By MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images.
For the next week, thousands of workers commuting into San Francisco via the Caltrain will be greeted with a giant billboard of Elizabeth Warren’s face and the words “BREAK UP BIG TECH”—a somewhat bold message in a city made rich by Silicon Valley. Hillary Clinton famously promised, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” but she never put up a billboard in Appalachia. As Jazz Shaw notes at HotAir, plenty of people who see Warren’s sign likely work at one of the companies she wants to break up, or have friends who do. Some of them may even be potential fund-raisers for her campaign. Is it really a great idea to piss them off?
Still, Warren might be onto something here. Anti-tech sentiment is, in fact, particularly high in the shadow of the Salesforce Tower, where the Big Four—Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook—and a steady stream of multi-billion-dollar IPOs have made much of the Bay Area unaffordable for all but the super-rich. The people who see Warren’s billboard are likely to be precisely the sort of commuters who have been forced into the hinterlands by San Francisco’s sky-high housing prices: educated workers making six figures who still cannot afford the million-dollar price tag for housing. While the Massachusetts senator’s proposal to break up Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple might hurt some employees at those firms if they are forced to downsize, it might also allow new companies to thrive, spurring new innovation. (As Warren writes, referring to the government’s 1998 antitrust case against Microsoft, “Aren’t we all glad that now we have the option of using Google instead of being stuck with Bing?”) Tellingly, Warren’s team didn’t stick her billboard in Palo Alto, but rather in close proximity to somewhat smaller public companies, including Lyft and Dropbox, which make products that compete against the Big Four’s portfolios.
There is a larger strategy at play too. While Warren’s fund-raising has suffered in the short term, in part because of her decision to stop holding big-donor events and her refusal to take donations higher than $500, her devotion to principle does appear to have helped her stand out in a crowded field. Her standing in the polls has recently been ticking upward, the New York Times reports, and crowds at her rallies have grown bigger. Her fund-raising still lags behind that of wealthier rivals like Joe Biden, but voters seem genuinely excited by her steady release of new policy proposals, such as forgiving student-loan debt, ending the electoral college, and taxing people with a net worth of $50 million-plus, with an even higher tax on billionaires. (Even her lack of money, driven largely by her self-imposed fund-raising limits, has turned into a selling point among her supporters. “I like that very much,” Cheryl Scherr of Iowa told the Times, “because that means that she’s not beholden to anybody.”) Her detailed proposal to use antitrust law to break up the three megacorporations may ultimately be a near-impossible task, but for the majority of voters who want the government to do more to regulate technology companies, Warren’s emphasis on the issue immediately established her as an authority.
The primary purpose of placing an anti-tech message in the heart of Silicon Valley, of course, is to get attention. (Rarely does a local billboard become a national story, even online.) But is Warren also signaling her intent to make a real play for California, which recently moved its primary to Super Tuesday? Biden continues to lead the polls there, as in every other state. Kamala Harris has a hometown advantage too. Still, it’s early days, California allocates its 400 delegates proportionally, and perhaps Warren sees an opening with the sorts of upwardly mobile but economically constrained folks who must commute out of San Mateo or San Jose—where even highly educated workers cannot afford the average home, and low-income minority voters have been pushed out altogether. One billboard isn’t about to launch a tech proletarian revolution, but it does speak to the growing anti-tech sentiment flourishing at the fringes of Silicon Valley.
More Great Stories from Vanity Fair
— Exclusive: your first look at Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
— The epic fall of Michael Avenatti
— Michael Wolff’s new blockbuster is overflowing with titillating material
— Will the real Joe Biden please stand up?
— From the archive: the lie that drew the U.S. military to Iraq’s doorstep
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hive newsletter and never miss a story.