Big Tech Money and the Tricky Business of Policy Influence

Do we really want Silicon Valley tech leaders to exercise even more influence over American society than they do already? 

That's a question one might well ask in the wake of news that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has hired David Plouffe—Barack Obama's former campaign manager and White House aide—to head up the group's policy and advocacy work. Meanwhile, Ken Mehlman—who was George Bush's campaign manager—will chair CZI's policy board. 

That a couple in their early thirties can hire two of the top political strategists of our time to advance their policy preferences is a striking reminder of the access and power that comes with wealth. While ordinary citizens are stuck signing online petitions or writing letters to their elected officials, billionaires can recruit the best talent there is to ensure a hearing in the public square. Even if you admire what Chan and Zuckerberg are trying to achieve—and there's indeed much to admire—something is deeply wrong with this picture. Tension is growing between today's big philanthropy and the American ideal of civic equality. 

Still, before we get more rattled about how today's tech elite is grabbing so much power, with charitable giving supporting that drive, it's worth keeping in mind that some of these leaders face constraints on what kind of advocacy efforts they can engage in. As well, it's far from clear whether they'll have the patience to stick with this work over the long run. 

First, consider the constraints. Mark Zuckerberg has often compared Facebook to a utility, with many in the public viewing it the same way. And nobody wants a guy with strong ideological or partisan views heading up such an important collective resource, which is why Facebook has endlessly pledged its neutrality and nonpartisanship over the years, and especially around the last election. Given this imperative, Zuckerberg's own brand as a philanthropist needs to be noncontroversial. Which is surely why Plouffe and Mehlman were hired in tandem, telegraphing that CZI is a bipartisan operation. 

But the obvious problem, here, is that making big changes in American society nearly always requires divisive policy combat. Or, as the cliche goes, you need to a break a few eggs to make an omelet.

In an announcement, Zuckerberg said: “David and Ken built campaigns for different parties, but have also come together to work on issues like marriage equality." In fact, though, marriage equality is a textbook case of how courageous philanthropists like Tim Gill moved far ahead of public opinion to achieve major change. There was little bipartisan about this push. For a long time, marriage equality was the kind of controversial issue that the CEO of a major company would be crazy to touch with a 10-foot pole. Looking ahead, it's hard to see how Mark Zuckerberg could get involved in that kind of fight, given his present role.

And while a bipartisan policy team might be fine for moving certain safe causes like medical research or personalized learning, it's hard to see how that arrangement works on a range of other issues. Making policy change nearly always requires picking sides on the great questions that divide America's two political parties. The funders who've been most successful in this regard—such as conservative donors like Richard Scaife and the Kochs, the Ford Foundation, and George Soros—have not played it safe. 

The Google billionaires have much the same problem as Mark Zuckerberg. Google is also a de facto utility in our information age, and it would be unnerving to think that Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt have strong ideological preferences. All these men are philanthropists with foundations, and between them have a net worth of some $90 billion. These fortunes may one day be deployed on behalf of controversial public policy causes—Schmidt is the hardest-hitting donor among the bunch with his green giving—but I'll bet that day lies in the distant future. It's just too risky for the Google brand. Instead, expect more giving by Brin for things like Parkinson's research or global health for Page. 

Beyond the public relations constraints that top tech leaders face, another reason these titans are unlikely to dominate policy any time soon is because the world of advocacy is so much different than the tech business. You succeed in Silicon Valley with ideas that create new services and/or disrupt existing industries. Such success can happen very quickly, as we've seen most strikingly lately with Uber and Airbnb. 

But policy and advocacy works very differently. Clever ideas and new thinking don't matter so much in this realm, which is dominated by interest groups and entrenched teams of ideologues. Change comes very slowly, and often requires a philanthropic commitment over decades. Industrialists like the Koch brothers understand that fact (Charles started backing libertarians in the 1960s) and so do historically grounded givers like Soros, who's now been pushing his open society ideas since the 1980s. Meanwhile, legacy foundations like Ford or Robert Wood Johnson that exist in perpetuity are well positioned to play the long game. 

But it's hard to imagine today's tech leaders having the same patience with policy and advocacy. Sean Parker is putting money into an interesting Washington think tank, the Economic Innovation Group, that's thinking outside the box. But does Parker have the endurance to back that group for decades, which is how long it can take to move new ideas into the political mainstream? I guess we'll see. 

Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg are very young, and if anybody can embrace the long game, it's this couple—which they've already done with their ambitious initiative to eliminate disease. Whether they can handle the aggravation and risks that come with policy advocacy is another question.