Since Inauguration Day, across Silicon Valley I’ve been hearing software engineers who earn six figures talk about solidarity, collective action, and the rise of labor against capital. In July, word went around that Reid Hoffman, a founder of LinkedIn, and Mark Pincus, a founder of Zynga, were launching a political organization called Win the Future, or #WTF (hashtag theirs), with Adam Werbach, a former president of the Sierra Club. The group, described as the “first people’s lobby,” would attempt to revitalize the Democratic Party by crowd-sourcing a policy agenda and broadcasting popular platforms on billboards in Washington. No specific legislative goals have materialized, but as a start Pincus has proposed soliciting feedback on whether it should be free, for all Americans, to obtain an engineering degree.
A week after the #WTF debut, Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, a startup accelerator, announced his own, more sober initiative, the United Slate. Looking ahead to the 2018 Senate races, Altman, who endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and once described Donald Trump as “an unprecedented threat to America,” publicized his search for candidates to support. On his personal blog, he wrote:
I believe in creating prosperity through technology, economic fairness, and maintaining personal liberty. The automation revolution will be as big as the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution. We need to figure out a new social contract, and to ensure that everyone benefits from the coming changes.
Matt Krisiloff, a twenty-five-year-old California native who is the director of Y Combinator Research, volunteered to run the United Slate. An early, unanticipated task was distinguishing the project from #WTF. “I personally was a little worried that we were gonna get bucketed in with them,” he told me. “I don’t think they had the friendliest reception, but I think ours was pretty well received. I think people respected that we had a pretty thoughtful platform, concrete ideas, and we weren’t just kind of being tech people trying to disrupt everything.”
To show its seriousness, the United Slate has three principles and ten policy goals. The three principles — prosperity from technology, economic fairness, and personal liberty — seem to wink at believers in techno-utopia’s unofficial religion, libertarianism, though the policies — including bolstering affordable housing, moving to single-payer health care, and imposing a carbon tax — are more likely to appeal to progressives. Shortly after state lawmakers committed $45 million to provide legal services to people facing deportation, the United Slate called for immigration reform that would prioritize “high-skilled people” who could contribute to the development of new technologies. The project also released a vision for education that did not mention teachers but supported investing in technology “to make teaching better.” Setting a standard for evaluating teachers, as it happens, has been a matter of contention in California, where per-student spending lags behind the national average and test scores in public schools serving low-income, minority areas reflect far poorer performance than those inside the tech bubble.
With their ideas in place, Altman and Krisiloff began seeking recruits to run for California governor and lieutenant governor, and for Congress. (They’re open to funding smaller races too.) Though the United Slate is not formally affiliated with Y Combinator, it follows a similar method for vetting. “With Y.C., it’s always been really interesting to us — the quality of people that are totally not plugged into networks but respond to our general call for applications,” Krisiloff said. “We really want to see the types of people that are just out of the blue, who we can reach and are inspired.”
Krisiloff believes that, in addition to providing direct funding and access to a network of donors, the United Slate can offer sophisticated advertising technology to help candidates access voters: “Essentially, micro-target down to the types of issues they will care about, so almost person-by-person type of tools.” He went on, “We’re going to be able to pull together really great people from Silicon Valley, types of people who have built these types of tools, to calibrate them, to build stronger profiles of individuals beyond the typical voter profile.”
By midsummer, the United Slate had heard from about forty people interested in entering California races, and they were starting to examine the contenders. “I certainly think this is a little harder than the type of model applied to startups, because with startups there’s more of a concrete product to evaluate,” Krisiloff said. “With this, it’s really just about the person, and the product is essentially a message communicated. I don’t want to push that analogy too far, but if they’re not ultimately effective, then they’re not going to win, much like a startup that is not ultimately effective is not going to stick around. But a very effective startup becomes Reddit, in our case — massive scale that affects a lot of people. A really effective candidate could go on to do really great things.”
The tech world is rigorous but casual, efficient yet antiestablishment — even as tech becomes the Establishment. And with venture capital, when an effort fails, the only loss is someone else’s money. It’s too early for Krisiloff to say for sure whether the Y.C. model will translate to the older, slower, and deeply entrenched systems of government. “We don’t really know if they’re gonna be successful or not,” he told me. “It’s just very much a startup.”