ALIENATING THE LEFT AND RIGHT-Our nation’s ruling tech oligarchs may be geniuses in making money through software, but they are showing themselves to be not so adept in the less quantifiable world of politics. Once the toast of the political world, the ever more economically dominant tech elite now face growing political opposition, both domestically and around the world.
For its part, the right has been alienated by the tech establishment’s one-sided embrace of progressive dogma in everything from gender politics and the environment to open borders and post-nationalism. The left is also now decisively turning against tech leaders on a host of issues, from antitrust enforcement to wealth redistribution and concerns about the industry’s misogynist culture, so evident in firms such as Uber.
This mounting bipartisan opposition is placing the oligarchs into an increasingly uncomfortable political vise. As left-leaning Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith put it recently, there’s “a kind of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ alliance against big tech: Everyone wants to kill them.”
Politics after Obama
It’s hard to recall that Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in 2011 actually celebrated the life of Apple founder Steve Jobs — a brilliant, but ruthless, capitalist, but also one who founded a religion-like technology cult. President Barack Obama also clearly embraced the techie economic model, and used Google and other tech talent in his data-driven campaigns.
Obama was their kind of progressive — socially liberal but comfortable with hierarchy, particularly of the college-educated kind. Just a few years ago, author Greg Ferenstein suggested that Silicon Valley would forge an entirely new liberal political ideology built around its technocratic agenda. Big tech’s ascendency was further bolstered by a “progressive” Justice Department that allowed the large tech firms to buy out and squeeze competitors with utter impunity.
Advocating antitrust at a nonprofit organization dominated by tech oligarchs, as one of my former colleagues at the liberal-leaning New America Foundation recently found out, can be dangerous for your employment status. Gradually, the image of spunky, enlightened entrepreneurs has morphed into one of monopolists reigning over what is rapidly becoming the most consolidated of our major industries.
No one really expects competition to rise against venture capital-created firms like Google, which owns upwards of 80 percent of the global search ad market, or Facebook, which uses its power to undermine upstarts like Snap, and calls for greater government oversight are now found on both sides of the aisle.
Kowtowing to the left has not turned out to be as clever a move as the tech oligarchs believed.
The Democrats, as it now appears, have been taken over by Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose redistributionist, pro-regulation agenda does not sit well with the likes of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, (photo above) the world’s third-richest man, who last year used the Washington Post to try to undermine Sanders during his presidential campaign.
Failed algorithm: Alienating right and left
Theoretically, Sanders’ left-wing redistributionism should elicit opposition on the right. Yet, the tech oligarchs have so tilted toward the Democrats that there’s little common ground with, or sympathy from, those on the right, particularly as more tech leaders embrace the idea of a national guaranteed income, and expanded government redistribution, as a solution to make up for the poor protections for their expanding sector of “gig” workers.
So, even the natural supporters of “creative destruction” increasingly feel no stake in protecting these billionaires. The persecution of dissenters from the industry’s politically correct menu — including Google’s own James Damore, a former engineer who was fired for writing an internal memo critical of the company’s diversity policies — further alienates many conservatives, moderates and those liberals who still believe in free speech. And the prospect of news “curated” by politically driven algorithms by Facebook, Twitter and Google threatens both dissenting liberals as well as those on the right.
Nor do the grassroots have economic reasons to support the oligarchs. Oil, energy, auto and other traditional firms won over millions by creating a vast middle class, while, for the most part, the oligarchs have created massive wealth largely for themselves, and just a few others. The oligarchs now account for three of world’s five richest people — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg — but have become fabulously rich without sparking broad-based prosperity.
The tech moguls’ gambit of “Talk left, live right, hide at the Ritz out of sight,” as University of North Carolina business professor and consultant Jack Kasarda once expressed it to me, is no longer working as it did during the Obama years. In the coming months, we can expect growing calls for antitrust enforcement, largely from the left, but also from the right, just as has already occurred in Europe.
Lots of people have reasons to fear the oligarchs — many small businesses, taxi drivers, unions in fields like groceries, as well as the remnants of the old publishing literati. Even bodegas, the largely Latino small markets, are being targeted by the oligarchs.
Every day, monopolistic tech firms, and their billionaire backers, transform often middle-class jobs into those of proletarianized and unorganized “gig” workers and immigrant employees who enter what Mother Jones describes as “a shadowy world of white-collar indentured servitude.”
With the Democrats drifting to the left, and conservatives alienated, the oligarchs may find themselves, for all their wealth and power, increasingly marginalized politically. They clearly need to open themselves up to more diverse opinions, and stop arrogating the right to curate what is permissible and what is not.
Great wealth and power are never safe unless the people who wield them are aware of their limitations, and respectful toward the society that harbors them.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org. This piece appeared in the OC Register.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.