Tech Feels The Bern: Tech workers are strong support base for Sanders

Debates over whether innovation could thrive under Bernie Sanders presidency are a distraction

Democratic 2020 US presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters in Salt Lake City, Utah, US. Photograph:  Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Democratic 2020 US presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters in Salt Lake City, Utah, US. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

 

The South Carolina caucus may be seen as a setback for democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Still he remains in a strong position to win the nomination. Growing concern as to what this might mean for a tech sector that has enjoyed a privileged position in the US economy belies an unexpected reality on the ground.

There has already been analysis of which tech companies would fare best if Sanders were to implement some of the more sweeping policy changes he has campaigned on: a promise to break up Google, Facebook and Amazon, the support of a state-run broadband network (that explicitly excludes for-profit internet service providers) and making a commitment to end corporate tax breaks for major tech firms.

Tech Winners and losers?

Advertising and smart TV online media players Roku would gain from Sanders’ promise to provide broadband internet service to all by taking advantage of greater broadband access through its advertising business and selling smart TV’s with operating systems that cut out the likes of AT&T and Verizon from the cable game.

On the flipside, Sanders’ commitment to ending corporate tax breaks would hurt Apple more than most, given its position as one of the largest taxpayers in the US. Existing tax breaks freed up capital for Apple to give money back to shareholders through buybacks, a reality that contributed significantly to its excellent stock performance in 2019. Amazon would also “Feel The Corporate Tax Bern” badly too.

Tech Workers Feel The Bern

Last year, the senator from Vermont raised more money from employees of the five largest tech companies than any of his party rivals in the race for the presidential nomination. Despite promising to break up Google, Facebook and Amazon, supporting a state-run broadband network (that explicitly excludes for-profit internet service providers) and making a commitment to end corporate tax breaks that benefit tech giants like Apple the most, Sanders has received over $1 million (€897,000) in donations from the employees of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

Throughout his political career Sanders has maintained a consistent hardline stance against the unchecked expansion of corporate America, of which the US tech sector now makes up a large part.

Companies like Amazon employ a whopping 750,000 people worldwide while other oligarchs, like Google’s parent company Alphabet, have been driving innovation in a number of key technologies, like driverless cars, believed to be staples in near future society.

There’s no contradiction in Bernie Sanders’ opposition to the untethered growth of the tech sector, and the growing number of tech workers who support him.

Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are so large, and carry so much influence in modern society, they may as well be considered quasi nation states.

And among the leadership of the ‘traditional’ nation states - democratic or otherwise - that make up the geopolitical world we live in, how many are believed to enjoy the full support of their people?

Stereotypes

“Tech employees” are frequently stereotyped as middle class, hipster coder types who - despite wearing converse to work - stand a real (albeit small) chance at one day becoming executives themselves. And when leadership is within one’s reach, it’s easier to relate to those at the top of the food chain.

On the flipside, what do blue collar tech workers have in common with members of their employer’s executive board? Or with billionaires like Donald Trump or Mike Bloomberg?

Sanders’ support doesn’t come from tech executives. His donors can be found on the warehouse floors of Amazon storage facilities, as frontline salespeople in Apple stores or in the basement mailrooms at Microsoft corporate offices.

And unlike the POTUS or the former New York mayor, Sanders is nothing if not consistent. His social justice mantra was the same 50 years ago as it is today and unlikely to change now that he reportedly has a net worth of $1.6 million and owns three properties. Besides, the modest wealth he has accumulated (relative to other US politicians) over a career spanning five centuries years shouldn’t be held against him. To quote Tennessee Williams, “you can be young and poor. But you can’t be old and poor.”

Traditional Progress

The real paradox here is how a traditional campaign approach - placing human relations, conversations and networking at the core of its strategy – has “Bern” fruit (sorry) – given how central modern communications tools have become to the modern political campaign strategy.

The Sanders campaign team don’t put much stock in the kind of Obama-era voter data collection and analysis methodologies that were hallmarks of the former President’s successful election and reelection to the White House.

But the Sanders campaign has cleverly sold itself on this “back to basics”, grassroots campaign style while elevating a local networking approach to a nationwide level by using the digital platform of a smartphone app. The social democrat is using his “Bern” app to foster “open, honest and thorough conversations” among friends and family locally. As one commentator put it, “this simple technique is a hallmark of traditional campaigning, but the communication power of digital technology helps it take place on a massive scale.”

If innovation thrives in Dublin, in London, in Berlin and in Sweden, there’s no reason to believe it can’t thrive in the US with Bernie Sanders in the White House. Untethered wealth accumulation may be under threat. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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