The Democratic party faces a dilemma. Since its inception, the party has defined itself as the champion of the little guy and a bulwark against plutocracy. Over the past few years, however, a funny thing has happened: The plutocrats have been joining the party en masse, and they’re changing it in the process.
One could argue that there’s nothing new here. There have always been rich Democrats, just as there have always been poor Republicans. Nor is it unusual to see rich Democrats flexing their political muscles. In the early 1990s, Jesse Jackson famously ridiculed the centrist Democratic Leadership Council by calling it “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” The charge stung in part because DLC stalwarts such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore really were the darlings of well-heeled Wall Street Democrats, among other wealthy, socially liberal constituencies, who welcomed the prospect of a more centrist Democratic party that eschewed class warfare. Quite a lot has changed since then, however.
In earlier eras, Democrats were very much in the minority among the rich. Today they have, at a minimum, achieved parity. Because the rich are by definition few in number, exit polls can only tell us so much about their political beliefs. The numbers we do have are for broader categories that also capture upper-middle-class voters. For example, the 2016 exit polls tell us that Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton among voters with annual household incomes above $220,000 by 48 percent to 46 percent. And according to American National Election Studies data, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney — of all people! — by a margin of 44 percent to 41 percent. So among the broadly defined bourgeoisie, the two parties are competitive.
But that’s not the end of the story. When we take a more granular look at the millionaires and billionaires of Silicon Valley, where most of America’s biggest new fortunes are being minted, we find that they are overwhelmingly Democratic. A new survey from journalist Gregory Ferenstein and the Stanford political scientists David Broockman and Neil Malhotra finds that contrary to musty stereotypes, elite technology entrepreneurs aren’t straightforward libertarian ideologues. Rather, the model tech grandee is best described as a business-friendly cosmopolitan left-liberal. But because “business-friendly cosmopolitan left-liberal” is such a mouthful, let’s call them “cosmocialists.”
The left-liberalism of the Silicon Valley elite is reflected in support for drastically higher taxes on the rich, much higher levels of anti-poverty spending, and every environmentalist cause under the sun, views that are very much in tune with rank-and-file Democratic voters. Their cosmopolitanism is reflected in adamant support for free trade and for increasing immigration levels, which puts them somewhat out of step with less affluent Democrats, who are both more protectionist and more restrictionist. And their business-friendliness, which garnered the most attention in the immediate reactions to the survey, is reflected in their general skepticism towards regulation and organized labor.
As an electoral constituency, elite technology entrepreneurs are trivial. But as the women and (mostly) men who increasingly bankroll the Democratic party, they are profoundly important. They will help set limits on what Democratic politicians can and cannot say, and they are already influencing the agenda that Democrats are choosing to pursue.
Consider the intensifying effort to purge pro-life Democrats from the party, or the Left’s sharp turn against religious-liberty protections for orthodox Christians. Can either really be understood without reference to the rising influence of Silicon Valley cosmocialists?
Or take immigration, arguably the most contentious issue facing the country. Over the past decade, the Democratic party has embraced a more stridently pro-immigration position. This is sometimes described as a by-product of the rising influence of naturalized citizens, which makes intuitive sense, as these are the voters most intent on keeping America’s borders open to their close relatives. But this constituency isn’t especially large — according to one recent estimate, naturalized citizens are no more than 6 percent of eligible voters, and naturalized citizens vote at much lower rates than the native-born on average.
My impression is that the cosmocialists have played at least as large a role, if not a larger one. According to the Silicon Valley Competitiveness and Innovation Project Report, 57 percent of the technology work force in the Bay Area is foreign-born. Although conservative immigration-reform proposals would likely allow for high levels of skilled immigration, it is easy to see why elite technology entrepreneurs, many of whom are immigrants or second-generation Americans themselves, would look upon immigrants favorably. Silicon Valley donors have played a mostly unheralded but enormously important role in mainstreaming the case for more-open borders, through support for immigration-advocacy groups such as FWD.us and for academic research devoted to the same cause.
And most surprisingly, perhaps, elite technology entrepreneurs are cheering on the Democratic party’s headlong rush to the left. The cavalcade of would-be Democratic presidential candidates scrambling to co-sponsor Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’s single-payer health-care bill are of course hoping to appeal to the party’s activist Left. But let’s not discount the possibility that they are also looking to woo billionaire cosmocialists who, if properly flattered, will supercharge their fundraising.
Needless to say, the rise of the cosmocialists is not the only important development in the Democratic party’s ongoing evolution. As Luke Thompson has documented in these pages (“Clinton in Purgatory,” August 1, 2016), the Obama years saw the Democratic coalition gain ground among white college-educated professionals as it hemorrhaged white working-class voters. The result is that Democrats find themselves divided between relatively affluent whites on one side, with views that are mostly though not perfectly aligned with those of the cosmocialists, and non-white working-class voters on the other.
Without the working-class whites who were once at the heart of the Democratic coalition, it is vitally important that the party motivate Hispanic and, more crucially still, African-American voters. While the Hispanic share of the U.S. population now greatly surpasses the black share, a higher proportion of black adults is eligible to vote. In 2008, voter turnout among blacks (65.2 percent) came very close to turnout among whites (66.1 percent), and in 2012 black turnout (66.6 percent) surpassed white turnout (64.1 percent). In 2016, in contrast, whereas white turnout remained in the same ballpark as in previous elections (65.3 percent), turnout fell dramatically (to 59.6 percent) among blacks. Hispanic turnout also fell between 2008 and 2012, but far less drastically (from 48 percent to 47.6 percent).
Can a cosmocialist Democratic party succeed in energizing the non-white voters who are so crucial to its success? It’s hard to say. In theory, devoting even more time and effort to immigration advocacy might move the needle among Hispanic voters. But it’s hard to see how the salience of immigration could be any greater in 2018 or 2020 than it was in 2016, when Donald Trump devoted much of his campaign to calls for stepped-up immigration enforcement in language that can hardly be characterized as warm and fuzzy.
As for African-American voters, the picture is even less clear. One possible strategy would be to ramp up attacks on President Trump as a racist, perhaps by focusing on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s push for a more punitive approach to criminal justice. However, it’s not obvious that such rhetoric will do anything other than appeal to the ideologically committed, who are of course not on the fence about whether to vote.
The most obvious strategy for Democrats would be a reprise of the Obama formula, i.e., to identify a talented candidate, whether Hispanic or (ideally) black, who could appeal to the cosmocialist donors while also inspiring her or his co-ethnics in the public at large. There are many Democrats who could fit the bill. Allies of former President Obama are encouraging Deval Patrick, the African-American former Massachusetts governor, to run in 2020. There is also enthusiasm for California senator Kamala Harris (the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant father and an Indian immigrant mother), New Jersey senator Cory Booker (like Patrick, an African American), and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (a descendant of Mexican and Jewish immigrants), all of whom are, in their own ways, vying to be the next Obama.
Will the prospect of electing a second black president prove quite as compelling as that of electing the first? Will Harris, Booker, and Garcetti be seen as inspiring figures, or will they be seen as milquetoast liberal technocrats, more in tune with the cosmocialist funders of the Democratic party than with America’s little guys (and gals)?
The answer will depend almost entirely on the occupant of the White House, who can either play into the cosmocialists’ hands by alienating minority voters or else shake things up by giving at least some of them a reason to rethink their allegiances.
And what might get them to do that? Oh, I don’t know. How about having a thing or two to say about the value of private-sector unions, which ordinary Democrats love but cosmocialists evidently do not? No Republican is going to call for wanton tax hikes. But arguing that Silicon Valley bigwigs who shelter their profits in Ireland and the Cayman Islands ought to be reined in is another story. The cosmocialists could turn out to be the president’s perfect foil.