What Does Silicon Valley Win by Backing Cory Booker?

It's more than political capital -- ideological capital matters, too.
Cory Booker LEAD.png

Cory Booker speaking at a TechCrunch conference in San Francisco in the fall of 2012. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Last week, the New York Times detailed the personal, political, and financial connections between Newark mayor Cory Booker and a who's who of Silicon Valley: Eric Schmidt, Marc Andreessen, Reid Hoffman, Sean Parker, and more. Some of them backed his 2011 startup, Waywire. Others raised nearly $700,000* for his bid in the race for New Jersey's open senate seat, the primary for which Booker won on Tuesday. One donated straight to Newark: In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million to improve the city's schools.

Why would a bunch of entrepreneurs and executives in California donate money to a guy running for senate in New Jersey? Broadly speaking, these donations could be counted in the uptick in lobbying efforts by Silicon Valley companies. Google is on the list of top overall spenders in Washington thus far in 2013, at $7.8 million; it spent 2.5 times that amount in 2012, $18.2 million. Mark Zuckerberg caused a media hubbub when he started his own lobbying organization, FWD.us, this spring, which has had mixed success in supporting politicians who want immigration reform. The organization's website lists many of the contributors who have also given money to Booker, as well as notables like Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer and Instagram's Kevin Systrom.

As Silicon Valley's increase in official lobbying shows, the days when the tech world was seen as and tried to behave as an apolitical force are over.

Take immigration. Zuckerberg's lobbying organization, FWD.us., has been hit with criticism from environmentalists and liberal Democrats for funding ads that supported drilling in Alaska and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. They also funded a subsidiary group, Americans for a Conservative Direction, which bought ads designed to court conservative support for immigration reform. It's impossible to tell how much the organization's efforts contributed to the passage of the immigration bill in the Senate, but at least in the media, reactions to their efforts seemed overwhelmingly negative. In the end, this Silicon Valley intervention in the immigration debate has ended up seeming just like every other effort to influence the political process: difficult and filled with compromise.

It's hard, or at least expensive, to just spend one's way to a deal in a highly partisan environment. A deeper, more lasting way of exerting influence in Washington is to find people who see problems the same way Silicon Valley does.

And that's why tech honchos love Booker.

As Sarah Ross, a principle at Waywire, said in the Times story, "'Social media is a movement... and Cory Booker is a leader in this movement.'" This last word -- movement -- is the most important one: Booker represents and advocates a mindset about technology and social engagement that is in lockstep with the broader ideology behind Silicon Valley.

With 1.4 million followers on Twitter and more than 30,000 tweets, Booker is definitely big user of social media. His Twitter account is the stuff of legends (see the Chuck Norris-like tales of #CoryBookerStories), and he seems to have a knack for doing stuff that will explode on the Internet. Saving a woman from a burning building? Check. Shoveling constituents' yards in winter following tweets of distress? Check. Banning Conan O'Brien from the Newark airport on YouTube after O'Brien dissed the city on his show? Check.

But Booker doesn't just engage with social media; he preaches it as a way to fix the problems in politics. Here's part of what he said during an interview following his speech at SXSW this spring:

The people that are most active on pieces on legislation are the people who have interests in it, and often interests that are self-interests and special interests. If you don't have to filter your media through MSNBC [and] Fox... you can go directly to the people. When it comes to a complicated, controversial issue, you can talk to them about it, learn from them, but more importantly, motivate people to act around that issue.

There's an overlap between Booker's way of looking at social media and the ideas that drive tech companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook: Encourage people to connect and share; make information more accessible; provide platforms for regular people with an Internet connection to make their voices heard. Of course, these ideas also help tech companies make money -- the more people who use social media and search engines, the more revenue companies make from ads.

This seems to be the lobbying hope of Silicon Valley: A way to advocate issues that help the tech sector while avoiding partisan pitfalls. Although he's just one man, Cory Booker represents a step in that direction -- he's unimpressed by partisan fights, and he sees technology as a crucial part of effective governance. If he's elected to the Senate, Booker won't be thinking only as a Democrat, but as a tech guru. He speaks the language of Silicon Valley, and what the tech world wants will just make sense to him.

* Correction: An earlier version of this story overstated the amount of money Booker received from Silicon Valley. We regret the error.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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