Research shows that wealthy Americans can translate their increasingly unequal income and wealth into unequal political influence. But we know surprisingly little about what the wealthy actually want from politics. Surveys of the general public typically don’t include many wealthy people, nor do they usually ask detailed income questions that allow us to distinguish between the upper middle class and the truly rich.
Our new research begins to remedy this deficiency of data, shining the spotlight on one important group of increasingly wealthy Americans: technology entrepreneurs. Many of the new rich in America have made their money in the technology sector and are looking to turn it into political clout. But technology entrepreneurs aren’t following most rich people’s example in supporting Republican candidates, who are traditionally more pro-business — they are nearly unified in their support for the Democratic Party.
This leads to some important questions. Why do Silicon Valley elites support Democrats? How might they use their growing sway within the Democratic Party to reshape the party and influence inequality? And what do answers to these questions tell us about the politics of the wealthy more generally?
To address these questions, we conducted an original survey in February of an extremely unique database of individuals who founded technology companies. Our survey represents one of the few efforts we know about to actually quantify the political opinions of a sizable group of wealthy individuals in an important industry — and one with increasing political influence.
We were able to successfully measure the opinions of hundreds of elite technology entrepreneurs. The median respondent to our survey was a millionaire and a chief executive of a technology company with 100 employees that had raised over $1 million in venture capital investment. Our survey respondents’ companies collectively raised $19.6 billion in such investment.
We also surveyed hundreds of elite donors in both parties as well as the mass public to compare the attitudes of technology elites to other influential members of the party coalitions.
Technology entrepreneurs are loyal Democrats who strongly support redistribution of wealth
Where do technology entrepreneurs’ political loyalties lie? Mirroring their donation patterns, technology entrepreneurs overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. Most of our sample, 75.2 percent, supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, as compared to 8.8 percent who supported Donald Trump. This 66 percentage-point gap exceeded even the 57 and 52 percentage point margins Clinton won in the heart of Silicon Valley — San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in California.
This contradicts the conventional wisdom that technology elites tend to be libertarians, who tend to be right-leaning and support the individual rights and free markets advocated by writers such as Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick. However, our data shows that technology elites are decidedly not libertarians: in fact they are less likely to agree with a description of libertarian philosophy than are Democratic voters.
Why do technology entrepreneurs support Democrats? One reason is that they agree with the Democratic Party orthodoxy of redistribution — and actually support reducing the economic inequality they have personally benefited from. They seem willing to put their money where their mouth is. One argument for why inequality has grown in the United States is that there is less taxation and redistribution than in European countries. Past research has suggested that as business elites gain political power, they push for less redistributing of money from the rich to the poor. However, the technology elite’s attitudes to redistribution resemble those of both Democratic donors and Democrats in the mass public. A majority of technology entrepreneurs — 82 percent of them — support universal health care even if it means raising taxes. A majority show “strong” support for this proposition. These figures are in line with recent support for single-payer health care among major national figures in the Democratic Party. Most entrepreneurs — 82 percent of them — support increasing taxes on those making over $1 million per year, even though this would in many cases increase their own tax bills.
However, technology elites are not orthodox Democrats
This said, technology entrepreneurs do not support every Democratic Party orthodoxy or want to lower inequality by any means possible. Our survey also shows that technology entrepreneurs are more likely to see themselves as “citizens of the world,” rather than just U.S. citizens, than typical Democratic voters. This means that they worry about global inequality, too. Forty-four percent of technology elites said that it is more important to improve the standard of living of people overseas even if hurts American jobs. Over 80 percent of ordinary Democrats disagreed with that statement. Hence, even though technology elites support policies to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor within the United States, they also support policies that may harm American workers for the global good.
Even more importantly, Silicon Valley elites break sharply from other Democrats on business and labor market regulation. For example, 82 percent of technology entrepreneurs believe the government should make it easier to fire workers; about 30 percent of Democratic citizens in the mass public felt the same way. Technology elites believe much more strongly in the “gig economy,” which allows companies to flexibly hire workers as independent contractors without traditional benefits and worker protections. And fully 74 percent of technology entrepreneurs say they would like to see labor unions’ influence decrease versus only 33 percent of Democratic citizens.
Consequently, the political ideology of technology elites has mixed implications for economic inequality. The one-sentence version of their typical views is that the government should allow markets to function without too much regulation, and that the government should then generously redistribute wealth after markets have done their work. Indeed, a majority of our sample agreed with this summary of their views.
This constellation of beliefs is unique in American politics. Typically, both party elites and the mass public have either liberal or conservative attitudes toward economic regulation and redistribution. Technology elites have conservative attitudes toward regulation, and liberal attitudes toward redistribution.
This points to emerging tensions within the Democratic Party. As Silicon Valley becomes more influential politically, Democratic elected officials may feel increasing pressure from within their own party to abandon core policy commitments favored by labor unions and consumer advocates. These tensions began to bubble up during the 2016 presidential election as Clinton was torn on what position to take on flexible work arrangements and the “Uber-ization” of the labor market. Similar issues have arisen with respect to whether giant technology companies such as Google and Amazon should be regulated as monopolies.
It’s hard to predict how these conflicts within the Democratic Party will play out and how they will influence inequality. Nonetheless, our findings suggest two broader lessons about how economic inequality will impact American politics.
First, our research demonstrates the wealthy technology elite, like ordinary voters, don’t just vote their pocket books. One might expect that technology entrepreneurs would support a mix of policies that reflected their selfish economic interests, but our paper shows that this is not entirely right. After all, technology entrepreneurs want to pay higher taxes so that money can be redistributed to those who need it. Instead, technology entrepreneurs have a unique combination of views about markets, entrepreneurs, non-authoritarianism and other values that help shape their attitudes to policies. In this way, wealthy business people are not so different from the general public — their underlying personal traits, values and political beliefs, and not only their self-interests, color how they see policies, politicians and parties.
Second, our findings provide some of the first information about what wealthy Americans actually want government to do. Our data is only an initial step among few toward a comprehensive understanding of the wealthy’s political attitudes, but it does make clear that we shouldn’t simply assume what wealthy elites think about politics. Quantitative data such as ours opens up a “black box,” telling us about the preferences of wealthy people in a society where the wealthy have increasing political power.
David Broockman is assistant professor of political economy at Stanford University.
Neil Malhotra is the Edith M. Cornell professor of political economy at Stanford University.