Donald Trump and the Republicans’ hatred of California may crush Silicon Valley’s advantages over China

Robert Delaney says those sure that the US ‘free market’ approach beats China’s state-led tech strategy should worry that California, home to Silicon Valley, remains a favourite target of Republican disdain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2018, 2:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2018, 6:18am

There’s a lot of fretting in the United States these days about whether China is close to surpassing America in terms of technological innovation.

The question resonates because the stakes are so high. The winner in this race will have more influence over how the global economy develops, and ultimately how wealth and power are created and distributed. The innovation labs at tech companies large and small are the battlefields on which the clash of civilisations is playing out.

Ideally, Washington and Beijing would understand that the most sensible way forward is through extensive cross-border investment and collaboration, with the national security risks inherent in such exchanges kept in check through well-defined and reasonably transparent government reviews.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Paranoia and toxic politics will most likely keep such efforts from prevailing.

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Which brings us back to a broad geopolitical competition, pitting the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley against those in Shenzhen and Zhongguancun. China is either decades away from, or right on the heels of, Silicon Valley when it comes to leveraging artificial intelligence and other game-changing innovations, depending who you ask.

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One theory often repeated is that government-directed innovation has a bad track record and that China won’t be able to keep politics out of the way basic research is carried out, giving the US a leg up in the race for global technological supremacy.

Those confident that China’s state-led tech innovation model will undermine itself and ensure Silicon Valley reigns supreme are overlooking an unnerving trend in American politics: a rising tide of Republican hatred for California, the home of US tech innovation.

Under the leadership of US President Donald Trump – who has accused Google, Twitter and Facebook of building algorithms that bury content posted by conservatives – the Republican Party disposition has changed from one that celebrates the entrepreneurship that has turned California into the world’s fifth-largest economy to a group that portrays the state as un-American.

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Texas Senator Ted Cruz, facing a closer-than-expected fight against an insurgent Democrat to hold onto his seat in the upcoming US midterm elections, has reduced California to “tofu and silicon and dyed hair”.

California might pursue liberal social policies that make Republicans of all stripes groan, but in spite of – or perhaps because of – these policies, California’s entrepreneurs are the primary drivers of the 21st-century economy. The embrace of Trumpian politics, or the refusal among moderate Republicans to disavow them, is now threatening to undo this success story.

Reaganite Republicans got the tax cuts and deregulation drive they’ve wanted for decades. California, they have decided, will have to weather the storm on its own. That’s bad for American tech innovation. The titans of Silicon Valley will now need to devote resources to an unnecessary PR battle and the possibility of high-profile lawsuits if the pillorying of California continues.

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And it’s good for China’s tech innovators, which already have the benefit of lax data privacy regulations and vast financial resources provided by the government.

The consequences of the Republicans’ anti-California campaign go beyond tech supremacy and touch on the clash of civilisations more broadly.

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As American cultural psychologist Richard Nisbett said in his 2004 book,The Geography of Thought, “the values of individuality, freedom, rationality, and universalism became progressively more dominant and articulated as [civilisation] moved westward… ”

True this. These ideals have manifested themselves in California – the last resort of the Enlightenment’s westward expansion – more firmly than anywhere else in the world.

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We’ve seen and heard enough of Trump now to know that he detests the Enlightenment Project, which spread from western Europe to California, a cultural paradigm that forces him to submit to the rule of law and the checks and balances that created the stability and entrepreneurial spirit of the Western world.

If Trump’s Republicans advance their anti-California agenda to the point where the state’s tech giants are on their knees, they should be accused of forfeiting a civilisation.

Robert Delaney is the Post's US bureau chief, based in New York