The Political Awakening of Silicon Valley
What happens when tech leaders, like Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, believe our system is broken? They treat it like a startup.
This story is part of a series that explores the relationship between California and Donald Trump’s Washington.
Last year on election night, Sam Altman invited a hundred friends to watch TV at his house in San Francisco’s Mission District. One after another, guests showed up with champagne. Altman desperately hoped Donald Trump would lose, but he’d grown up in Missouri, and a decent number of people in his life, including his grandmother, were Trump supporters. He put the bottles on ice on a long hardwood table in his dining room and instructed everyone to leave them alone until they had a reason to celebrate. “I had this inkling that people were complacent and totally wrong,” he remembered later. At 2 o’clock in the morning, someone took a photograph of the unopened bottles, their fine labels softening in buckets of melted ice. Altman felt like it was one of the worst things that had ever happened to him.
Altman is the president of Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley firm that mentors and invests in early-stage startups, and at 32, he has become one of the Valley’s youngest kingmakers. He tosses off gnomic, retweetable business insights that aspiring entrepreneurs recite to one another — “Most people give up on things way too early” — and although more experienced investors sometimes roll their eyes at his cult heroism, few would turn down a meeting. Since assuming leadership three years ago, Altman’s been credited with pushing the organization, then best known for discovering Airbnb and Dropbox, to invest in science-fiction-ish enterprises like supersonic air travel and nuclear fusion. And some of these moonshots have already paid off: A self-driving car startup, Cruise Automation, in which Altman also made a personal investment, was bought by General Motors for more than a billion dollars.
Altman shares a casual relentlessness with his friends Peter Thiel and Elon Musk and, until recently, had been devoting most of his time to compounding his organization’s considerable influence. Then, last year, a close friend who is Mexican confided to him that if Trump were elected, he worried he might be deported. All of a sudden, Trump’s xenophobic bluster became personal. Before the election, Altman sat down and drafted a blog post condemning the candidate. “To anyone familiar with the history of Germany in the 1930s,” he wrote, “it’s chilling to watch Trump in action.” Speaking out felt cathartic — better, in any case, than staying quiet. He helped hack together a get-out-the-vote app called VotePlz, and after Trump won, he made a list of the president’s major campaign promises and created a website, Track Trump, to document his progress toward them. Altman also wrote a follow-up post: “Something is starting that is going to be taught in history classes, and not in a good way.” But this time, publicizing his feelings and writing code didn’t seem like enough.
Silicon Valley’s leaders were experiencing a rare and remarkable paroxysm of self-doubt. It wasn’t just their sense that they’d poorly deployed their wealth or that, cloistered on the West Coast, they’d misjudged the electorate. They were also coming to wonder if they’d helped create the circumstances that led to Trump’s rise. After the election, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged Facebook’s role in polarizing citizens by surfacing articles that reinforced their worldviews. Faced with accusations that Twitter had helped Trump set up a one-man propaganda machine, Ev Williams, the company’s co-founder, told The New York Times, “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.” As it became clearer that Silicon Valley’s incessant disruption of older industries contributed to the numbers of underemployed, underpaid Rust Belters who’d helped put Trump in office, Altman posted on Facebook, asking his friends for introductions to Trump supporters who might help him understand what had happened. He then interviewed a hundred of them. On his blog, he offered a pithy Altmanism to summarize their perspectives: “You all can defeat Trump next time, but not if you keep mocking us, refusing to listen to us, and cutting us out. It’s Republicans, not Democrats, who will take Trump down.”
In the past, there’d been a dutiful bent to Silicon Valley’s involvement in politics. Those with means had given to the Clinton and Obama campaigns and had even lent some strategic advice — enough to make Silicon Valley a crucial fundraising stop. But besides supporting a liberal (and in some cases, libertarian) agenda, they’d left the policy details to the politicians. They lobbied for their corporate interests, of course, which sometimes intersected with mainstream issues like immigration reform. But for the most part, they thought they could fix the world’s problems better, faster outside the messy, internecine fighting of Washington, D.C. By early summer, that had changed. The CEOs of the biggest tech companies, including Apple and Google, censured Trump for his policies on immigration and climate change. Musk and Travis Kalanick, then the CEO of Uber, quit a Trump advisory council; later in the summer, after Trump’s controversial comments about violence between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, other high-profile CEOs would do the same. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, brought on several high-profile political operators, including Obama strategist David Plouffe, George W. Bush adviser Ken Mehlman, and the research firm of Democratic pollster Joel Benenson. Zuckerberg also embarked on his own listening tour covering all 50 states. (This inspired speculation that he was eyeing a run for office, which he denied.) Zynga’s Mark Pincus announced that he and Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn, had committed to invest in a project called Win the Future, for which they hoped to crowdsource an agenda through the internet, and Hoffman told the audience at a tech conference that, over time, his political spending could reach into the hundreds of millions.
Silicon Valley’s investors and CEOs were acknowledging the limits of tech solutionism — that innovation alone could solve our most pressing social problems. But they still believed that if technology had helped put Trump in office, maybe it could also get him out. In May, in a commencement speech at Harvard, Zuckerberg advocated for “generation-defining public works” such as “asking volunteers to track their health data and share their genomes” and “modernizing democracy so everyone can vote online.” In early July, Pincus invited people to tweet their favorite policy positions, which would be displayed on D.C. billboards. The outcome was about what one might expect from the internet. “Please burn this cursed country to ash and start over,” someone offered. Pincus and Hoffman were denounced in the media and on Twitter for presenting themselves — the white, male, coastal elite — as spokesmen for a movement to fix progressive politics. Meanwhile, people were posting photos online of Zuckerberg’s listening tour, which had just stopped in Iowa, with captions like: “Mark Zuckerberg loves being a normal guy who casually chats with his fellow humans.”
It was in this fraught context that Altman published a political platform of his own and announced that he planned to find and support like-minded people who were running for office in California. He named the project the United Slate and introduced it with a kind of political manifesto. “We are in the middle of a massive technological shift — the automation revolution will be as big as the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution,” he wrote. “We need to figure out a new social contract, and to ensure that everyone benefits from the coming changes. … We need new candidates who understand the future.”
Altman lives in a $5 million Victorian on a quiet street not far from Dolores Park. When I buzzed at the front gate one summer morning, he greeted me through the intercom — “Hey!” — then padded out in his socks, a T-shirt and jeans, his hair tousled in a Beck-like nest. On the wall above the dining table, he’d hung several large, striking works by Leonardo Ulian, an Italian artist who builds mandalas out of copper wire and electronics parts. On a bookshelf stood a high-end clock, called a Qlock, that, somewhat impractically, displays the time in words.
There weren’t many personal touches in the space, with the exception of a row of rubber duckies arranged under the TV; his grandmother, the Trumpian, sends him one each year for his birthday. Altman was raised in the suburbs of St. Louis in a well-off household. His mother was a dermatologist; his father, a real estate developer. Both were liberal. Growing up, Altman was obsessed with tinkering and coding. When he went to college at Stanford, he majored in computer science for two years, then dropped out to work on an app called Loopt, which let people share their location. Paul Graham, a programmer and entrepreneur, had just co-founded YC and become its president, and in 2005, Loopt was one of the first startups he chose to invest in. Graham admired Altman’s intelligence, and in 2014, he announced his retirement and anointed Altman as his successor.
Altman soon developed a reputation for both his prescient investments and advice to entrepreneurs: He’d start most meetings by asking “How can I help?” and then spend some 15 minutes in a rapid-fire question-and-answer session, after which he’d deliver a solution that hadn’t occurred to anyone else. Even outside the office, Altman retains an almost collegiate curiosity. When he told me he doesn’t read much fiction, though he admires Alice Munro and Shirley Hazzard, I recommended the Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan Novels. A couple of days later, he’d already ordered all four novels in both Spanish and English. (“I will try reading in Spanish first and then give up and read in English if it’s too slow.”)
Altman’s genius, though, according to people who have worked with him, is his radical disregard for tradition. Within 18 months of taking over YC, he’d undertaken an aggressive makeover of the organization: creating an online version of its startup mentoring program, opening a branch to invest in later-stage companies, starting a nonprofit research lab, and funding companies with a more scientific bent. “Sam took an incredibly disruptive but internet-only-focused startup incubator and turned it into a platform that’s launching everything from nuclear energy startups to biopharma companies,” said Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box and a friend of Altman’s. “Not everything will work out, of course, but his general approach is to try things out, tweak, and figure out why we can’t solve major problems instead of being held back by traditional constraints.”
In person, Altman’s restlessness manifests as fidgetiness. As we sat together at his dining table, he kept pulling his knees up, holding the table’s edge, and rocking his chair onto its back legs, perching there like a marsupial in a tree. Often, he’d break eye contact and talk to me while gazing elsewhere, which seemed to help him crystallize his thoughts. As he balanced himself in his chair, he told me why he was choosing to focus on political races in California: “I think it’s always important to pick the right size of the first problem to work on. You don’t want to start too small or too big.” Then, after looking away, he added, “This is my home. I want to stay here; I’d like for my kids to grow up here. And I think it’s sort of always good to start fixing problems in your own backyard first.”
To Altman’s mind, the most urgent problem we’re facing — one that Trump exploited to become president — is a widening gap between the rich and the poor and, by extension, a profound feeling of disenfranchisement. He believes we should extend Medicare to people of all ages. We should make college free in exchange for civic service. He also predicts that in the future, artificial intelligence will make blue-collar jobs even scarcer and worsen inequality, at which point he thinks the government could enact a universal basic income — a regular, no-strings-attached payment to every American. The concept has become popular in Silicon Valley, both in progressive and libertarian circles, and YC Research is in the middle of a secretive pilot project in Oakland to test its potential. Altman believes that a universal basic income might be the most equitable, efficient method of expanding the social safety net “when the AI comes.”
To fund all this, he proposes raising taxes on wealthy people like himself. “Look, if I were born in a slightly different situation than I was born in, a few miles from where I was born, to different parents, with different color skin — I have no delusions, I wouldn’t be in the place that I’m in,” he would later tell me. “If you are successful because of things that aren’t in your control, you have a duty to pay it forward, which is what I’m trying to do here.”
At the same time, Altman, like Zuckerberg and Pincus, retains an abiding faith in the tech-charged capitalism that has helped make him, and so many others in Silicon Valley, wealthy. “One of the best things that’s happened to reduce inequality is the invention of the smartphone,” he told me. “Multibillionaires and people in poverty have smartphones. All of the world’s knowledge is available to you. That’s been transformative.”
Altman goes as far as to encourage his startups to try to become monopolies to maximize their profits, an idea borrowed from Thiel. When I asked him whether he’d push politicians to challenge the deepening power of tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, he demurred: “That’s a complicated question. I’d have to think a lot about that.” (After giving it more thought, he later told me that he feels the government should step in if companies become too big and influential, although he concedes he’s not an expert on the subject.) And even as he insists that AI will be the greatest unequalizing force that’s ever hit us, Altman is working actively to accelerate its advancement. He’s pushed YC to invest aggressively in artificial intelligence startups and, along with Elon Musk, founded a nonprofit called OpenAI, aimed at developing “safe” artificial intelligence. “I think the job of companies is to be as successful as they can, and the job of government is to make sure we have a sufficiently fair society,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Altman believes that government could better accomplish this if it spent more on tech itself (he proposes that the federal government shift 10 percent of its defense budget into tech research). He told me about some Chinese machines he’d heard about: “You watch these videos — and it’s just a little terrifying, very amazing, though — these skyscrapers that just get constructed out of thin air in 15 days by robots.” He imagines the government using more of that sort of technology — commissioning robots to build affordable housing, using software to let schools personalize the learning experience for each student, deploying AI to handle paperwork in a universal health care system. Inventions like these, he argues, could even address the government’s fiscal challenges by making it cheaper to provide services.
“He’s developed a worldview over the years where he wonders, Why can’t we solve that problem?” Levie told me. “Everything feels solvable.”
The night of the election, the panic was palpable in Silicon Valley. Shervin Pishevar, an investor and Clinton donor, suggested on Twitter that California secede from the union. Tristan Walker, a prominent entrepreneur, tweeted that he was “terrified.” Catherine Bracy, a political organizer who in the past had criticized Silicon Valley for its role in exacerbating inequality, woke up the next morning and saw an opening. She tweeted at Altman and Graham: “We have a common enemy and I’m ready to work with y’all going forward.” Altman responded: “Me too.”
He had been trying to channel his heartbreak in any way he could think of. He kept the Track Trump website up to date. When the president announced a temporary travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries, Altman showed up at the San Francisco airport to protest. But he also wondered if he could be using his time better. “I don’t think that railing against Trump, although I still think he’s a terrible president, is helpful,” he told me. “I will complain for a while like anybody else, but at some point, I want to try to say, ‘OK, what do we do next?’” He started by issuing a call for YC applications from organizations trying to “keep the electorate informed,” “protect and defend journalists and their sources,” and “improve democracy,” and he invited the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the Trump administration over the travel ban, to join YC. (As a nonprofit, it received a donation instead of an investment.) Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU, told me Altman had persuaded him to hire a chief technology officer for the first time.
Altman also worked with Bracy to come up with a plan. On a bright afternoon in February, they gathered some of the most influential players in both the tech and political worlds for a private three-and-a-half-hour meeting at the San Francisco headquarters of Stripe, the payment company in which Altman is an investor. About 30 people sat at a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of tables, including John Podesta, who’d chaired Clinton’s campaign; Teddy Goff, a top digital strategist for both Clinton and Obama; and Ron Conway, an investor and Democratic donor. In this room of longtime political operators, Altman was the newcomer. Over a lunch of catered banh mi sandwiches, he explained that he and Bracy wanted to debrief about the state of progressive politics. “We’re not here to solve anything,” he said. They just wanted to get everyone on the same page. Attendees stepped up to give presentations on a range of topics: the Democratic Party’s infrastructure, the role of the media in the election, and so on. But the conversations were inconclusive — everyone had different ideas about what had gone wrong in the election and what should happen next. At one point, an activist announced, “The Democratic Party is dead.”
Altman left the meeting feeling discouraged. “When you talk to people who have been to Koch network meetings, it’s like, there’s a 20-year plan, it’s super well-organized, people don’t fight with each other, they’re coordinated,” he told me. “Then you look at us, and it was like, there’s not really a plan.” He took heart in the political organizing taking place outside of the party structure. More than a thousand tech workers had signed a pledge promising to work against any efforts by their companies to help the administration create a Muslim registry, which Trump had floated during his campaign. Following the workers’ pledge, Google, Apple, and Facebook all made the same promise. Intrigued, Altman and some friends organized a meeting in April for tech workers and startup founders to come up with a longer list of values that he hoped they could pressure their companies to support. According to people who attended, Altman was a respectful and well-meaning moderator — he urged people to share their thoughts and didn’t interrupt — but it was clear he was in charge.
Standing in front of the group, he described his plan: Once they drafted a list, he’d talk to his CEO friends and try to get them to sign on. It was not exactly the bottom-up approach that activists had been taking for months, organizing workers to pressure management. A couple of weeks later, Altman and his co-organizers published several bullet-pointed ideals, but they were full of cautious legalese: “We will only provide individual user data to governments under correct legal process.” The Tech Workers Coalition, a grassroots group that had sent some members to Altman’s event, wrote a blog post criticizing the result as “disappointingly shallow.” It added, pointedly, “Any pledge claiming to uphold the values of tech workers should be defined by the workers themselves.” This wasn’t the first time that Altman’s status — and business relationships — within Silicon Valley had complicated his political agenda. When, during the election, people called for YC to cut ties with Thiel, a vocal Trump supporter, Altman refused, arguing that Thiel’s perspective brought intellectual diversity to the organization.
As the president of YC, Altman had been spending most of his time setting the company’s agenda, finding impressive entrepreneurs who align with it, and giving them resources — money, advice, and access to his professional network — to improve their chances of success. He began to think that maybe he’d do best to apply that model to politics. He could find good candidates, fund them, and hook them up with his contacts and resources. “We’re all a product, or a victim, of our own experience, so I’m going to clearly come at this from the lens of what I know,” he told me. As Darrell Jones III, an activist who works with Bracy, put it, “He’s not trying to lead marches or protests or give fiery orations. He realizes, My role is to give money and resources to move things forward.”
In the back of his mind, Altman was also wondering if he could be even more effective if he became a politician himself. In April, in an onstage interview at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, Altman was asked whether he’d consider running for office. “I don’t think charisma is my strength,” he said. But privately, he was telling friends that someone with Silicon Valley bona fides would do a better job bringing innovation to Sacramento. Chris Lehane, a former adviser to Bill Clinton who now works as the head of policy at Airbnb, said he’d come away from conversations with Altman thinking, “He’s someone who’s giving a great deal of thought to how you can align policies that use the lever of technology to help improve the quality of people’s lives.” Then in May, Altman asked Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco, for advice. Brown promptly outed him in a column for the San Francisco Chronicle. “I told him California has a history of millionaires running for public office on their own dime,” Brown wrote. “Most wind up paying consultants a whole lot of money and losing.”
One morning in July, I met with Matt Krisiloff, an earnest 25-year-old with little political experience. He and Altman got to know each other when Krisiloff was still a University of Chicago student entrepreneur whose first startup involved making food out of shelled insects. It became improbably high-profile: A New Yorker article mentioned the business (“The problem is the ick factor — the eyes, the wings, the legs,” Krisiloff said), and other stories followed. Krisiloff later emailed Altman for advice, and the two stayed in touch; after he graduated, Altman hired him to work at YC. Krisiloff kept offering to help with Altman’s research lab, which dealt with social issues like the high cost of housing and health care. A year later, Altman made him the director of the lab.
About two weeks after the election, Krisiloff and Altman started talking politics over lunch at a pizzeria. (Krisiloff’s primary political experience had consisted of working on his mother’s unsuccessful run for Los Angeles City Council.) “It seemed like the traditional political structure was not working the way we’d all expected it to work,” Krisiloff recalled. Altman, recognizing his own political passion in Krisiloff, started inviting him to help with his various projects, like the workers’ meeting. When Altman announced the United Slate, Krisiloff became his unofficial second in command.
While sitting in a conference room in YC’s brick-walled office in San Francisco, Krisiloff told me his approach to the United Slate has been to test various strategies and adapt, as he and his colleagues do at YC. Acknowledging that both he and Altman are new to this level of political engagement, he added, “I’m optimistic that we’re going to be very helpful, but I’d also say that I don’t know for sure yet. I like to think of everything we do as experiments. We’ll have to see how it goes.” He told me he expects that, if the United Slate gains momentum, he and Altman would bring on more veteran politicos later.
Back in April, Altman asked Krisiloff and his older brother, an asset manager named Scott, to set up a series of focus groups in San Francisco, L.A., Fresno, and San Diego to help him come up with his platform. The brothers thought about hiring an outside firm, but after learning how much that would cost — $50,000 and up — they decided to do it themselves. There were some early missteps. For a San Francisco focus group, they forgot to ask about applicants’ political orientations, and they ended up with a roomful of like-minded liberals. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Krisiloff admitted.
When Altman announced the United Slate, he put a contact email address on the website. Within hours, messages started coming in, mostly from candidates or their staffers. Krisiloff, tasked with reading the incoming emails, had to figure out how to prioritize them. The selection process for YC involves interviewing entrepreneurs for a few minutes before deciding whether to fund them. Krisiloff landed on a similar screening process: He’d sit down with politicians and other interested parties for no more than 15 minutes at a time, peppering them with YC-style questions to gauge if they were aligned with what Altman was looking for: Why do you want to do this? Why do you think you’re competitive? What do you think about job security in the long term, and what should we do about automation?
Altman seemed especially drawn to liberals with tech backgrounds, like Democrat Josh Harder, a venture capitalist who is challenging Republican Jeff Denham in a congressional district in central California. Harder talks about using tech to make government more effective, and he supports making health care and higher education more affordable, though he stops short of endorsing some of Altman’s most left-leaning prescriptions, such as free college and Medicare for all.
By August, Altman started posting ideas on his website for a potential 2018 California ballot measure related to housing. But after learning that others were already working on similar measures, he began leaning toward funding one of those instead. He still hadn’t announced which candidates he planned to support, and as for his potential interest in running for governor himself, he’d prefer to find someone else. “It was never like, ‘I’m going to do this,’” he told me. “It was, ‘I have totally struck out at getting people to run, and I frankly don’t think any of the current candidates for governor are the best we can do.’” He added, “I really like my current job.”
In the minds of some of his critics, Altman’s political inexperience could keep him from having much of an impact, regardless of his aspirations. “It seems to me that these guys are taking an I’ll-just-do-it-myself approach, and it’s just so counterintuitive,” said Maria Salamanca, an advisor at Swing Left who has worked as a political fundraiser and is also a venture capitalist. “I mean, good innovations and good ideas come from teams who either have the skill set or the domain experience.” (Altman, for his part, bristles at critiques of his inexperience. “I think I have as much a right as anyone — especially career politicians. Donald Trump is president. Who can say that I can’t?”)
While other prominent political donors have worked hard to form relationships with union leaders, activists, and sitting politicians, Altman remains relatively unknown. “If you say, ‘I have an agenda,’ well, there are a lot of people who have their own agendas and interests, and they’re not going to step aside because you’re a fancy Silicon Valley leader,” Donnie Fowler, a political consultant, told me. When I asked John Burton, a former chairman of the California Democratic Party who has served in the California Legislature and the U.S. House and is one of the most well-connected political operators in the state, what he thought of Altman, he said, “Who?”
The co-founders of a startup called Value Voting were waiting for Altman at YC’s Mountain View office. The company, part of YC’s summer batch, helps advocacy groups use their members’ voting records to influence elected officials, and the founders were there to ask for Altman’s advice on attracting customers. James Vaughan and Can Sar, both in their early 30s, met in college at Stanford several years earlier and had applied to YC after reading Altman’s call for democracy-oriented startups. Since joining the program, they’d mostly worked with other YC partners. Altman had been busy with management, though he tried to make time when he could for a ritual known as “office hours,” where startups could come to him for advice. Vaughan and Sar had spoken with Altman on the phone, and this was likely the only office-hours session they’d ever have with him — many startups don’t get time with him at all — and they were anxious to make the most of it.
Altman shuffled in a little late, apologizing as he entered. He led Vaughan and Sar into a small conference room, where, with minimal preamble, he pulled out his phone: “Want to see something cool?” The entrepreneurs leaned in to watch a video on Altman’s screen of a neat robotic trick (whose details he asked me not to disclose). It was, apparently, an unprecedented accomplishment — it had come out of OpenAI, the artificial-intelligence nonprofit he’d co-founded with Musk — and his audience murmured in appreciation.
Vaughan knew about Altman’s interest in artificial intelligence, and he asked, “How close are we to the point where massive job losses occur?”
“The thing a lot of people forget is that we’ve been losing jobs at the same rate for, like, 300 years,” Altman said. He didn’t expect that rate to accelerate, at least not anytime soon, and when AI does replace some jobs, he said, people will invent new ones. But then he equivocated: Another case, he acknowledged, could be made. People used horses to transport us from place to place until cars came along. “For a while, horses found slightly different jobs,” he said, “and today there are no more jobs for horses.” For a moment, he and the entrepreneurs considered this in gloomy silence. Then he moved on. “All right,” he said. “How can I help?”
Vaughan and Sar rehashed the company’s history. After an initial burst of success with a first group of customers, Value Voting was struggling to convince advocacy groups to sign up. Altman asked a series of questions — What did people get when they signed up for the service? What were they hearing from their existing customers?
When Vaughan and Sar started to answer, Altman rocked back in his chair, brought his knees up, and gazed at the table. Then he looked at them and delivered his prescription: They should plan an exclusive strategy conference, in this case focused on 2018 state and local elections in Texas, and make the holdouts sign up as the price of entrance.
The co-founders nodded — it was a somewhat ingenious solution — but then mentioned an underlying problem: Some people who’d used the product, to be honest, just didn’t seem to find it valuable enough.
At this, Altman perked up. Here was a business lesson with broad applications. “Well, that sounds like the most important issue,” he said. “I would go figure out what it takes to get them to love you.”