Tech 2020: Why Presidential Candidates Can No Longer Afford to Dismiss Tech Issues

, Feb 26, 2020

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On February 11th, Andrew Yang suspended his campaign for president after an eighth-place finish in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary. It was an anti-climactic end to an otherwise unique, if long-shot, bid for the White House. Yang had been the only major Asian-American candidate in the 2020 race, a man known for his humor on the debate stage, his proud display of “MATH” apparel and an unusual coterie of endorsements that included comics like Dave Chappelle and Michelle Wolf. His most well-known policy proposal was his $1,000-per-month “Freedom Dividend.” But, more than that any of that, what truly set Yang apart from the rest of the 2020 pack – and most, if not all, presidential candidates before him – was that, had he succeeded, Yang would’ve been the country’s first “Tech President.”

Candidates running for president, today and in previous campaign cycles, come at it with a background in politics, military service, real estate – but not tech. And Yang made his tech background a central plank of his candidacy, constantly emphasizing the role that artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are already playing in our day-to-day lives and the need for the country, with guidance from the White House, to think about how our society will need to be reshaped around these tools.

A more tech-focused primary campaign

From Senator Elizabeth Warren’s platform on Big Tech antitrust policies to Senator Amy Klobuchar’s proposal on expanding rural broadband access, tech has been more of the conversation in this campaign than ever before. But let’s be real, “a more tech-focused campaign” is a pretty low bar to clear, given how much technology has been dismissed as niche issues – if not altogether ignored – by the vast majority of past political campaigns, whether for president, Congress, or state seats. After all, “the internet is a series of tubes” wasn’t that long ago, and still today politicians on the Hill seem to exhibit a disturbing lack of basic tech literacy.

Politicians dismiss tech at their own peril. For one thing, it’s of increasingly enormous importance in voters’ lives. AI, data privacy, rural broadband, climate change, self-driving cars, net neutrality – these are all tech issues that touch millions of peoples’ lives daily. What matters to constituents should matter to the people running for those constituents’ votes.

But it also has profound policy and political consequences. For example, more than 20 million people have received health coverage through the Affordable Care Act over the last seven years. Yet one of the enduring legacies of that law is how in its first weeks of operation, healthcare.gov was rife with technical problems and service disruptions. That’s a problem that has been long fixed, but the memory of a poorly coded and dysfunctional website still lives on as a black mark on its reputation.

We saw something similar with the infamous Iowa caucus vote reporting app, where amateur coding practices and a lack of basic tests and security safeguards resulted in a disastrous showing for the Iowa Democratic Party. In this case, bad tech didn’t just embarrass politicians, it resulted in a failure to carry out the most essential responsibility of the caucus: counting and reporting votes.

‘It’s the economy and technology, stupid’

All of this is to say, technology cannot be a niche issue for candidates and campaigns anymore. Issues like AI, data privacy, rural broadband and tech-driven solutions to climate action can no longer be pushed down to the #10 spot on a candidate’s list of key policy positions; they have to be talked about in the same breath as bread-and-butter issues like healthcare, jobs and the economy.

The old campaign mantra of “it’s the economy, stupid” needs to begin making more room for tech. Because technology touches across all of these other issues – it affects healthcare, it affects jobs, it affects the economy. And a failure to grapple with that fact can have profound consequences both for candidates and the voters they’re trying to win over.

Over the next few weeks, this Tech 2020 series will delve into each of these issues, their individual importance and how they can (and should) relate to both the campaign trail and the federal government at large, starting at the White House. At the end of this series, we’ll wrap up with a look at how each of the remaining candidates are approaching (or not approaching) these issues with their platforms, and how they plan to engage on these matters as president.