The Tech Industry's Newest Acquisition: American Politics

A hiring spree, and a head of steam. The relationship is "radically changing."

Silicon Valley is hiring up all the political people.

Uber last month brought on David Plouffe, who made his name running Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Snapchat this week hired Jill Hazelbaker, a top aide to Sen. John McCain's rival campaign. And Spotify will announce today that it has tapped Jonathan Prince, a former aide to both Clintons who is also close to the Obama White House, as its global head of communications and public policy, Prince confirmed to BuzzFeed News.

This hiring spree — and those are only the highest-profile, most recent additions to a list of tech executives that also includes topmost Democrats like Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Microsoft's Mark Penn — is part of what finally feels like a consummation of the long, awkward relationship between Silicon Valley and American politics.

Tech has been, from the puzzled perspective of Washington's political class, always arriving, never quite there. Its sheer wealth, enormous economic vitality, and immense cultural force should have brought massive clout. But tech companies instead have a reputation for throwing the most lavish parties at political conventions — and then getting smoked in the back room by old-line cable and telecoms companies. The energy behind a real populist uprising, "Stop SOPA," never quite forms into a permanent interest. The industry's highest policy priorities — hiring more foreign engineers, for instance — don't make it into law.

A new generation of tech companies, however, have made Silicon Valley's political needs less theoretical, and more immediate. They are taking on pre-existing, real-world industries. (The purely virtual ideas — search, portals, email — have been taken.) It's harder to ignore politics when you're changing the world, not just the web. And so these companies — Uber and Airbnb are the most obvious — have found a sweet spot where founders' disdain for politics and regulators meets the smartest political strategy money can buy.

The relationship between tech and politics is "radically changing," said Ace Smith, a San Francisco political consultant whose clients have included the biggest names in both Democratic politics and technology. The startups jangling transportation, housing, and an array of other consumer areas have "opened the tech world's eyes to needing a broader perspective, and it's opened every one else's eyes — it's really brought them much more into the world of politics and government and communications."

Indeed, 2014 feels like the end of one era and the beginning of another.

A generation ago in Silicon Valley, "you didn't even think about government until you were a public company — and even then it was a culture of avoidance," said Matt Mahan, who has worked for a decade at the intersection of politics and tech and now runs Brigade, a startup aimed at reforming U.S. politics. The next step for Silicon Valley has been, at times, a relatively naive engagement, and a sense that the language, speed, and opportunism of technology trends could be applied to the sclerotic field of American politics. The last entrant in that category will, perhaps, be, a group that aimed to bring Silicon Valley money and sophistication to the immigration fight, got tangled over its own feet, and wound up ousting its president last week.

Now Uber, in particular, is winning more fights than it's losing in an endless series of tussles with local regulators. The same is true for Airbnb, whose spokesman, Nick Pappas, had previously been selling Obamacare from the West Wing press office. (Two other former top Democratic staffers also work there.) These companies carry the confidence (at times, arrogance) and sense of destiny that has driven Silicon Valley's burst of innovation; they also are being shaped by urgent battles with regulators of the sort that Microsoft, for instance, didn't quite see coming (on a far larger scale) until the Department of Justice came calling. They are showing a new willingness to compromise the purism that sometimes made tech companies leery of dirtying themselves up in Washington.

There's no single factor driving the accelerating convergence between tech and politics, but rather four or five. Along with the new kind of company, there's the sheer wealth now accumulated in the Valley, as a wave of acquisitions and IPOs make young, mostly Democratic millionaires and billionaires (along with the occasional libertarian like Peter Thiel — and Rand Paul did recently announce he's setting up a San Francisco office): "The Bay Area has emerged as the prime ATM" for the Democratic Party, said Chris Lehane, a top Democratic strategist based in California. There's also the old-fashioned lobbying muscle — a combination of powerful branding and clever tactics — that some firms have deployed to protect their interests; a company less dextrous than Apple might have been crushed by regulators and the public for avoiding U.S. taxes with complex accounting and overseas subsidiaries.

A fourth factor is that the kind of marketing companies now need mirrors campaign skills. The breakneck construction of a new brand, the risk and opportunity in being defined fast and early on a national scale, the centrality of media to marketing are all shared between presidential campaigns and the hottest startups. Snapchat, for instance, has emerged as one of the main ways young Americans communicate — but also had to fight the early perception that it's basically a sexting tool. Spotify will have to navigate a regulatory regime shaped by record labels, and a communications campaign now as much about facing off with Apple and Google as with Rdio and Pandora.

"There's a symmetry between the disruptive nature of communications in government and politics, and the disruptive nature of the companies that are coming to dominate Silicon Valley," said Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton White House press secretary who later worked for Facebook, and who added that reporters constantly ask him about the convergence between tech and politics, a story he used to think was overblown.

"Now I think the time has actually arrived," he said.

Tech's cultural cachet, meanwhile, is luring operatives who might make the same or more money as lobbyists or working for old-line trade groups. "The companies that everyone is interested in going to work for are all internet companies," said Michael Beckerman, who heads the Internet Association, a trade group that includes many top Silicon Valley firms.

The convergence between tech and politics has taken in more Democrats than Republicans, for reasons as much generational and cultural as ideological. Plouffe pointed, in an email to BuzzFeed News, to the top tech talent that worked on both Obama campaigns, on the rescue of, and other projects. Tech's generally progressive stands on social issues are a good fit with Democrats. But its individualistic economic values have already started to reshape a Democratic Party operative class that used to find off-cycle work with labor unions.

And alongside that convergence there is another aspiration in tech, a reformist impulse. It has fueled a few successful projects — websites like OpenSecrets and Fundrace that put campaign donations online — and many more less successful attempts to engage citizens in writing legislation, for instance. A new wave of those are being born too, led by Brigade and by, among others. They are, as the cliche goes, Uber but for engagement; they assume (naively, to many in politics) that citizens would like to contribute money, time, and influence to public life but don't have good enough tools. But politics is usually moved by candidates and causes, and they are building powerful tools for the next Barack Obama.

All in all, the sense among the political class that tech can't quite figure out politics, and that it perpetually punches below its weight, seems finally to be ending. The structure of power in U.S. politics, indeed, seems on the cusp of a real shift, one that will be played out in the arena where politics always reshapes itself, the coming national presidential campaign. And there remains so much space for dramatic change. Any given telco still has more lawyers and lobbyists working on the Federal Communications Commission than all the tech companies combined, Beckerman said. And Silicon Valley has a lot of upside.

"They're still punching below their weight," reflected a top former Obama aide who now consults tech companies. "I mean — who's got cultural capital in next 50 years? Comcast? Or Google, Facebook, Twitter? Really, it's bananas that Comcast still gets away with what it gets away with."

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