The New Randroids

A slice of America’s tech workers is primed to desert the Democratic Party. And libertarian-leaning Republicans want them.

Are tech workers the New Randroids?

Photo by Tatiana Shepeleva/Shutterstock

Every time Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul assails mass government surveillance on the floor of the Senate, it is surprising to see who emerges to praise the erratically unorthodox Republican, from Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald to true-blue progressive reporter Marcy Wheeler. This support comes with caveats, of course. But the lefty applause for Paul also arrives at a moment of a distinctly lacking enthusiasm for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. More importantly, these plaudits align with many of the concerns of a quiet but influential contingent of liberal-leaning techies who might one day become Rand Democrats—or Democrats willing to support some other, future right-wing firebrand with lefty-compatible ideas about civil liberties—much in the way disaffected blue-collar workers became Reagan Democrats. Think of them as the New Randroids—and definitely not because they admire Ayn Rand, which they don’t. Progressives and loyal Democrats would be wise not to ignore them.

Rand Paul’s father, Ron Paul, has long enjoyed a libertarian following within what I call the tech laity—the vast number of tech workers who don’t work for buzzy startups or dominate the tech press. This group of engineers and other research and development workers, far less white and somewhat less male than what’s portrayed in the media, clusters around industry hubs in the Bay Area, Seattle, Boston, North Carolina’s Research Triangle, Austin, Los Angeles, and so on. The libertarians among them, who hate the Federal Reserve and have funded the presidential ambitions of Paul pere, make up a tiny minority of the whole. What’s been surprising is how hard Rand Paul has worked to broaden that small following in the hopes of reaching disaffected Republicans and Democrats. He has about as much chance of winning the nomination as Howard Dean, Paul’s closest antecedent, did in 2004. But Dean came closer than most people remember, and he ended up impacting the Democratic agenda (anti-war, expanded health care, gay rights) for years. Paul hopes to do the same—and perhaps make another run at the presidency in 2020 or 2024.

One way for him to do this is with the backing of a large chunk of the tech community. Paul and others noticed the large amounts of tech money that helped fuel Ro Khanna’s Democratic primary challenge to longtime Silicon Valley congressman Mike Honda last year. They rightly see the tech demographic as ready to get a lot more politically engaged—and not necessarily on just one side. Khanna lost, but he’s trying again in 2016, and there is no shortage of wealthy, left-libertarian techies who could become a lot more influential should they find the right candidate. Paul wants to be that candidate.

So when Paul goes to South by Southwest to break out his #DisruptingDemocracy hashtag and preaches privacy to Silicon Valley, who exactly is Paul—or a future candidate like him—trying to reach? While it’s always hazardous to generalize about a diverse community, I’ll try to construct a portrait, based on my years working in the tech industry, of the kind of tech worker whose background and beliefs might prime her to support a candidate with libertarian leanings and tough things to say about issues like surveillance and military overreach. Let’s call her Annie.

Annie is well-educated, upper-middle class, and works for a medium-to-large company like Intel, Google, Microsoft, or Hewlett-Packard, either as an engineer, an engineering manager, or a project manager. She works decent hours for good pay and benefits, as does her spouse. She might be from Asia or Eastern Europe, or she is a first-generation descendant of immigrants. She’s probably not religious, and if she is, she rarely talks about it. Regardless of her background, she’s not particularly integrated into the American social fabric beyond the tech community. She witnesses sexism and racism, against herself and other women. She doesn’t like it, but she finds the popular discourse around gender and race to be pointless and idiotic—much as she finds most online discourse. (Consequently, she doesn’t call herself a feminist, and she thinks Ellen Pao is a cynical opportunist.) Her goal is to do meaningful work with minimal interference, raise a family with very high standards for her children, and enable them to do as much as or more than she has. (If Annie were a man, he’d be fairly similar, except a little less left-leaning and a little more libertarian, and he wouldn’t think much about sexism one way or the other. But by and large, male and female Annies tend to agree on a lot.)

Annie’s politics are somewhat inchoate. She detests corruption, yet having witnessed it both in private and governmental sectors, she doesn’t favor less government for the sake of less government. Rather, she sees the necessity for each to keep the other in check. She reads Hacker News, where she gets bothered about the treatment of whistleblowers while people such as David Petraeus get off easy for their illegalities. She’s nervous about the burgeoning regulation of cryptography and crypto-researchers, as well as fear-mongering over Tor and other Internet privacy mechanisms. She’s even less happy that the National Security Agency and FBI interfere with tech companies, which she views as a hell of a lot more benign than the government.

Overall, she likes the tech industry in spite of its problems; things could be much worse. She would like for government to leave her industry alone. At the same time, she thinks that pointless suffering is, well, pointless and endorses a much greater social safety net than America currently has. Ideas like a minimum income and guaranteed health care sound sensible to her, not socialist. (Remember, even arch-libertarian Peter Thiel endorsed a minimum wage hike.) She’s worried about climate change but doesn’t feel she can do anything about it.

On other social issues, she is less passionate. She believes in gay marriage, doesn’t really get trans issues but thinks they’re fine (if weird), and does not see abortion as a pressing issue, though she’s inclined to think it should remain legal but probably restricted to the first two trimesters. She does care about education, particularly the education of her children. She (or her parents, or her ancestors) did not come to America to martyr themselves to a dysfunctional educational system. So unless she happens to live in a good school district, she’s going to send her kids to private school and pay whatever it takes to get them a good education. She’s ambivalent about affirmative action but dislikes it in college admissions, especially when top schools use it to reduce the number of Asians while accepting legacies at a much higher rate. In this, she is a meritocratic elitist, like much of the tech field. She doesn’t think anyone should suffer unnecessarily, but she believes the most talented and hardest-working people deserve more from life.

Annie has voted for the Democrats in the last few elections, both because everyone she knows does and because they stand against the less tolerant elements of the Republican Party, which seem frighteningly antediluvian to her. The war on terror struck her as about the dumbest thing she’s seen any government do, a massive overreaction with no planning or strategy to it. (She feels roughly the same about the war on drugs.) Yet she saw that Democrats were just as slow as Republicans to sour on the United States’ involvement in the Middle East and equally supportive of the government increasing surveillance, bullying tech companies, and hacking into Google and Yahoo. She’s not thrilled with what Edward Snowden did, but she’s more appalled that Obama keeps defending the NSA after what Snowden revealed. She thinks Obama is a well-meaning hypocrite who’s full of hot air. She doesn’t really care for Clinton. She doesn’t have much respect for either major party and feels little loyalty to the Democrats. It’s Republican insanity that keeps her voting for them. But this Rand Paul guy—other Republicans really seem to hate him, he thinks all of the government has too much power and money (not just the parts Republicans like to cut), and he at least acknowledges that climate change is real. And since Clinton shows no signs of being any better than Obama, she’s now wondering if Paul might shake things up, whatever his chances.

You probably disagree with Annie on a bunch of her positions—I know I do. That’s not the point. The point is that there are a lot of people like her out there, men and women. They are more or less absent from our public discourse (sometimes they pop up on Hacker News, Reddit, or UrbanBaby), but they have money and they vote, and they are becoming increasingly politically aware now that they feel the push of government on their own lives, their employers, and their children. The lack of surveillance reform, in particular, strikes people like Annie as a big middle finger extended in their direction by the government.

Rand Paul still has an uphill climb to win over these voters. Yet if he or a future candidate is able to garner the Annie vote, it won’t be because he’s done anything particularly notable, but because the left hasn’t. Race relations in this country are a mess. We’ve made no progress on climate change. The surveillance state has barely been reined in. A libertarian-leaning Republican could appeal to Annie merely by saying what she considers to be patently obvious but politically inconvenient. Even if Rand Paul fizzles out, the New Randroids will exert increasing socio-economic power as they come to feel increasingly separate from the Democratic Party’s apparent priorities. Whether the tech laity vote Republican, fund primary challengers, or simply pour money into candidates who speak to their own priorities, we’ll hear their voices far more loudly in the years to come.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State UniversityNew America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.