How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley
By Sara Miles
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
248 pgs. US$24.00/C$38.95

Politics as usual v2.0

By Steven Martinovich
web posted February 26, 2001

How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon ValleyWhen you consider it, the fact that Sara Miles was able to write How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley must be a testament to how well she can gain a subject's trust. Fundraising is the side of politics that few in the business want to talk about, at least on the record, given its sometimes murky nature. Miles was lucky enough to land Wade Randlett -- a man whom she admits she both liked and was appalled by -- a bagman for the Democratic Party who in the late 1990s was attempting to bridge the disparate worlds of politics and high technology.

Randlett, a self-described hardcore centrist, made it his mission to claim the New Economy for the Democrats and to represent Silicon Valley to the party. His job was immense. Though the Democratic Party had a self-styled New Democrat in the White House, someone who the techno-libertarians could support, and the party loved money, the culture clash was enormous. Those in the Valley, writes Miles, were distrustful of what they saw as a wasteful and inefficient government while party operatives either didn't care for Randlett or saw the tech chief executives simply as ATMs.

Randlett's strategy was fairly simple though the work behind it was enormous. He believed that Bill Clinton represented a landmark shift in the Democratic Party towards the center, and was a party that was no longer beholden to its traditional constituencies. With loyalty to no party, the tech pioneers of Silicon Valley were ripe for Democratic evangelizing. Promising them a new style of politics, Randlett managed to convince several powerful and up- and coming chief executives to throw their support behind the Democrats and Al Gore.

"The New Democrats who triumphed with Clinton in 1992 were a perfect match for entrepreneurs whose bedrock conviction was that the rules of the market guided all human endeavor. Silicon Valley businessmen acted as if they believed that money was the universal and only accurate standard of measurement in the world. They seemed to think that the question Does it maximize shareholder value? meant the same thing as Is it morally right? Efficiency, in their world, had become worth; wealth was proof of rightness. And so the industry whose most influential spokesmen insisted that ideology was dead met the party whose President had no apparent ideology, a party that took their money and hailed them as the future," writes Miles.

Of course, in politics everyone has an agenda and Randlett was no different. Along with raising money for the party, Randlett wanted to set himself up as nothing less than the gatekeeper to the tech world. With the help of venture capitalist John Doerr, considered by many to be the most powerful man in Silicon Valley, Randlett successfully courted high profile players like Jim Barksdale, Kim Polese and Marc Andreessen. For their part, the tech executives wanted nothing less than a transformation of politics, to convert government into digital body - smaller, faster and more efficient. From the formation of TechNet, to a series of meetings, fundraisers, showdowns - including one especially hilariously surreal meeting between tech chief executives and old guard politicians - Miles documents Randlett's continuing efforts to represent the Democratic Party as the party of the future, and more specifically, the party of Silicon Valley.

As Miles tells the story, no one really wins in the end. Randlett is eventually pushed out because of personality conflicts and it becomes apparent that Silicon Valley, along with the tech industry itself, has become too large and diverse to be represented by any one group. After repeated delays and miscues by the Gore camp, George W. Bush and the Republicans manage to make significant inroads and sweep aside most of Randlett's work. Sadly, Silicon Valley politics ends up being no different then the Old Economy politics: pony up money - the more you give, the higher the ear you get to speak into - and your agenda is promoted in the halls of power.

Engaging as it is, How to Hack a Party line promises too much for a book written early in the life of the Internet economy. While there are more "digital citizens" now than there were in 1994, the political impact of the web has yet to be felt. That much was apparent when Gore's campaign all but ignored the Valley during his nomination bid and he chose to hammer the traditional old guard Democratic themes during his battle against Bush. No party lines were hacked and Silicon Valley has lost most of its mystique with both politicians and the public.

That weakness aside, the book does serve as the interesting first chapter in the political history of a society that is slowly being transformed by technology that was scarcely dreamed of only a decade ago. The question is how politicians and technologists - both who seem to believe theirs is the "one true path" - interact in the future. Despite that early optimism of profound changes, it would appear that the future has already been written and as usual money wins. If we're lucky, Miles will document that chapter as well.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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