How Silicon Valley Is Overhauling the Democratic Party (in 11 charts)
A growing demographic of college-educated citizens in high-skilled industries represents an entirely new liberal political ideology taking root within the Democratic party.
This new ideology is transforming the role of the government to be about directly investing in citizens, so that they can become as educated, innovative, and civic as possible, rather than have government restrain capitalism through regulation.
The split in the Democratic party began with Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” coalition in the early 90s, but has been gaining power as the tech industry eclipsed labor unions as a larger donor to liberal candidates and causes.
Additionally, the first polling of full-time independent contractors (gig workers) reveals that they have a political profile much closer to tech workers than unionized service workers, and they could form a new entrepreneurial labor alliance of low and high-skilled workers, which hasn’t happened in the Democratic Party in 167 years.
This post is one chapter in an online book about power in the 21st Century (click here for a stylized summary and table of contents and here for statistical methods).
5-Minute Graph Summary
It is no longer the case that Democrats are the party that embrace change and Republicans grip desperately to the past. While most liberals embrace cultural change (i.e., gay marriage), Democrats are bitterly divided over economic change and disruption.
“Needs for security and certainty generally yield culturally conservative but economically left-wing preferences,” ~ Journal of Personal Political Psychology (2014).
The kinds of Democrats who go to college, get an entrepreneurial career or move to a big city — those who embrace a relatively unpredictable life — want an entirely different role for the federal government: they want the state to invest in modernization, with more high-skilled immigration, expansive free trade agreements, and performance-based charter schools.
Beginning in the 1980s and culminating in 2004, Republicans suffered a mass exodus of high-skilled professionals as they migrated in droves to the Democratic Party
“The replacement of working-class whites with upscale professionals has turned the Democratic coalition into an alliance with a built-in class division….While constituting a minority, the relatively upscale wing clearly dominates party policy and provides the majority of the activists who run campaigns, serve as delegates to the convention and have become the core of the party’s donor base.” ~ Columbia Journalism Professor and NYT Columnist, Thomas B. Edsall.
College-educated Democrats quickly became the majority of voters
In the 80s, a cadre of self-proclaimed “Atari Democrats” heavily aligned with Silicon Valley pioneered an entirely new legislative agenda for the party. Congressmen from high-skill districts write laws to help citizens become the best versions of themselves, rather than restrain capitalism to protect certain groups
Dense cities of professionals are becoming power hubs for the new Democrats.
In the 70s, states like California were once solid Reagan Republican territory; increasingly, the most influential members of the Democratic Party come from dense cities: think San Francisco (Leader Nancy Pelosi) and New York (Sen. Hillary Clinton).
For decades, automation has chipped away at union jobs and their lobby war chest. Today, the communications industry is a far more powerful presence in DC than the once all-mighty labor unions.
When unions and Silicon Valley conflict, Democrats have now come to side with the tech agenda on many major issues.
More recently, the rise of full-time entrepreneurial independent contractor in the “gig economy” is creating a fascinating new labor class that is more similar to tech workers in their political beliefs than unionized workers.
It is within the Democratic Party history to forge alliances between low and high-skill industries to promote modernization and economic expansion.
The new innovation-obsessed liberal will split the party, creating a libertarian-cousin within the Democratic Party
Stats Note: Some of the polling differences between groups seem so small. How do I interpret them?
In public opinion polling, it only takes a few percentage points of disagreement to turn an otherwise pleasant disagreement into a bitter street fight.
For example, Pew found that libertarians — the small-government wing of Republicans associated with the Tea Party— disagree with the public by only 15 percentage points on core issues.
56% of self-identified libertarians believe that “government regulation does more harm than good,” compared to 47% of the public.
Indeed, on a range of issues over the last 25 years, Pew found that Republicans and Democrats often only disagree by less than 10 points. This is to say, when you see a half-an-inch difference in a bar graph, realize that (sometimes) this reflects groups in a knock-down-drag-out political brawl.
End of the summary. Continue on for a Q&A long read.
Section I: A New, New Democrat
“I am a New Democrat” ~ President Barack Obama, 2009
Don’t Democrats Generally Favor Regulating Business?
Not necessarily. Just like Republicans, Democrats are a big tent party with their own internal conflicts. Across the board, college-education is the factor that separates pro-capitalism, global-action Democrats from unionized, America-first Democrats.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton attempted to rebrand this faction as “The New Democrats”. But, the name really never stuck and Democrats have been stereotyped as a monolithic ideology for decades. At the time, “New Democrats” were a centrist movement, but with the help of Silicon Valley, it’s morphing into something which is neither libertarian nor traditionally liberal.
What’s the main difference between traditional and these tech Democrats?
Tech Democrats embrace economic change and uncertainty. Recent political science research finds that the same psychological needs for stability that predict anti-gay attitudes in Republicans also predicts support for business regulations in Democrats. A simple, yet powerful predictor of anti-gay attitudes in Republicans is a well-established psychological trait known as “openness to experience” — whether someone prefers familiar faces and situations or likes to try new things.
“Needs for security and certainty generally yield culturally conservative but economically left-wing preferences,” ~ Journal of Personal Political Psychology
Riffing off this recent research, I designed a poll of political psychology questions for the public, in order to tease apart the differences between types of liberals.
I discovered that Democrats and Independents who support more high-skilled immigrants are more likely to say that they personally like to try new things rather than have the same familiar experiences (the kind of people who try a new restaurant every week rather than stick to their old standby); they’re also more likely to believe that change “nearly always” leads to a better outcomes, over the long run.
In other words, these new Democrats are far more optimistic about uncertainty, both personally and economically.
“I tend to believe that most Silicon Valley people are very much long-term optimists….Could we have a bad 20 years? Absolutely. But, If you’re working towards progress, your future will be better than your present”. ~ LinkedIn Co-Founder and Obama supporter, Reid Hoffman
How does “embracing economic change” translate into government policies?
Democrats who are comfortable about uncertainty prefer that the government, itself, be run like a business and a competitive marketplace. This helps explain Silicon Valley’s obsession with government-run charters, schools that are often run like a tech company: data-driven, union-less, and highly experimental (Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have given hundreds of millions of dollars to the charter school movement).
Isn’t this basically libertarianism?
It’s a myth that Silicon Valley and pro-business Democrats are simply libertarians in disguise. Libertarians are individualists — that is, they prioritize liberty. These new Democrats are aggressively collectivist.
Presidential candidates have learned this difficult fact at their own peril. When Libertarian icon Rand Paul visited San Francisco, he opened up his campaign speech with a line that usually garnered him cheap applause: “Who’s a part of the leave me alone coalition?” — only three people clapped. It was awkward.
How did you measure that some Democrats are more “collectivist” than libertarians?
Initially, I set out to measure whether Internet founders had a “leave me alone” mentality (to use Rand Paul’s words). Libertarianism is based on the idea that most of our decisions don’t affect other people, so there’s no justification for government involvement — otherwise known as the “harm principle”.
Startup founders and college-educated liberals fundamentally reject an atomistic conception of Society; government should be involved in personal decisions, such as finishing school or eating healthy, because they believe that personal decisions ripple out and significantly affect most people in Society.
“We are an interdependent society — one’s obesity and/or diabetes affects how much I pay for health care,” ~ Andrew Fischer, startup co-founder, Choozle, a consumer behavior analytics company
In America we have a Declaration of Independence, but our history, our advancements, our global strength all point to an American declaration of interdependence. ~ Cory Booker, Democratic Senator and frequent recipient of Silicon Valley political donations
Who disagrees with meritocracy and local control?
Holy moly, labor unions loathe this approach to governance. In 2014, UC Berkeley professor David Kirp wrote a viral, scathing New York Times Op-Ed attacking the meritocratic approach to merit-based teacher pay.
In 1997, the lead on Clinton’s signature welfare-to-work program resigned in protest and penned a searing Op-Ed in the Atlantic, “The law is excessively flexible on what the states can do with the block-grant funds,” wrote (now) Georgetown Professor, Peter Edelman.
Years later, when President Obama proposed a new pay-for-performance wage structure for federal employees, public unions freaked out.
“Pay tied to performance rating creates a level of mistrust,” ~ William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees
The labor unions’ preference is for uniformity; a comfortable and predictable blanket against the tribulations of market forces. Things may not radically improve, the old liberal mantra goes, but at least they won’t get worse.
How do these new Democrats want to run the government?
Tech Democrats are far more likely to believe that empowered citizens can solve their problems better than the government.
This ideology believes that parent-run charter schools are better than a big publicly administered school, neighborhood watches can be more effective at fighting crime than adding more police, and carpooling co-workers are better at reducing traffic congestion than adding more buses (think Uber). In most of these cases, the government invests money through competitive grants but doesn’t run the program.
To measure this belief, I asked respondents to choose one of four common ways that the government could have the biggest impact in Society.
- Reduce crime and threats to national security
- Reduce government intervention in the economy
- Reduce financial inequality
- Reduce the number of uninformed and inactive citizens (*key option)
Overwhelmingly, Democrats choose 2 of the 4: either reducing financial inequality or the number of disaffected citizens. When I split all respondents by their answer on inequality and active citizenship, the profiles between old and new Democrats shines much brighter — unusually bright across a range of issue for just a single question.
Thus, I refer to this new tech Democrat as “Civicrat”, for their optimistic belief that citizens are the solutions to most problems — not government agencies.
“The smartest people are outside government” ~ Todd Park, President Obama’s Senior Technology Advisor
“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
Are there Civicrats in Congress?
Yes, and they generally represent densely populated cities with high concentrations of industries which rely on government resources for research, more immigrants, and an educated workforce.
I hand-coded every single law (in 2013) authored by select members of Congress, along with Democrats from the influential House Judiciary committee, looking at whether lawmakers focused on protecting marginalized groups or laws that make citizens the best versions of themselves(e.g., promoting environmental sustainability or up-skilling citizens for modern jobs).
Any bill that primarily targeted disadvantaged groups got coded “Protectocratic” and any bill related to merit-based funding, mandatory transparency, or economic growth got labeled “Optimal”.
And, there’s a very strong correlation between the proportion of “optimal” laws a Congressman authors and the predominance of high-skilled industries in their district (or the proportion of so-called “creative class” workers).
If Civicrats Ran Congress, What Would It Look like?
As a good illustration, let’s look at the different Democratic approaches to tackling the same problem: energy efficiency in public buildings.
Silicon Valley favorite Mark Warner authored the “State Energy Race to the Top Initiative Act”, which pegged federal funding to a national ranking of the most successful alternative energy programs.
His more traditional counterpart, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, is a stalwart defender of the disadvantaged, authoring laws on everything from women-run businesses to sexual-orientation discrimination on citizen juries.
Her energy efficiency plan, the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, was a 135-page regulation tomb, outlining baseline efficiency standards for every conceivable scenario.
In other words, Civicrats support the exact same issues, but in a radically more free market style. Traditional liberals, on the other hand, like predictability and uniformity.
What about the 2016 Election?
Bernie Sanders is a gift: prior the frizzy-haired populist’s meteoric rise in the Democratic primary, unanimous support for Clinton had obscured the distinctions between different liberal factions.
On nearly every issue, Clinton supporters are much closer to college-educated, highly-skilled liberals.
The next section is about why college-educated voters could give Clinton a powerful edge in the upcoming Democratic primary
Section II: How Tech Democrats Come To Power
Who is winning the battle for Democratic leadership?
Civicrats are winning, mostly because highly educated citizens are now voting Democratic.
What’s this have to do with Silicon Valley?
As technology automates the old service workers out of existence and unionized industries die out, the spoils get vacuumed up by a smaller pool of high-skilled workers and tech companies.
Unions’ membership and their ability to influence laws have been in a titanic decline since the mid-20th century, falling from their peak of one 1/3rd the workforce in the 1950s to about 10% today.
Big cities with packed with high-skilled college-educated liberals have become the base of the leaders of the Democratic Party.
But, I thought Republicans were pro-business?
Unlike bankers, construction workers, and real estate moguls, the emerging tech class thrives with an activist government. The technology industry gives far more generously to Democrats than Republicans (source: OpenSecrets.org).
What are their top issues? Immigration, education, and scientific research. In other words, the lobbyists see the basis of the technology industry as government seed investments (the Internet, after all, was created in a military lab).
What demographic changes are causing these political shifts?
Overwhelmingly, Civicrats come from cities with a high concentration of so-called “creative class” workers: high-skilled professionals in technology, law, medicine and the arts. Young college-educated liberals have flocked in droves to cities such as San Francisco and Manhattan, turning once big red “Reagan” states into reliable blue states.
To be sure, this transition from red to blue in big cities has been thoroughly documented for the last decade.
But, scholars have mostly been concerned with which party would be the vessel for high-skilled workers. Few if any scholars bothered to explore whether the newly empowered Democrats would hold the same beliefs as blue-collar workers.
Today, on most internal conflicts, the Democratic leadership has come to side with the tech agenda
Section III: 2016 and Beyond
Will This Power Be Permanent? Looking At The Future Through The Past
This is not the tech industry’s first rodeo. A split over government’s role in modernization is nearly as old as the Democratic Party itself.
Back in the 1840s, a cadre of upstart city-dwelling professionals, known as “Young America,” split with their party elders over more expansive free trade. The hot tech industry of the time (railroads) strongly supported “Young America,” and secured a strategic alliance with low-skilled farm labor among the antebellum Southern Democrats.
The new Democratic voting bloc maintained a brief alliance that reigned over the party for a decade— until slavery ravaged the nation and shook the party system for a century.
Antebellum Techies Take Over The Jacksonian Democrats
There is “a great division in the party bearing the name of Democratic,” explained an op-ed in the Democratic Review, an influential pre-Civil War magazine trumpeting the values of young, urbanized liberals who proudly called themselves “Progressive Democrats”. The writer complained of older Democrats who “dread innovation because they cannot foresee all its consequences.”
Young America Bonds With Farm Labor And Railroads Over Free Trade
President James K Polk, a self-proclaimed Young America Democrat, helped pass the historic pro-free trade Walker Tariff Act of 1846, which permanently changed America’s foreign policy to include economic expansion. Railroads wanted it for cheap foreign steel and farmers wanted to sell their goods outside of the south.
The historical lesson (however brief) is that low-skilled labor and high-skilled Democrats have not always been odds.
Over a century later, in the growing gig economy, both workers and executives are overwhelmingly Democratic
The hard-charging CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, admitted that he’s a huge fan of the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”), saying “The democratization of those types of benefits allow people to have more flexible ways to make a living”.
The gig economy thrives on change
Unlike their labor union counterparts, the kinds of people who choose to be independent contractors thrive on unpredictability. One study found that 85% of Uber drivers work part-time — many so they can attend college or run a side business [PDF].
The temperament of Uber and Lyft drivers themselves seem much more like tech workers. I was casually chatting with a Lyft driver one night. He told me, “I believe with charter schools, the students get what they want,” said the full-time driver, who was likely in his 50s. He also told me he was no fan of labor unions, but did support free trade agreements. Most importantly, he considered himself a Democrat.
The conversation inspired me to conduct more political opinion polling, comparing “gig” economy workers (tech company independent contractors) to unionized labor and tech workers.
On key issues and candidates, gig workers have a profile closer to tech workers than unionized labor
A Bold New Alliance Of Entrepreneurial Labor
While gig economy workers are more like tech workers than labor unions, nothing is set in stone. If the trend toward more entrepreneurial employment is any indication, the rise of a new pro-business Democrat could achieve permanent power for the foreseeable future.
*Click here for more posts in this series on Silicon Valley’s political endgame.