The Unicorn Democrats

How Silicon Valley's techno-optimism is creating a powerful new political faction

A new breed of democrat is forming.
(Image credit: Lucy von Held/Blend Images/Corbis)

The Democratic Party is having its democratic socialist moment, thanks to the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders. But that moment may be fleeting. Hillary Clinton — who does not share Sanders' Scandinavian obsession — is the Democrats' almost certain presidential nominee.

But more importantly, a different political ideology is emerging within the party. And this one comes from Silicon Valley, not Sweden or Denmark.

Here's technology journalist Greg Ferenstein, who's conducted research on this growing movement:

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Internet startup founders represent an entirely distinct, libertarian-like ideology within the Democratic Party. Tech startup founders see the government as an investor in citizens, rather than as a protector from capitalism. Founders share all the stereotypical fervor for the free market as libertarians, but they also believe the government has a duty to actively help citizens solve global problems. … Technologists want the government to be an investor in citizens, rather than as a protector from capitalism. They want the government to heavily fund education, encourage more active citizenship, pursue binding international trade alliances, and open borders to all immigrants. It combines the meritocracy obsession of libertarians with the collectivism of liberals. [Greg Ferenstein]

These are Democrats — startup founders and tech workers alike gave overwhelmingly to Barack Obama and support ObamaCare. But they are Democrats whose particular politics derive from their experience as technologists. They are super-rich super-optimists with great faith in the power of information, employed by meritocracies working together, to solve problems. "They believe that all problems are information problems," Ferenstein writes. Or, as he quotes Alphabet's (formerly Google's) Eric Schmidt, "… if you take a large number of people and empower them with communication tools and opportunities to be created, society gets better." As a result, tech Democrats embrace change as a powerful force for good.

And it's not just techies. Ferenstein argues that these beliefs are shared by college-educated Dems in high-skill industries and independent contractors in the "gig economy." Combining the fabulous wealth of Silicon Valley with the alliance of these two sets of workers could result in a Democratic Party where the populist Sanders-Warren wing is in the minority. I've called this conflict the Innovation Democrats vs. the Inequality Democrats. Ferenstein calls it the Civicrats ("Goal is to make everyone as innovative, healthy, civic, and educated as possible") vs. the Protectocrats ("Goal is fairness and equality").

But you could also call this new breed of Silicon Valley–inspired folks the Unicorn Democrats.

Now, the Unicorn Democrats' eventual dominance over the Democratic Party is not as certain as Ferenstein concludes. Nor is it certain that this emerging Unicorn faction will even belong to the Dems in the long term. Ferenstein's own survey shows tech workers split evenly between Sanders and Clinton, although gig economy workers are more clearly pro-Hillary. And center-left economist Robert Atkinson writes in the Washington Monthly that "a growing number of progressives in the last few years have become decidedly ambivalent, if not downright hostile, toward the idea of increasing productivity, seeing it as a threat to progressive goals of full employment, fairness, and stability." Call them progressives against technological progress.

Could there be a place for the techno-optimists in the GOP? Maybe... but only if the Democrats decide to go the full IKEAmerica.

After all, there is significant crossover between Republicans and Civicrats on many domestic policy issues — think charter schools, free trade, the sharing economy, and deregulation. But social issues and foreign policy, not so much.

Now, if Republicans lose their third straight presidential election next November, modernizing the party's moldy agenda may create a safe space for some Civicrat-friendly ideas on the right, such as increased public investment in science and infrastructure. Or, in the spirit of disruptive innovation, a new party could emerge between the big-government social democratic Dems and the micro-government tea party GOP.

Then we'll have the donkey, the elephant, and the unicorn.

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