In the free-form, roller derby race for the Democratic presidential nomination, few candidates are better positioned than California’s Senator Kamala Harris. She is a fresh and attractive mid-fifties face, compared with septuagenarian frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, or the aging progressive Elizabeth Warren. Part Asian-Indian, part Afro-Caribbean, and female, Harris seems the frontrunner in the intersectionality sweepstakes that currently largely defines Democratic politics. Yet the national obsession with ethnicity and novelty obscures the more important reality: Harris is also the favored candidate of the tech and media oligarchy now almost uniformly aligned with the Democratic Party. She has been a hit in all the important places—the Hamptons, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley—that financed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Unlike Warren and Sanders, or Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, Harris has not called for curbs on, let alone for breaking up, the tech giants. As California’s attorney general, she did little to prevent the agglomeration of economic power that has increasingly turned California into a semi-feudal state dominated by a handful of large tech firms. These corporate behemoths now occupy 20 percent of Silicon Valley’s office space, and they have undermined the start-up culture that once drove the area’s growth.
When I started covering Silicon Valley in the mid-1970s, most top executives—such as David Packard—tended to be middle-of-the-road Republicans, supportive of some government role in the economy, including providing for physical infrastructure, but strongly committed to the idea of competition-driven innovation. This pattern changed dramatically as the Valley began to move away from manufacturing products—often by shifting production to less-expensive states and then, ultimately, to Asia—toward a focus largely on media, advertising, and Internet search. These new companies, unlike, say, chip manufacturers, were less concerned with electricity prices, road conditions, or environmental regulations. Many of these “second wave” firms are essentially involved in “information peddling,” which requires a workforce divided between elite managers and a large, impermanent base of coders, many living only for a brief time in the Bay Area. Such firms, which don’t require as many longtime employees as traditional companies, have largely emerged from San Francisco, arguably the most progressive city in the United States.
The massive inequality that characterizes the region would seem to undercut the progressive narrative that sees California, and particularly the Bay Area, as a harbinger of a more enlightened future. Increasingly under fire from both left and right for abusing its power, Silicon Valley could find Kamala Harris a convenient way to counter criticism while maintaining a tolerant, “woke” facade.
The shift in tech firms’ focus has fit perfectly with the trajectory of Harris’s career. As district attorney of San Francisco, Harris had the opportunity to cultivate the tech aristocracy. Her intermittently “tough on crime” positions would not offend corporate executives who find themselves in a city that even the New York Times has labelled “dystopia by the bay”—rife with petty crime, homelessness, and sometimes violent mentally-ill people.
Elected state attorney general in 2010, Harris got decidedly mixed results, with some notable abuses of office and a demonstrated disinterest in individual rights and privacy protections—a record that alienated some on the left. On economics, she talked tough on energy companies and homebuilders, but when it came to privacy legislation, she supported policies favored by her tech backers.
By the time Harris ran for the Senate, she could count on massive support from Bay Area law firms, real-estate developers, and Hollywood. More important, she appealed, early on, to tech mavens such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Sean Parker, Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, venture capitalist John Doerr, Steve Jobs’s widow Laurene Powell, and various executives at tech firms such as Airbnb, Google, and Nest, who have collectively poured money into her campaigns. Their investment was not ill-considered. Harris seems a sure bet for the tech leaders. Her husband, attorney Doug Emhoff, was a managing partner with Venable Partners, whose clients include Microsoft, Apple, Verizon, and trade associations opposing strict Internet regulations.
This year, Harris keynoted the Joint Venture Silicon Valley conference, and she is once again reaping large donations from tech and media giants. As the most significant California candidate in the race, she has a big advantage in harvesting the lion’s share of these riches: California donors collectively contributed over $500 million to the 2016 campaign. The largest benefactors so far to Harris’s 2020 campaign include employees at Alphabet (the parent of Google)—including its former chairman, Eric Schmidt—Cisco, and Apple, as well as many prominent media and entertainment interests. For these companies, with few non-Asian minorities or women in senior positions, and some executives implicated in #MeToo infractions, Harris offers a low-impact way to connect to contemporary progressive concerns.
Today’s Democratic Party is increasingly defined by the progressive Left, with competing factions focused on basic economic issues, on the one hand, and identity politics (greens, gays, feminists, racial identity, and legalizing undocumented migrants) on the other. Another vital faction is made up of employees of public-employee unions, which dominate the party in California. Harris has already maneuvered to appeal to this powerful sector, proposing legislation that would send billions of dollars from Washington to pay teachers’ salaries. The more economically focused progressives like Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Warren, and Ohio’s Tim Ryan seek primarily to address income inequality. They see the tech giants, in control of much information media, as a danger both to the economy and to democracy. Whatever one thinks of their approach, the economic populists at least reflect a tradition that seeks to make capitalism more beneficial for working people. They don’t excuse the tech firms for their offshoring practices, lack of unionization, and stifling of competition.
Harris’s appeal to Silicon Valley is that she can appeal to restive progressive tech employees, who bristle against working for the Pentagon or ICE, while also connecting with the left-leaning (often tech-financed) nonprofits that sometimes hector the wealthy to engage in virtue-signaling. To appeal to middle-class voters, Harris favors a massive redistribution of income, through the tax system, a measure supported by many of her wealthy allies.
Harris’ alliance with the tech giants provides her with a potentially bottomless cash hoard, as well as the cooperation of skilled Obama-era operatives, many doing well in their new roles as top executives of tech firms. This cohort includes Chris Lehane, the Obama strategist who now heads global policy and public affairs at Airbnb, as well as other officials who have landed gigs at Uber, Netflix, and Amazon. Once politically disengaged, firms like Apple and Google enjoyed extensive access to the Obama administration—some 250 people moving back and forth from the company to the government—and they could expect similar treatment under a President Harris. Her proposals to underwrite massive spending on new government technology certainly please these backers.
Perhaps even more important, Harris is almost certain to be treated well by the mainstream media, so much of which is now owned directly by tech leaders or their heirs. (The Atlantic, owned by Laurene Powell, has already published a warm profile of Harris.) Those who threaten tech wealth, as Bernie Sanders did in 2016, will likely find themselves less positively regarded. More important still, firms like Facebook and Google, which control a growing percentage of the flow of news, will probably favor Harris over her more genuinely populist Democratic opponents—and certainly over President Trump.
Yet Harris’s liaison with the Valley could backfire, whether in the Democratic primaries or in the general election, if she gets that far. Warren and Sanders can cast her, with some justification, as too friendly to the tech giants, and Trump will have a field day linking her to San Francisco, a city with more drug addicts than high school students, and which has so much feces on the street that one website has created a “poop map.” More than half of the Bay Area’s lower-income communities, notes a recent UC Berkeley study, are in danger of mass displacement because of rising costs. Nevertheless, Harris is a formidable opportunist and a focused campaigner. And her willingness to stretch the truth, for example, during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle, might also prove useful in today’s partisan climate.
Given the media’s obsession with style, race, and gender, we would do well to understand what agenda lurks behind Harris’s atmospherics. The reality: if she wins, the tech oligarchy—titans of today’s Gilded Age—will have achieved commanding influence, not just in the information business and the media, but in the White House as well.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images