FROM their corporate campuses on the west coast, America’s technology entrepreneurs used to ignore faraway Washington, DC—or mention the place only to chastise it for holding back innovation with excessive regulation. They have, at times, invested in the low politics of self-interested lobbying—from chipmakers campaigning for protection from Japanese rivals in the 1980s to Twitter this month reportedly creating a “political action committee” to pursue its interests on Capitol Hill. Yet unlike Wall Street, which has long mixed that sort of lobbying with supplying leaders to some of the highest offices in the land and feeding in policy advice, tech tycoons have remained largely aloof from the broader affairs of the nation’s capital.
Steve Jobs was a classic example of this disdain. When, late in his life, his wife persuaded him to talk to Barack Obama, he icily told the president he was “headed for a one-term presidency” because of his hostility to business. Later, as Walter Isaacson recounts in his biography of Jobs, the Apple founder hosted a dinner with Mr Obama and a handful of tech tycoons, after which he recalled that “The president is very smart, but he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t get done. It infuriates me.”
Now come the first signs that the frustration of tech titans with politics is spurring them to action. One is that a tech tycoon from “the other Washington” has bought the capital city’s local newspaper. Although no one, perhaps not even the founder of Amazon himself, is sure why Jeff Bezos paid $250m for the Washington Post, he does not seem to have done so just to pursue his industry’s narrow interests: he has pledged to uphold the paper’s tradition of fearless journalism. Another big statement of political intent was the launch in April of FWD.us, a campaign for immigration reform. Convened by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, its supporters are a who’s who of tech, including Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn; Marissa Mayer, the boss of Yahoo; Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google; and the most successful techie of them all, Bill Gates. Despite some early rows over tactics, the group has survived and is spending heavily in the hope of pulling off an improbable victory.
The few tech bosses with open party-political affiliations span pretty much the entire spectrum. Peter Thiel, a billionaire co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, is an outspoken libertarian who supported Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. In contrast, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is a longtime Democrat who once worked in the Clinton Treasury Department; she is now being tipped, albeit as a long-shot, as the first techie president in the White House. But what these people have in common is more important than their differences. Most are likely to be socially liberal and economically pro-market, even if they have differing ideas on the right size for government. And, as people who have thrived on disruptive change, they are more likely than many other industrial leaders to be focused on the future and its challenges.
Some Silicon Valley-watchers are urging its tycoons to steer clear of politics, for fear of attracting unwelcome regulatory attention. They repeat Milton Friedman’s warning to a group of tech leaders in 1999, that they would “rue the day when you called in the government” to curb Microsoft. A bigger risk is that Messrs Bezos, Zuckerberg et al merely follow the same well-worn path as previous generations of successful business bosses, from maverick entrepreneur to establishment power-broker, with a personal agenda that may or may not coincide with the good of the country. As yet the tech tycoons have produced no common manifesto for fixing Washington’s many ills. But they share a pragmatic, can-do mentality that the capital desperately needs more of. They are widely admired for having made their fortunes through their creativity and hard work, which means that when they back a policy to fix, say, America’s crippling health-care costs or its underperforming public schools, people will pay attention.
FWD.us promises to be a force for creative disruption. It is “bringing to politics the hacker mentality of tech entrepreneurs—move fast, try to find new and innovative solutions to old problems,” says Joe Green, who is running the campaign. Controversially, this has included a deal with Republicans: support immigration reform, which may be unpopular with your voters, and FWD.us will pay for television ads in your constituency to remind them of your positions on other issues, which they do like. This has been dismissed as the worst kind of old-style Washington politics by some other tech leaders, including Elon Musk, the green-minded founder of SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors. He quit FWD.us when he heard his money was being used to buy advertisements promoting Republican support for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. The debate rages on, but the immigration bill passed the Senate in June, and if it passes the House later this year the “hacker” tycoons will feel vindicated.
FWD.us’s backers seem to have learned from the failure of their earlier efforts to lobby for a narrow immigration reform that would have simply let in more of the skilled foreign workers their companies need. Now, by campaigning for a larger reform that includes a path to citizenship for those working in America without permission, they have been able to broaden their support base; and the scent, albeit faint, of a possible victory is in the air.
If so, what next? Might the tech tycoons then apply this lesson to their future political activism, and seek to push politics forwards in a range of areas that need urgent attention, from education reform to trade liberalisation? It is too early to be sure, but if their first taste of life at Washington’s top tables proves rewarding, the tech titans may not want to stop.