Silicon Valley and Obama: End of a Romance
It was a match made in political heaven.
The tech community, sensing their political savior had arrived in the person of Barack Obama, first made inroads with the then-senator during his 2008 campaign. That election was manned by Bay Area tech talent and fueled by big-data analytics and emerging social-media platforms like Twitter. It was the same during the 2012 campaign season, when the sitting president once more racked up impressive contributions from technophiles. He promised hope, change, and the most transparent administration ever; Silicon Valley was enamored.
That changed in spring 2013 with Edward Snowden's public revelation of mass government-sponsored surveillance. Since then, the tech sector's loving embrace of President Obama has been slowly weakening. So has the relationship between the Obama White House and the Tech-Democrats.
The president's recent remarks at the SXSW tech conference, in which he sided with the FBI in the agency's legal dispute with Apple, have only thrown fuel on these burning bridges. Many in the privacy community had held out hope the administration would strongly endorse encryption. The SXSW statement put an end to that hope.
As those bonds continue deteriorating, some Republicans are moving to capitalize on the schism. In an op-ed discussing their time at SXSW, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rogers and Darrell Issa noted the impressive display of disruptive innovation on show. In particular, they noted that while "America is becoming the innovation capital of the world," those in our nation's capital are ignoring this promising development.
But even as Rogers and Issa move toward a more tech-friendly perspective, other Republicans are singing a less optimistic tune. Sen. Tom Cotton, in his own op-ed for Time, suggests that the tech magnates Issa and Rogers gush over are more concerned with profits than with national security. In particular, Cotton has harsh words for Apple CEO Tim Cook, decrying the company's refusal to comply with the FBI's legal demands as demagoguery "about a fantasy Orwellian surveillance state" intended to "smear his critics" — nothing more than a "profit-driven stance that uses hyperbole and scare tactics to divide the country and mask what are only recent changes in Apple's marketing strategy and technology."
The Rogers-Issa/Cotton divide is but one small example of the broader divisions playing out in the GOP. As the party struggles with its clashing emotions, one wonders: Now that Silicon Valley's love affair with the president seems to be at an end, is there an opportunity for conservatives and libertarians to move in? I'd wager the answer is no.
The GOP is currently in a state of schizophrenic flux, with an authoritarian demagogue well on his way to securing the 2016 nomination and an ongoing failure to reach the Tech-Democrat crowd of the Valley. Libertarians could make a play for the industry's favor, but are unlikely to succeed unless they accept the "civicrat" mentality — that is, accepting a role for government investment in helping to maximize citizens' abilities to contribute to society and the economy — that characterizes Silicon Valley politics. Thus far, they have appeared unwilling to make that leap.
The progressive left is similarly ill-positioned to cozy up to the politics of the Valley. (Though, based on their consistent anti-digerati salvos decrying "The California Ideology" and criticism of the tech community as "lieutenants of the vested interests," I doubt they're looking to snuggle with West Coast techies.) That leaves the centrists in both parties — but in particular moderate Democrats — best positioned to take advantage of the Valley's disillusionment with the current administration.
Silicon Valley and President Obama seem to be on the verge of a political divorce. The question now is whether the Valley is looking for a rebound relationship.
Ryan Hagemann is a tech and civil liberties fellow at the Niskanen Center.