If I could get the attention of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos for a couple of minutes, this is what I’d tell him:
This may sound crazy, but America needs you right now — to use some of your wealth and power to help save the republic. You’ve made a start, in a way that probably surprised you, and now I’m imploring you to go further.
I have two main suggestions: Double down on your support for serious journalism, and lead a campaign to preserve our democracy by ensuring that every adult citizen can vote in fair and honest elections.
As you’ve accumulated vast riches and influence, you’ve become a target. That’s partly thanks to the way Amazon operates: Your list of adversaries — even enemies — includes the many businesses that fear being crushed by Amazon, and the retail workers losing their jobs as the company scoops up market share in sector after sector.
Right now, though, your biggest risk looks like a bile-spewing president who considers you a political enemy because of the newspaper you own. Yesterday morning, Donald Trump published yet another (questionable, of course) complaint against Amazon — his 11th since being elected. It’s clear that he sees no distinction between the Washington Post, which you own personally, and Amazon, the company you founded and run.
When the president proclaims you a domestic enemy, you have two choices. Surrender, or find allies and fight for things you believe in — one of which, it seems clear, is the republic itself.
It’s time to step up, and use more of your money and power for purposes beyond simply accumulating more money and power. Last month, you briefly overtook Bill Gates to become the richest person in the world. Your wealth is a story now, and inevitably people are asking what you’ll do with it. Now is the time to stake your claim in American civic history.
From my perspective, Amazon is a great company that has done wonders for its customers., And as an Amazon shareholder, I’ve benefited from your company’s spectacular stock performance — as have the beneficiaries of my stock donations, like the University of Vermont, my alma mater, and advocacy groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the First Amendment Coalition (I’m on the board of the latter).
I should also tell you, as I’ve said publicly before, that I’m not a fan of some of Amazon’s business practices. The treatment of warehouse workers has sometimes been unconscionable. I wish Amazon would use some of the staggering amounts of cash it throws off every quarter to do better by them, and I believe that would be a wise business move, not just the right one. And while I don’t believe Amazon is a monopoly, it and other tech giants need more antitrust scrutiny.
But this is about your staggering personal wealth and power, and what to do with it. My first suggestion has to do with freedom of speech and freedom of the press, starting with the Washington Post. Under your and Editor Marty Baron’s leadership, it now plays an indispensable role in America’s public sphere. I recognize it’s not a charity but a potentially great digital-age business — I hope it can become that — but its existence, and especially its resistance to the forces seeking to undermine American norms and traditions, is a vital public good.
I trust that you’ll stay course with the Post. And I also hope you’ll continue to be generous with NGOs and advocates who are working tirelessly for freedom of expression in general, and freedom of the press in particular. A lot rides on this. Stay stubborn.
My second suggestion goes back to your Twitter callout for ideas on what to do with your money.
Here’s a cause that perfectly fits your criteria; has great civic meaning; is a budding emergency; and needs a deep-pocketed benefactor: voting. I’d like to see you put a few billion dollars into helping to ensure that everyone who is, or who should be, eligible to vote can do so — and that they can trust their votes will be counted reliably and securely.
The latter may be the easiest to fix. America’s voting systems are a sick joke. Voter registration databases have been penetrated, and quite possibly altered, by hackers. And we have a hodgepodge of voting machines running some horrendously insecure software, way too many of which give citizens no assurance that their votes have been counted accurately, or at all.
In an America where politicians cared about secure, verified voting, this would have been fixed years ago. But we live in a nation where politicians don’t care (or, worse, may prefer this situation), and refuse to spend appropriately on what is so plainly a public necessity.
You should create and fund a nonprofit whose sole aim is to help voting officials across the country buy and install secure and verifiable systems. Round up some of your fellow tech moguls to help out. This is more than just a technology project. (Please do not under any circumstances buy into the insane internet-voting proposals.) It’s a civic project, too. It will require development, deployment, and auditing, of course, but also persuasion, support, and listening to all of the involved constituencies. It’s a complex project. But you know how to hire people who can run complex enterprises.
The other, related issue — voting rights in general, which are under attack — is more difficult because it may be perceived as partisan. It shouldn’t be, but at the moment one party is definitely more culpable than the other.
Gerrymandering — drawing voting districts to favor one party or the other — has a long and dishonorable history in America. Democrats have done it, but not to the same degree that Republicans, who control the great majority of statehouses, have done in recent years.
Even worse is the simple fact that the Republican Party is engaged in an epic voter suppression campaign aimed at people who tend to vote for Democrats. Led by Trump, whose lies about voter fraud are epic even by his deceitful standards, the Republicans have raised barriers to voting in state after state that they control. Read the reports from the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks this ugly trend, to see how pernicious it is.
If you want to help save our republic, please tackle this — and, as with fixing our decrepit voting machinery, please get other tech billionaires to help out. How?
I’d suggest creating an entity that has the sole purpose of ensuring voting rights. It would give money to organizations that are already in the arena — you don’t need to duplicate good work that’s under way, but you can greatly amplify it.
It would look for ways to fill the gaps. For example, one of the latest tricks in the voter-suppression tool bag is insisting on voter identification but making it difficult and/or expensive to obtain an ID. You could vow to help obtain the ID for those who would otherwise have trouble (although in some situations, as Republicans well know, it’s next to impossible — they see this as a feature, not a bug).
Another suppression method is to make it harder for people in Democratic-leaning districts and precincts to vote by limiting early voting and/or cutting the number of locations where people can cast ballots. The laws and rules that do this need repeal, of course, but there are some practical ways to limit the damage even so. Your foundation could organize and help fund a nationwide get-out-the-vote drive, helping to ensure that everyone who wants to vote can get to the polls.
You could also fund initiatives to prevent partisan legislators (of both parties) from abusing their power by drawing districts to lock in majorities. Doing this would benefit more Democrats now, but someday the reverse could easily be true.
Those are just a couple of the ways you can help preserve the single most important check on untrammeled power: the right to vote in fair and secure elections. I can’t think of a more honorable way to spend some of your enormous fortune.
You’ve built a great enterprise at Amazon, and your place in business history is already ensured. But you’re now in the political fray in ways you never expected, and so much more is at stake — perhaps the republic itself. Your stewardship of the Washington Post has been vital, and you can do more. Please try.
Dan Gillmor, a former technology journalist, teaches digital media literacy at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Contact Dan Gillmor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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