Being politically confusing is kind of Silicon Valley’s thing. Only in the Valley will you find significant numbers of young, fiscally conservative, pro-gay rights, Burning Man enthusiasts. Sprinkle in a dose of libertarianism and you have a uniquely Bay Area political chimera.
So who are Silicon Valley’s young conservatives? Short answer: important people. Because liberal or conservative, Silicon Valley has wealth and a near-monopoly on technological innovation, which sounds a lot like the makings of real political power. But what no one knows is whether these young conservatives will seize on a moment to affect real change as the GOP rips itself apart. Or will they turn on, tune in, and drop out?
So like we said, Bay Area ideology is weird—particularly the conservative variety. “Silicon Valley loves to think of itself as a pirate ship,” says Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington who studies Silicon Valley politics. “And that expresses itself politically in not easily categorizable ways.” Two main strands: those who think government can improve itself by taking a few lessons from the Valley, and those who think government should just get the heck out of their way. Typically, the more conservative you are, the more likely you are to fall into category two.
Young conservative techies are generally less visible than their liberal counterparts. (Let’s leave Peter Thiel, venture capitalist and champion of Donald Trump, out of this. He’s not their standard bearer: “Thiel is an iconoclast. He’s not leading a movement,” O’Mara says.) Why the quiet? If you think government regulation is cruddy, you’re probably not dying to get involved in the process of picking regulators. “I think there’s a distrust of government, and the slow, stodgy people in DC,” says Jennifer Burns, a historian at Stanford who studies American conservatism.
Also, though, Silicon Valley’s young conservatives are kind of a secret. “Even being associated with the Republican party is a liability. I’m isolationist about it,” says one of these secret-keepers, a 32-year-old woman who lives and works in San Francisco who did not want to be named for fear of professional repercussions. “I worked on the Meg Whitman campaign when she ran for governor, and I’ve had a number of people say, ‘Are you sure you want to put your campaign experience on your resume?’”
Indeed, GOP mainstays—anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-marijuana, etc.—directly conflict with the libertarianism that Silicon Valley conservatives hold dear. So many are siding with Gary Johnson over Donald Trump, according to Emily Beth Atchinson, a San Jose native who has chaired the Silicon Valley Young Republicans group, though none seem particularly stoked about it. “After this current election cycle, a lot of us are done,” Atchinson says.
That’s because when you ask which politicians do represent their interests, they have a really hard time giving an answer. That’s a real problem, considering that tech issues have become national issues—you’d surely want the government to be hearing Silicon Valley’s perspective on, say, cybersecurity. How Silicon Valley’s young conservatives plan to fix it is, well, a little predictable. “We need new ideas, and we need people who will stir the pot,” Atchinson says. “The party needs to be disrupted right now.”
Whether the current political system is ripe for disruption isn’t really in question. It isn’t only the GOP dealing with insurgencies: Bernie Sanders’ millennial-driven movement (and Berniecrats flipping to Team Trump after Sanders lost the nomination) signals Democrats aren’t a unified front. But the GOPlooks even wobblier. “The Republican party is an alliance between free market, low tax, big business conservatives with religious conservatives,” says Charles Postel, a historian at San Francisco State University. “They don’t belong together. People have been predicting a crack-up of this crazy coalition since its inception.”
Between that history, Trump’s nomination, and the rise of the white supremacist alt-right, it’s not a question of if things will change in the GOP, but when and how. “Conservatism as a whole is at this crossroads,” Burns says. “One of the things that could come out of it is social liberalism along with rolling back government control. That’s always been the promise of libertarianism.” So it could be that what’s happening in Silicon Valley is a crucible for what will become a larger movement, the early waves of a changing tide.
What is in doubt is if Silicon Valley’s millennials will be the “change agents” who make that tide roll in. “If enough people in Silicon Valley decided to be more politically engaged, they could have incredible influence,” O’Mara says. “But they’re just figuring out what to do with their power, and it’s a very all-consuming place. So I wonder if there would be a bandwidth or a will to do it.”
But hey, there’s always utopia at Burning Man.