One of the interesting side effects of the pervasive belief that money drives politics, it seems, is the belief that the main qualification for political office and influence is money. This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but as an emerging generation of (relatively) young people flush from and inspired by the tech world look for new challenges, their eyes turn to Capitol Hill. It doesn't take long to learn that politics is a little more complex than it at first seems.
The front page of The New York Times today has a charming photo of one such candidate, Sean Eldridge, sitting on a well-lit porch of the home he shares with his husband, one of the co-founders of Facebook. Above that photo is a larger photo of the elegantly modern house, pictured across its wide vanishing pool overlooking the Hudson River Valley. The house, we are told, cost $2 million—substantially cheaper than the $5 million home the two bought a bit further south along the river. That house didn't work out because the Congressional district in which it sat offered too much of a challenge to Eldridge's political ambitions.
Shopping for a winnable political race is also not new. A few hours south of Ulster is Chappaqua, the primary residence of the Clinton family, thanks to the relatively low-quality pool of Democratic candidates for the Senate in 2000. (As stated earlier, this is not new.) But not everyone is Hillary Clinton, as Eldridge appears to be discovering. The Times:
Amy Shields, a mother of three children who lives a few miles from Mr. Eldridge, cannot get over the fact that he has just moved into town and is already planning a run for Congress.
“It’s a little bit presumptuous,” Ms. Shields said. “In a community like this you like to know who your neighbors are. Having ties to your neighbors is important. How can he expect to represent people he doesn’t know?”
The candidate is making an ostentatious effort to get to know them. His investment firm, once based in Manhattan, is now pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into local businesses. For now the Cook Political Report, prognosticators of political fortunes, still has the race listed as "leans Republican."
The Times downplays the common argument made by tech gurus dipping toes into political waters: that their emergence from the ostensibly meritocratic world of Silicon Valley gives them insight into how to make government more efficient and modern. It's basically a reboot of the long-standing argument that business interests know how to cut costs, etc., updated with a few snippets of code and social media. Mitt Romney two-point-oh.
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg—former coworker of Eldridge's husband—has spent his summer learning about the limits of combining that ideology with political investment. His FWD.us campaign sought to use tech wizardry (and deep pockets) to advocate immigration reform. It hit two significant stumbling blocks. The first was widespread frustration over its blatant opportunism in buying ads promoting elected officials who were on board with reform—without mentioning immigration and while espousing deeply partisan issues. This clumsiness—seemingly born of the calculated desire to change minds through influence—prompted several organization board members to resign.
The other stumbling block, of course, is that FWD hasn't seemed to make any difference. The Senate passed immigration reform by an unimpeachable margin, while the House appears to be happy to do nothing on it over the short term. Zuckerberg's ballyhooed march from Silicon Valley to Washington appears to have done little but foster ill will.
The tech community's best shot at converting economic clout into political influence might be in Silicon Valley itself. In San Jose, seven-term Congressman Mike Honda is being challenged by Ro Khanna, an intellectual property lawyer of robust pedigree. (Disclosure: In a previous job, I engaged with Honda's staff on political issues.) Khanna's position is somewhat more enviable than Eldridge's. For one thing, this is his third shot at running for Congress (and the third district). In 2004, Khanna lost a primary race in California's 12th District by 53 points. In 2012, he raised $1.2 million to challenge in the 15th; he decided not to run. For another thing, Khanna learned a lesson after his 2004 race, leveraging his relationship with the president and Valley fundraisers to earn an appointment to the Commerce Department.
Khanna's raising eyebrows in his current race less for his platform than for raising $1 million in the last quarter to Honda's $345,000—thanks heavily to the support of the tech and venture capital communities. He speaks their language, as the San Francisco Chronicle notes.
“The premise of this campaign is quite simple,” Khanna told the crowd. “We’ve had quite brilliant people … use technology to change the world. And it’s time that we actually change politics, that Silicon Valley has the potential to do this.”
“It’s not just about having a tech agenda. This is about something much deeper — our values, and our ability to use those values to change Washington and the world,” he told them.
His candidacy—like all candidacies, like Eldridge's candidacy—is actually about something much shallower: ambition. We all want to shape the world in the way we see fit. But doing so takes more than money and will. For all of its justifiable pride in its own savvy, this is a lesson that Silicon Valley still hasn't learned.