Jan 30, 2024 - Technology
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: A new, powerful political movement

Illustration of a hand pulling back a blue curtain with a recurring Axios logo across it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new, powerful, well-funded political movement is rising fast in America: the techno-optimists.

Why it matters: This group — mostly rich, white, middle-aged men with tech jobs, companies or investment funds — is building impressive, if unorganized, political muscle through social media, podcasts, new journalism projects, and political donations and activism.

  • These moguls have shifted the politics of an entire social media platform (X), helped elevate the most formidable third-party candidate in decades (RFK Jr.), and built a powerful and popular podcasting network.

Rise of techno-optimism

Between the lines: Techno-optimism is an imperfect name for the movement. But it captures an animating spirit of an emerging ideology.

  • It's a general philosophy, not a political party — though some of the billionaire tech investors funding and fueling it talk privately of one day soon starting one.
  • An actual political party is probably fantasy: The egos are enormous, interests diverse and attention spans short.

What's happening: For now, think of it as a loose affiliation of very powerful people with big followings who share platforms, ideas, styles and beliefs.

  • They have a social media platform: Elon Musk's X, formerly known as Twitter, where they wage war against conventional thinking and institutions. X has shifted from a hotbed for mainstream media groupthink in 2020, to a hotbed of tech/anti-establishment groupthink for this election. They high-five each other with retweets and X-only interviews.
  • They have a fairly common ideology: unfettered free speech, pro-artificial intelligence, anti-mainstream media, and deep skepticism of DEI, political correctness and elite consensus.
  • They have provocative philosophical manifestos, most notably investor Marc Andreessen's "The Techno-Optimist Manifesto," which declares: "Technology is the glory of human ambition and achievement, the spearhead of progress, and the realization of our potential."
  • They have a growing media ecosystem that operates online and gets heavy engagement on X. These writers — including Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss and Glenn Greenwald — often promote each other and get boosts on big-audience podcasts such as Joe Rogan's.

The "End DEI" manifesto

What they're saying: Weiss, founder of The Free Press, recently wrote a widely shared anti-DEI manifesto called "End DEI," a popular issue inside this movement.

  • "It is time to end DEI for good," she wrote. "No more standing by as people are encouraged to segregate themselves. No more forced declarations that you will prioritize identity over excellence. No more compelled speech. No more going along with little lies for the sake of being polite."

Weiss, who's based in California, told us The Free Press is growing by treating listeners, viewers and readers "like adults who can handle complexity," and by taking a posture on tech that's "more curiosity than knee-jerk criticism."

  • "We articulate the things that people talk about in private but are hesitant to openly discuss or debate in public," Weiss said. "We give people language to describe things that they are noticing and are maybe wary of, but don't yet have the vocabulary to explain or articulate."

Nellie Bowles, a former New York Times tech reporter who's now a Free Press columnist (and Weiss' wife) tells us: "The techno-optimist movement is a backlash to a kind of exhausting constant naysaying, constant reaction of 'this is bad and will only be bad.'"

  • "In covering the obvious risks," Bowles added, "reporters for a few years, myself among them for a time, lost any sense that progress was possible or even desirable, and [were] closed to the possibility that some advances could make the world better. You might call it 'doomerism.' So now there's opportunity for a sort of correction toward an open mind."

Kara Swisher — who'll be out Feb. 27 with "Burn Book," a memoir that's tough on Silicon Valley — is critical of this crowd and their taunting tactics. She chalks it up to billionaire boredom and the need to be relevant:

  • "It's a false dichotomy — an if-you-are-not-with-us-you-are-against-us argument by someone who cannot think clearly anymore. You can be bullish on many new innovations and still be worried about its implications."

But the tech bros' combined influence on politics is real — and growing.

  • You saw it when Ron DeSantis chose to announce his campaign not on Fox News, but on X (where he suffered a glitch-tastrophe). And he did it in an interview with David Sacks, a tech investor and co-star of the widely downloaded "All-In Podcast." Sacks has grown increasingly political on X and his podcast.
  • He's far from alone. Musk, Andreessen, Ben Horowitz, Bill Ackman and many other techno-optimist allies are inserting themselves into the politics of everything. They or their views get wide distribution on podcasts, notably Rogan's, "All-In" and Lex Fridman's.

Trump-Biden rematch

These men helped boost Vivek Ramaswamy during his early surge in the GOP presidential race, and have lifted RFK Jr. in his third-party bid. They often do it with podcast interviews and X postings. But they're putting money into the effort, too.

  • Ackman, a hedge fund manager who led the online charge against college presidents after their botched congressional testimony on antisemitism, announced in a long-winded tweet that he'll spend $1 million to help Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota in his long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination.

Horowitz, co-founder and general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, announced in a December blog post that partners at the venture capital firm, known as a16z, will for the first time give money to support candidates who "align with our vision and values specifically for technology" and oppose ones who "aim to kill America's advanced technological future."

  • Horowitz told us AI will revolutionize warfare, financial systems and consumers' daily lives. So tech — beyond the behemoths of Microsoft, Google, et al. — needs clout. But "nobody represents 'little tech,'" he said.
  • "[G]lobal military superiority is up for grabs as we move from Industrial Revolution-style systems to Information Age and AI-based warfare," Horowitz added. "[T]he Internet and our financial systems urgently need an overhaul to become fairer and more inclusive. So the regulation of things like AI and crypto may seem small, but getting them right is actually existential for our nation."

Reality check: There are tons of rich tech guys — from Bill Gates and Marc Benioff to Reid Hoffman and Mark Cuban — who have more conventionally center or center-left political stances, and aren't shy about spending money.

What's next: If the techno-optimists have a presidential candidate, it's RFK Jr.. But if they decide a third-party candidate isn't viable, they seem much more likely to turn to former President Trump than President Biden, based on their posts and podcasts.

  • They're universally proud free-market capitalists who find Biden, 81, too old and too approving of thought and word policing.

The bottom line: It's not clear how many votes they can move. But tens of millions of Americans — especially white men outside of big cities — listen to, read or follow them.

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