, in its highest degree, every branch of science useful in our time and country; and it would rescue us from the tax of Toryism, fanaticism and indifferentism to their own state.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, proposing a public education system to alleviate social problems

This kind of info-topianism is an old belief system. It was super popular in the European Renaissance, but it never really crossed the Atlantic in sufficient numbers to create entire political movement — until now.

Section IV: How Idealism Translates To Politics


How do Founders’ core values differ from traditional Democrats and Libertarians?

Libertarians care about liberty, traditional Democrats value equality, founders prioritize something entirely different.

Unlike Libertarians, Founders are extremely collectivist. As I was conducting pre-interviews to design the questionnaire instrument, I discovered that founders spoke presumptively of a tightly interconnected world: everything we do, even what we eat, affects other people.

So, I turned it into a question, asking respondents whether they think everything we do affects other people, justifying government intervention in personal decisions. Most founders agreed.

“I feel [government] “encouraging” or even incentivizing positive behaviors is supportive, and thinking personal decisions in health don’t affect others is myopic” ~ Anonymous Internet founder survey respondent

My favorite example of Silicon Valley’s collectivist tendencies is when Senator Rand Paul embarrassed himself during a campaign event. Expecting the applause he normally gets when he asks, “Who’s a part of the leave-me-alone-coalition?” — and only three people clapped (though the crowd did go wild for his Anti-spying stance).

Then, how do their beliefs on equality differ from traditional Democrats?

In comparison to Democrats, founders don’t believe in equality of outcome, but equality of ensuring opportunity. To be specific, equality of opportunity is not some social contract ethic about what people “deserve” to earn if they’re successful, but about maximizing people’s contribution to society.

They see mediocre economic growth as a bigger problem for broad prosperity than discrepancies in wealth (a belief system that, admittedly, benefits a wealthier class).

I believe if we have 4 percent a year of GDP growth, all these problems would get solved,” ~ Paypal Co-Founder, Peter Thiel, on inequality (personal communication).
I disagree massively with the notion that financial inequality is inherently bad. If you’ve ever spent time in third-world countries, you know what absolute destitution looks like…Financial inequality is not our problem, it’s lack of education regarding management of resources. Alleviating poverty is a great goal; removing the rewards of hard work (i.e. ‘reducing financial inequality’) is a separate and terrible goal. ~ Ashley Parkes, Founder, Aloncii.com

Q: So, what do founders imagine an equal world looks like?

Founders’ honest beliefs on equality are hard to extract. They often skirt the issue by talking about opportunity instead of equality of outcome. So, I asked them a more difficult question: is meritocracy naturally unequal?

That is, in a perfect meritocracy, where income is distributed exactly in proportion to one’s contribution to society and everyone has an equal shot at being successful, what does the economy look like?

100% of a small sample founders said they believe that a truly meritocratic economy would be very unequal.

This is a key distinction: opportunity is about maximizing people’s potential, which founders tend to believe is highly unequal. When asked about what percent of national income the top 10% would hold, a super majority (67%) of founders believed that the richest individuals would control 50% or more of total income, while only 31% of the public believes such an outcome would occur in a meritocratic society.

*(Note: small sample size (13 founders and 31 Amazon Turks). This question was added late. See methods for more details).

How do founders want to run public services, like schools and hospitals?

Founders want the government to be run like a business; they prefer competition among public services. This helps explain why tech elites, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, have given hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools.

Charters are often highly experimental, union-less public schools that are managed by performance-based metrics. Indeed, the federal education law, itself, Race to the Top, is basically a giant prize competition, which awards a greater share of federal dollars to schools and districts that outperform their peers.

Teacher unions have aggressively fought performance-based funding, as one aptly titled New York Times Op-Ed plainly noted, “Teaching Is Not A Business”.

The Silicon Valley elite have also championed so-called “social impact bonds,” which would allow someone like Aol co-founder Steve Case to invest in an experimental prisoner reform project and profit if fewer criminals returned to jail. It mixes government programs with market performance.

“The smartest people are outside government” ~ Todd Park, President Obama’s Senior Technology Advisor
“Problem with government orgs is they don’t really have an incentive to innovate or improve processes, services, customer experience and are run very efficiently. if they were run in more of a private market environment like startups they could have better ROI and deliver better service for all. Competition is a healthy way to encourage that. ~ Anonymous startup founder survey respondent

How do founders think about foreign policy?

Generally, they’re not fans of sovereignty. They like international organizations, such as the United Nations, and are almost unanimously pro-free trade. Whenever they’re presented with options that pit sovereignty vs. global collaboration, founders are more likely to choose binding international alliances that require everyone to cooperate.

“I believe in the elimination of borders and free commerce as a route to peace. Barriers necessarily imply violence.” ~ Wikipedia Founder, Jimmy Wales.
“Protectionist trade policies trade domestic equality for international inequality.” ~ Dustin Moskovitz, Facebook Co-Founder

What about immigration? Don’t founders just want cheap high-skilled labor?

Founders support for immigration appears to be more of an extension of their foreign policy beliefs than some short-term business proposal.

Founders want more immigrants generally, but especially high-skilled workers. 20% of founders believe in completely open borders (no immigration limits).

Do founders have a unique political value?

Yes, founders value intelligent contribution and believe that citizens are the source of solutions.

Examples of this ideology are parent-run charter schools, high-skilled immigrant entrepreneurs, tax credits for homeowners experimenting with alternative energy, or community carpools powered by Uber. Since citizens are the source of unforeseeable solutions, it is, therefore, the government’s job to invest in everyone’s intelligent contributions.

“Steve Jobs used to get a tear in his eye when I would say ‘What motivates you?’”, [Jobs responded] “Just letting each person have creative tools to fulfill his or her potential. That’s what we’re trying to do here”. ~ Steve Jobs biographer, Walter Isaacson
“There’s a particular religion that we all represent, and it goes something like this: ‘if you take a large number of people and you empower them with communication tools and opportunities to be created, society gets better’. … the combination of empowerment, innovation, and creativity will be our solution, but that is a religion in-of-itself” ~Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, speaking at a small technology dinner at the Aspen Institute
“A united, educated, and inspired society has limitless capabilities” ~ Anonymous founder survey respondent

One of the key questions I ask in the survey is: “If the government could solve one of these four issues, which would have the most impact on society Today?”

  1. Reduce threats to national security
  2. Reduce financial inequality
  3. Reduce government intervention
  4. *Reduce uninformed or inactive citizens (key response option)

Internet founders are the only group I’ve found that prioritizes active citizenship as much as solving inequality or government overreach.

Will This ideology take over the Democratic party?

I think it’s already happening, mostly because college educated Democrats identify more with this belief more than labor union workers (and college-educated Democrats are now the majority of voters in the presidential elections).

But, the details of this argument are in an entirely different chapter (coming soon).

Notes:

  • Some quotes have been edited for clarity
  • Methodological details and raw data here.