Cory Booker And The Silicon Valley Makeover Of The Democratic Party

Newark Mayor Cory Booker cruised to victory in New Jersey’s special election tonight. As a long-term presidential hopeful, he’ll instantly become one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful voices. Booker represents a permanent shift in how Silicon Valley is trying to give an ideological overhaul to the Democratic Party.

Booker is a world-class tweeter, co-founder to an ailing video startup, and beneficiary of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million education donation to Newark schools. But to see how Booker might act as a legislator, it’s helpful to look at the policies of other tech industry favorites in the Democratic Party.

The Silicon Valley poster children, President Barack Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, and their new favorite, Ro Khanna are distinctly different from the traditional fight-for-the-underdog Democrat. Overwhelmingly they favor innovation and general prosperity over civil liberties and income redistribution.

Mayor Bloomberg outright admitted that “we’re going to have more visibility and less privacy” in a candid radio Interview on his push for drone-powered surveillance. He also threatened to “fucking destroy” the taxi industry over its existential fight with ridesharing apps, Uber and Lyft.

Obama has been an ardent supporter of union-less charter schools and the use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in higher education, ignoring the cries of faculty unions.

Booker, too, funneled a sizable portion of Zuckerberg’s donation to charter schools–on top of supporting limits on teacher tenure.

As mayor, instead of outlawing stop-and-frisk, the racially charged practice of searching suspects on the street without a warrant, his approach was radical transparency. Every stop must now meticulously record the race, location, and reason; that data is then opened to the public for scrutiny.

His novel approach won accolades from Newark’s American Civil Liberties Union for balancing public safety and individual rights. But, a traditional liberal would likely have just outright banned the practice.

That is, one of Booker’s signature law-enforcement measures was imbued with some Silicon Valley idealism: Open the data and solutions will follow.

As a senator he’ll have a chance to bring an innovation-first approach to legislation. Here are a few predictions and an indication of the kinds of liberal policymaking that could become dominant within the Democratic Party.

Private-Sector Makeover Of Social Services – At the tech mecca that is the SXSW conference, Booker told me he is a fan of “social impact bonds,” which pay entrepreneurs handsomely for solving social ills better than the government can.

Reforming the criminal justice system is a priority for Booker, especially focusing on teaching prisoners skills to re-enter the workforce. Social-impact-bonds pilots have leveraged for-profit entrepreneurs to find jobs for the previously incarcerated. With enough money thrown at the problem, startups could leverage data technologies to help with the process.

San Quentin prison even experimented with a “Demo Day” for inmates who wanted to jump into the tech scene.

Education: Mandatory Transparency, More Charters, and Universal Computer Science – President Obama proposed an overhaul of higher education, including a new way to rate schools based on post-graduate employment. It’ll also financially support schools that want to experiment with MOOCs and a cheaper path-to-degree through online education.

There’s also legislation afoot to provide more resources to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses. Booker will likely support it, and may even be the first champion of it in the Senate.

Immigration Reform – High-skilled supporter. Full stop. Last spring we did an interview during a Twitter town hall that Booker conducted in support of high-skilled immigration reform. He’ll likely oppose union-sponsored limitations to high-skilled visas, like a mandatory 90-day waiting period for foreign workers.

Surveillance Reform – Booker is unlikely to buck his presidential mentor on National Security Agency spying. He’ll likely move lockstep with the upcoming recommendations from the White House task force on surveillance reform. He might support more transparency in the surveillance process, just like Facebook and Google have proposed, but mass surveillance will continue close to current levels.

Surveillance isn’t entirely a traditional liberal issue, as many Democrats for voted for–and against–Representative Amash’s failed amendment to halt mass spying.  That said, privacy will unlikely be a priority of Booker or the new Democrats.

Open Government – At SXSW, Booker promised that he’d use technology to open up the legislative process. The House of Representatives has been far more forward-thinking, experimenting with crowdsourced legislation, an online petition process for pending laws, and making data on legislation open to the public. Senate leadership has lagged — maybe Booker will pick up the slack. Or, ideally, invent a novel way of participation.

Universal Broadband, Easing Restrictions on Intellectual Property, and Net Neutrality – Count Booker in.

The new Democratic party still sees government as a force for positive change, but the indirect path of innovation and transparency as the best possible path to help society’s most vulnerable. It’s a bold new world for Democrats, and Silicon Valley is playing a big part.

[Photo: Spencer Platt for Getty Images]