Bezos, Musk, Ellison, and the Rightward Lurch of Silicon Valley

Musk and Trump
Photo: Matt McClain/Getty Images

I’m not sure it’s ever been true that Silicon Valley, as Mark Zuckerberg put it during his umpteenth address before Congress, is “a very left-leaning place.” It is a seductive narrative for Republicans like Jim Jordan, and it is certainly a useful feint for people like Zuckerberg, himself. But it doesn’t pass the smell test. Silicon Valley may be somewhat culturally liberal, but its economic value system is as unmistakably conservative as Wall Street or Houston. 

Steve Jobs dropped acid, but he also knew that he needed Foxconn to manufacture the iPhone. Sam Bankman-Fried, a top Democratic donor, makes his money from a scarcely regulated cryptocurrency exchange domiciled in The Bahamas. While the preponderance of tech executives took various stands against Donald Trump, they also welcomed his corporate tax cut. The industry was profoundly outraged when Trump moved to restrict H-1B skilled-worker visas, but Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax found few takers here.

And yet media commentators have often overlooked all of this, casting conservatives like Peter Thiel as aberrations in an otherwise unanimous Silicon Valley. To some extent that’s true: Most political donations from people in tech still go to Democrats, and the rank-and-file entrepreneurs certainly lean left, especially on issues like climate, immigration and abortion. But at the upper-most elite level, Thiel is an aberration primarily in that he spends real money on his convictions. There are plenty of center-right tech leaders these days—Marc Andreessen, John Chambers, Scott McNealy—as well as plenty of liberals who diverge from the progressive consensus in meaningful ways. Even Jack Dorsey, of the silent meditation retreats and Ferguson protests, has adopted more libertarian views on free speech, despite his push for more content moderation when he was actually in charge of Twitter. There is a great research paper from David Broockman, a well-wired political scientist at Berkeley, that makes this very point: Tech elites may be social liberals, but they are actually more conservative on regulation and labor issues than the standard G.O.P. donor.