This is the cover story for the November 2017 issue of Stanford Politics Magazine. Read the editor’s note and check out the digital version of the print issue here.
Peter Thiel is a billionaire serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and the most prominent supporter of President Trump in Silicon Valley. And in a world where money is power, Thiel is not afraid to wield his power.
On Oct. 28, 2015, several months before Thiel was revealed to be the funder of a lawsuit that bankrupted renegade media company Gawker, which had covered his political activities negatively and outed him as gay in 2007, the Stanford grad (BA ’89, JD ’92) giddily told several Stanford undergraduates in a private meeting at his San Francisco home about his imminent destruction of what he called a “universally reviled organization.” Four undergrads present at the meeting confirmed the story, a seemingly out-of-character — however vague — disclosure from the quite private Thiel. But why would he divulge such a thing to a small group of students? And why was he meeting with them in the first place?
Thiel has become a national figure of controversy for, among other things, claiming that “the extension of the franchise to women…render[s] the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron,” saying, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” funding a fellowship that specifically tries to get undergraduates to drop out of college, and donating $1.25 million to Donald Trump’s campaign a week after a tape was released in which the then-candidate discussed how he could grope young female actresses and get away with it.
But 30 years ago, as a sophomore at Stanford, Thiel was a lightning rod for a much smaller-scale reason: He co-founded (with Norman Book ’91) the Stanford Review. The Review, a campus publication often associated with conservatism and libertarianism, was created to, as Thiel wrote in his first editor’s note, “present alternative views on a wide range of current issues in the Stanford community,” “create a forum for rational debate,” and “challenge those who, after reading this paper, still disagree with us…to respond in kind — with rational argumentation and workable solutions of your own.”
Thiel’s articles in The Review and the articles he published as its first editor-in-chief, many of which are available in Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections & University Archives, as well as interviews with over a dozen current and former Review affiliates paint a picture of Thiel as a committed political fighter whose work and outlook today can be traced directly to his college years.
But even further, Thiel’s legacy — and presence — remains with The Review, now an established contrarian institution on campus, to this day. Thiel continues to meet with the publication’s editors, and he is substantially more open with them about his beliefs than he is with the general public, including on highly controversial issues like race and immigration. And across the Bay Area, many of The Review’s alumni, spearheaded by Thiel, have built a relatively small but tight-knit network that extends across three decades and has a net worth that extends into the billions.
Most Stanford students who follow campus politics are quite familiar with The Review. Its often controversial articles are widely shared and discussed, allowing for the paper’s style and voice to become pretty recognizable. Reading over its original volumes from 30 years ago, the paper’s consistency in tone and topic is immediately evident.
In its first few volumes (it generally has two volumes per academic year), The Review condemns a “vocal few” who have monopolized discussion, and it presents itself as an alternative to a stifling, overwhelmingly left-wing campus orthodoxy. In various articles, Thiel and the editorial board critique how the phrase “open-mindedness” seems to them to merely refer to “those who agree with one position.” They advocate that Stanford should focus on “institutionalized liberalism” rather than “the supposed ‘institutionalized racism.’” And they argue that the university should not abolish the then-existing ‘Western Culture’ literature program but rather “actually strengthen the current program’s focus on the West.”
The fate of the ‘Western Culture’ academic program, which was soon to be replaced with a ‘Cultures, Ideas, and Values’ program that mandated more works by female and non-white authors and also mandated more non-white faculty teach in it, was then a major flashpoint of controversy on campus and an inspiration for founding The Review.
The Review presents itself as a renegade paper, calling out perceived left-wing censors on campus while offering itself as a contrarian outlet willing to engage with out-of-fashion ideas and ideologies like conservatism and libertarianism. The paper includes articles about both national political issues as well as campus controversies, some quite somber and some excitedly mischievous.
Having founded The Review at the end of his sophomore year, Thiel was also the paper’s editor-in-chief his junior and senior years, during which he included an editor’s note with each volume, generally reflecting on his vision for the paper as a vehicle for stirring the pot and breaking up politically correct platitudes.
Thiel’s editor’s notes are titled, in chronological order, Stanford Review Is Here to Stay, Open or Empty Mind?, Institutionalized Liberalism, Western Culture and its Failures, Welcome to the Farm, Stanford and the Real World, and The Importance of Being Honest. At least one volume is missing from the archive, so presumably he wrote more.
Thiel left Stanford’s campus in 1992, but The Review exists to this day. How has it lasted for 30 years while countless other student organizations have formed and dissipated, often in the span of a single year?
One reason was articulated in the National Review by former Stanford Review staffer Michael New (Ph.D ’02):
Why is it that [campus conservative] papers like the Stanford Review and the Dartmouth Review have enjoyed continuity while most others have not? The simple reason is that both the Stanford Review and the Dartmouth Review succeeded in developing reliable networks of alumni donors early in their history. Of course, the fact that Review founder Peter Thiel went on to found PayPal has certainly helped the paper’s financial condition. However, the success of Thiel and other undergraduates at developing a solid fundraising base placed The Review on solid financial footing well before the dotcom boom of the late 1990s.
Historically, New is correct that the paper has been quite effective at raising money for a relatively small student publication (a typical volume has around eight to 10 people in editor positions and another dozen or so writers), and Review archives show that the paper had an “Alumni Relations Director” position as early as 1990, only three years after its founding.
The Review is incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit that first filed in 1990 and maintains that status to this day. Its 1997-2010 IRS filings are accessible online through ProPublica’s NonProfit Explorer.
In the IRS filings available, The Review averages donations of about $65,000 per fiscal year, with the bulk of its expenses going to printing and shipping its volumes on campus and to alumni and contributors. (Over the past few years, it has moved online and only occasionally prints issues for the campus.)
The Review also generates income from investment returns and advertisement sales, but donations account for over 97 percent of the publication’s revenue.
Another reason for The Review’s longevity is that, on a campus that has a reputation for being pre-professional, the publication is a locus for debate over politics and ideas. Jennifer Burns, a historian of modern conservatism, believes that the relative lack of undergraduate institutions for political and philosophical conversation at Stanford means that The Review has an outsize impact on campus dialogue. Burns said she has also noticed that, in classes, Stanford students hesitate to claim conservative identity, for fear of peer disapproval.
The Review, by contrast, is unafraid to be judged, taking on campus liberals as well as Stanford’s small but highly vocal far left in spite of frequent (and sometimes vicious and personal) backlash. And while The Review does publish some moderate pieces, its right-wing articles are its historical hallmark and tend to get the most attention.
But although The Review is often described as a “conservative” or “libertarian” paper — and these adjectives are not wrong; the paper has even described itself as “the conservative voice of Stanford” in the past — ideological descriptors do not adequately capture how the modern paper conducts itself or sees its purpose.
Anna Mitchell ’18, the current editor-in-chief, sees the paper “as a voice for thoughtful and contrarian perspectives on Stanford-related issues.” “I don’t see The Review as innately conservative and libertarian,” she said. “I think that The Review’s institutional voice is consistent not because our members hold a particular political view but because they share skepticism toward the status quo of campus political opinions. It happens that college campuses tend to be very liberal, so our arguments are usually more right-wing.”
Asked about what she thought was The Review’s greatest accomplishment, Devon Zuegel ’16, a former editor-in-chief, pointed to a 1995 episode in which the paper successfully sued Stanford over its speech code. The code banned insults based on race and sex, and the Santa Clara County Superior Court struck down the code as “unconstitutionally broad and based on content.” Robert Corry (JD ’94), a member of The Review who helped to bring the case to court, described the victory as — in language quite consistent with The Review’s historical mission statement — “a victory for academic freedom and free speech.”
Virtually every Review and former Review member I asked emphasized the paper’s role as a counterbalance to orthodoxy (Zuegel and Harry Elliott ’18, also a former editor-in-chief, both used the phrase “Devil’s Advocate”) rather than fealty to a particular set of beliefs. Several also noted that the modern Review is ideologically varied, containing not just social traditionalists or techno-libertarians but centrists and liberals as well. Elliott believes that “The Review attracts a particular kind of person. It’s a very particular sort of ‘contrarian’ who’s willing to walk into a room full of people who large numbers of people on campus at least subtly say are hateful.”
The Review takes their contrarian role sufficiently seriously that three former editors noted that it has occasionally published articles over the past few years that the authors themselves didn’t agree with. One former editor disapprovingly referred to the practice as “intellectual dishonesty,” while others saw it as part of The Review’s stated task of representing unpopular thought in campus discourse.
Does The Review have a limit on how far it will go against the grain? In fall 2016, it ultimately decided against sponsoring notorious provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, but the decision was not made lightly. Mitchell, who was against sponsoring Yiannopoulos because she says she “[does] not believe that being provocative is a virtue in itself and didn’t think that Milo brought enough original thought to justify an invitation,” described The Review as “very internally divided” over the issue.
Elliot Kaufman ’18, a former Review managing editor, criticized Yiannopoulos in the National Review the following summer. Kaufman quoted an “influential editor” of The Review as saying, in favor of an invitation, “Best-case scenario is that the SJWs [Social Justice Warriors, a pejorative term for confrontational and highly vocal leftists on social issues] freak out and we get another Berkeley,” a reference to a riot by militant leftists in response to UC Berkeley’s Yiannopoulos event that injured several people and caused an estimated $100,000 in damages.
Thiel himself has not shied away from Yiannopoulos, meeting with him and contributing a blurb for Yiannopoulous’ new book, Dangerous: “If you don’t use your freedom of speech, one day you might find that it’s gone. Buy this book while it’s legal.”
While The Review has had a continuous presence on campus since its inception, one former editor admitted that the paper has had periods of lulls in the past, and that in those times he could imagine that Thiel would not have been satisfied with what it was doing.
This is because, although The Review is a student-run publication and Thiel has not been the editor-in-chief since 1989, by no means has Thiel vanished from The Review’s orbit. As one former editor put it, “it’s honestly amazing he still meets with us for dinner every quarter.”
After Stanford Law, Thiel worked as a lawyer at the prestigious, traditional firm Sullivan and Cromwell, which he has often described as a place where everyone inside was trying to get out and everyone outside was trying to get in. He quickly left corporate law and worked as a trader for Credit Suisse, then returned to the Bay Area in 1996 to work in the booming and less constricting technology sector, starting a fund called Thiel Capital Management.
Thiel co-founded payments processor PayPal in 1998 to achieve, as early PayPal executive and former Review editor-in-chief Eric Jackson ’98 has described it, “global currency liberation”; PayPal’s success made Thiel a multimillionaire. He then founded a hedge fund named Clarium Capital in 2002 and co-founded data analysis firm Palantir in 2003. In 2004, Thiel became one of the earliest investors in Facebook; Facebook’s success made Thiel a billionaire. Thiel is an active venture capitalist, having co-founded the firms Founders Fund, Valar Ventures, and Mithril Capital, and he has by all accounts become one of the most powerful and financially successful people in Silicon Valley. Thiel has invested in over a hundred technology companies, many of which have become titans, including LinkedIn, Lyft, Spotify, Reddit, Airbnb, and SpaceX.
He also continues to meet with the undergraduates who staff the paper he founded, generally its editors.
Highlighting both the intimacy and exclusivity of these gatherings, one email invitation to such an event in 2015, shared by a former editor, reads in part: “Hi, We will be having a Review dinner at Peter Thiel’s house next Wednesday…This is not an open invite; please do not talk about this opportunity with anyone else, especially at the [Review staff] meetings.”
Thiel’s influence on the autonomous Review’s on-campus activity should not be overstated: Students are always in control of the paper, and Thiel does not attempt to orchestrate their conduct. The great majority of The Review’s activity involves its independent writing and reporting on the issues of the day and its weekly meetings, which often feature boisterous political debates. (Amy Shen ’18, the current executive editor, says she enjoys the meetings as a place where “you are judged on the basis of your ideas and nothing else.”)
But Thiel does occasionally host dinners and reunions with Review editors at local restaurants as well as his home in San Francisco, give suggestions of issues to focus on, donate money, and de facto lead a burgeoning network of alumni concentrated in Silicon Valley, many of whom have worked with or for Thiel directly.
As one former editor put it, “[Thiel] sees The Review as his people.”
Speaking about Thiel, many Review and ex-Review affiliates insisted on anonymity. They clearly respect him. Mackenzie Yaryura ’17, a former editor-in-chief, says, “my only experience is that [Thiel’s] been really welcoming, really interesting, being willing to answer questions and share knowledge.”
To what degree does Thiel still care about The Review’s activities on campus?
One former editor believed “he obviously had zero interest in getting to know us as individuals. He was there to figure out what was going on on the campus.” Harry Elliott voiced that “to be honest the thing which most Review alums are really interested in, not just or specifically Peter, is: they want to know what the issues de jour are, what the average Stanford student is like, and what we are doing to try and ensure that viewpoints that are usually not heard as heard.” A third former editor agreed that, as Thiel is obviously busy and does not have time to keep up with campus goings-on, meeting with The Review was a way of staying in touch. Several people agreed that while Thiel is certainly not going to babysit The Review, he does want it to continue with its founding mission.
Thiel tends to reveal much more about his own views and activities with Review affiliates than he does with the public. Mary Carolyn Manion ’19, a former Review editor, attended an event with Thiel where he discussed politics, economics, and technology, including topics like a “network for Trump-supporting Silicon Valley types who were not going to go public…because of the California culture.” Thiel did not elaborate on specific names.
At The Review’s 30th Anniversary event, hosted on Stanford’s campus the January weekend of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Thiel spoke about his involvement in the presidential transition. As per the accounts of six Review editors, Thiel discussed how he had offered to take the lead on developing a spreadsheet to fill jobs in the new administration and claimed to be deeply involved in the transition’s internal workings. (In February, Politico reported that “Peter Thiel’s fingerprints are all over the administration.”) He seemed optimistic about Trump.
At the event, Thiel was asked how he knew that Trump was going to win. After all, wasn’t it extremely risky to go all-in for Trump when he was down in the polls and Silicon Valley strongly supported Clinton? Thiel replied that, two weeks before the election, some of his closest advisors and confidants wondered to him if they had backed the wrong horse and if it was too late to back off supporting Trump. Thiel, according to his own retelling, responded, “Are we allowed any knowledge other than social scientific knowledge?” And he argued that while the polls did seem to indicate that Trump would lose, he was more confident in his personal assessment of how the world works than the polls. Thiel’s confidence, of course, was vindicated when Trump won.
A former editor described Thiel’s response as “very much in character” for him: “On every major platform he’s built in his life, whether fighting a government authority or an upstart competitor, he tends to come up with ideas and dig in deep to them, and he doesn’t walk away.”
In Oct. 2016, shortly after Thiel donated $1.25 million to Trump, Thiel publicly apologized for passages in his 1995 book The Diversity Myth, such as claiming that some alleged date rapes were “seductions that are later regretted,” saying in a statement, “More than two decades ago, I co-wrote a book with several insensitive, crudely argued statements. As I’ve said before, I wish I’d never written those things. I’m sorry for it. Rape in all forms is a crime. I regret writing passages that have been taken to suggest otherwise.” But three months later, during the after-party of the 30-year anniversary event at Thiel’s home, according to a former editor, Thiel stated that his apology was just for the media, and that “sometimes you have to tell them what they want to hear.”
Thiel was long perceived as a libertarian, but in recent years, as his support for Trump illustrates, his politics have taken a more futurist-nationalist flavor that critics have described as bordering on authoritarian and white nationalist. Only a few days before Trump’s Inauguration and The Review’s anniversary event, Thiel attended the pro-Trump and heavily alt-right-attended “Deploraball,” which had been in part organized by Jeff Giesea ’97, a former Review editor-in-chief who once worked at Thiel Capital Management.
Also, a former editor relayed to me that Thiel told The Review during the 30th anniversary after-party that he is “funding” American Greatness and American Affairs, two ‘Trumpist’ journals founded to provide intellectual ammunition to Trump’s replacement of the movement conservative old guard. Thiel also mentioned that he had met Michael Anton, a prominent ‘Trumpist’ writer who now works as a national security staffer for Trump, in a reading group that focused on philosopher Leo Strauss.
A former editor reported that at the same event in 2015 where Thiel obliquely referenced the imminent destruction of what turned out to be Gawker, he also endorsed cutting immigration to the United States by “80 percent,” but at the same time supported increasing “high-skilled” immigration. Another former editor described Thiel’s views on immigration as “foundationalist”: “He believes that the people who come into a country are the identity of that country, and a decision to change the people who come in irrevocably alters the identity of that country.” (Thiel was born in Germany, and his parents immigrated to the US when he was one year old; he also lived in South Africa and what is now Namibia for part of his childhood.)
Another former Review editor told me that in fall 2014, also at Thiel’s home, during a discussion of Charles Murray’s controversial book on IQ, The Bell Curve, Thiel wanted to “entertain” the thought of there being a biological reason for racial gaps in test scores. The editor said Thiel cited the ancient Chinese administration, which he described as a situation in which the people who scored higher on tests got more power and were more sexually successful, and he seemed curious about the idea that a civilization could, over time, end up being more intelligent than others.
We contacted Thiel’s office with all the quotes sources attributed to him to see if he would elaborate on or dispute any of them; through a spokesperson, Thiel declined to comment on any of them.
There is another way in which Thiel interacts with Review affiliates: across Silicon Valley, many of them work with or for him.
The “PayPal Mafia,” a term for PayPal founders and prominent multimillionaire executives whose post-PayPal careers include founding and investing in dozens of prominent tech companies, is stacked full of Review alumni, including Ken Howery ’98, David Sacks ’94, and Eric Jackson ’98 (all former Review editors-in-chief) as well as Keith Rabois ’91 (a former Review executive editor), and Premal Shah ’98 (a former Review staffer).
Other early executives at PayPal from The Review include Paul Martin ’04, a Review business manager who dropped out of school to join the company in 2000; Nathan Linn ’93 (a former Review editor-in-chief); Aman Verjee ’96 (another former editor-in-chief); and Norman Book ’91 (a former managing editor and Thiel’s Review cofounder).
In Jackson’s book The PayPal Wars, he describes Martin’s 2003 departure from PayPal: Thiel and Sacks “vigorously tried to convince Paul to change course. Though both officers were duty-bound to try to retain such a valued employee, I sensed they also had a personal desire not to lose Paul. He was the first Stanford Review alumnus to leave PayPal, something Peter took to heart, especially since the ten alumni from the newspaper had played a vital role in shaping the direction of the company.”
While the nine Review alumni above are all significant figures in Thiel’s circle, an alumnus who was then merely an intern at PayPal would turn out to be perhaps Thiel’s most frequent collaborator.
Joe Lonsdale ’03, also a serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist, has been described as “the living embodiment of Silicon Valley” and a “protégé” of Thiel. In 2002, Lonsdale interned at PayPal. After graduating, he worked at Thiel’s Clarium Capital Management and then launched a meteoric career. He has founded or cofounded companies Addepar, Backplane, OpenGov, and Shogun and venture capital firms Anduin Ventures, Formation 8, and 8VC. (Thiel is an investor in Addepar, Backplane and OpenGov, and Thiel and Lonsdale have both invested in several companies including Oculus Rift, Caplinked, Flexport, and Radius.)
But he is best known for being a co-founder, along with Thiel, of data analysis juggernaut Palantir, whose valuation has reached $20 billion. A third co-founder of Palantir, Stephen Cohen ’05, is also a former Review editor-in-chief, meaning that three out of the five founders of one of Silicon Valley’s crown jewels ran the same student newspaper. (A fourth, Nathan Gettings, was a former PayPal executive, and the fifth, Alex Karp (JD ’92), was a social theory Ph.D who knew Thiel from Stanford Law, where they were roommates).
In total, I have identified 23 current and former Review affiliates, spanning the paper’s entire history, who have held positions at Palantir, including a board member (Adam Ross ’95) and the company’s first employee (Alex Moore ’05).
In a PowerPoint presentation giving an overview of The Review, on a slide titled “Perks of Staff,” one of the bullet points listed is “priority at dinners and lunches with faculty and alumni.” Lonsdale has remained particularly involved with the on-campus Review community, hosting lunches and recruiting. Over the summer, an email went out on The Review’s listserv advertising an internship at Argive, a Lonsdale-funded nonprofit, that noted that “[we] suspect we’ll find some great candidates through the Stanford Review.”
Lonsdale is the co-founder and chairman of a currently 13-person startup, Shogun, where Anthony Ghosn ’15, who has worked at Formation 8 and 8VC, is the co-founder and CEO and Brandon Camhi ’16, who has worked at Thiel’s hedge fund and OpenGov, is the Vice President of Marketing. Both Ghosn and Camhi are former Review editors-in-chief. On Ghosn’s LinkedIn profile, Joe Lonsdale wrote a recommendation that reads in part: “I met Anthony while he was at the Stanford Review and was impressed…I hired him to be my chief of staff when he was a Junior at Stanford.” And when asked about how he had hired employees for Shogun, Ghosn began, “It’s all network.”
Lonsdale has also served as a Board Member of the Seasteading Institute, which Thiel funded, and invested in startups of other Review alumni. He is married to Tayler Cox ’09, now Tayler Lonsdale ’09, a former Review executive editor.
(In 2014, Lonsdale was banned from campus after an undergraduate he had been dating accused him of rape and Stanford found that he had “engaged in sexual misconduct and harassment.” In 2015, “as a result of new evidence that came to light during litigation,” Stanford determined that Lonsdale did not violate Title IX and lifted Lonsdale’s ban. The undergraduate, who had filed a civil suit against him, dropped her suit, and Lonsdale dropped his countersuit.)
In the past seven years, many current Review affiliates or recent graduates have worked or interned at various other Lonsdale properties, especially OpenGov (five affiliates) and Formation 8 (four recent affiliates, plus Gideon Yu ’98, a former Review business manager who is a founding member of Formation 8 and former CFO of Facebook).
Besides Lonsdale, there are a wide variety of connections between Review alumni. With respect to Thiel’s other companies, I have found 14 Review alumni who have worked for Thiel Capital Management and Clarium Capital Management, including several vice presidents; five who have worked for Founders Fund, including a cofounder, Howery; two at Valar Ventures; and three more who worked at PayPal who joined after the first few years. Many other Review alumni have worked at a wide variety of nonprofits Thiel has funded, like The Independent Institute, OpenAI, and the Thiel Foundation; or worked at companies in which Thiel has invested.
Review alumni fill the investor and executive ranks at companies like Yammer and Caplinked. Several Review alumni have published books, including The PayPal Wars, at World Ahead Media, founded by Book and Verjee. Review alumni have been roommates, invested in each other’s companies, and collaborated on political activities; the full spreadsheet of activities I was able to catalogue can be found here.
Overall, I identified almost 200 employment and investing relationships between Review affiliates to 40 different institutions that are founded by Thiel or Lonsdale or otherwise feature multiple Review alumni prominently, virtually all of which are in Silicon Valley.
Of the 58 people who have served as Review editor-in-chief, at least 25 have worked or interned for at least one company founded or cofounded by Peter Thiel or Joe Lonsdale; most of those 25 have actually worked for several. This pattern is, if anything, stronger in recent years: of the last eight editors-in-chief, six have worked or interned for a company founded by Thiel or Lonsdale.
Outside of Silicon Valley, a few Review alumni have worked on the Trump transition team, over which Thiel claimed to have great influence, and now work in Trump’s administration. Two connections have been noticed: the Wall Street Journal reported that Kevin Harrington, a former Review staffer who attended Stanford as a graduate student in the late 1990s and worked at Clarium Capital, worked on the transition at the Commerce Department. ProPublica reported that Candice Jackson ’98, a former news editor who published a book with World Ahead Media, now works in the Department of Education.
I also found that Tristan Abbey ’08, a former editor-at-large who has worked at Clarium Capital and Founders Fund, worked on the transition at the Department of Energy and went on to work as a senior analyst there, and that Paula Stannard (JD ’90), who was an assistant editor under Thiel, was on the transition at the Department of Health and Human Services and now serves as a senior counselor there.
Building a trusted network team is not a passive habit of Thiel’s; it is a mantra he repeatedly discusses in his startup advice book Zero to One. When giving in-person advice to a startup in which he was investing several years ago, Thiel reportedly told the company’s employees to come up with the three smartest people they knew because “we should try to build things through existing networks as much as possible.”
There is an alumni Board of Directors of The Review made up of both recent and veteran alumni; in the past, Thiel has been the chairman (though he is not on the board currently) and David Wallace ’91, Book, and Rabois have each been president. According to his LinkedIn, Verjee has been the Chairman since 2004. The board helps communicate with alumni and signs off on each new editor-in-chief, though the approval is basically a formality. Review members told me that most current members do not really interact with the board specifically.
Alec Rawls (a former econ grad student who dropped out before finishing the degree) wrote for The Review throughout the late 1990s and into the 2000s and was at one point the opinion editor. He has since been on the board for 13 years, including serving as its treasurer. Discussing the board, Rawls (the son of notable moral and political philosopher John Rawls) recalled, “The board has worried at times, especially during the early Obama years, whether the student members were too cowed by Obama’s popularity on campus and were keeping their heads down,” and he claimed that the board has to “monitor the content of The Review, keep track of who is actually conservative and who isn’t, and try to make sure that the members who aren’t actually conservative don’t get the reins of the student organization.”
Rawls also noted, “I met Peter and other first-generation figures [after Thiel left Stanford] at Review dinners and reunion events, which is one of the great aspects of The Review: that it tries to maintain ongoing connections, which for quite a few Reviewers have turned into important business connections.”
“Of course there’s a Review network,” says Devon Zuegel, “and of course there is a connection between the group’s mission and the types of projects those people go on to do together afterwards! There’s also a Stanford Daily network, a Stanford Triathlon network, an EBF network, and a Stanford in Government network. Each of these organizations has their own goals and style, and that spirit is carried on as people do things with the friends they’ve made there afterwards.”
In interviews, some recent Review editors knew a good bit about the alumni network, but some other editors and many staffers seemed to be only vaguely, if at all, aware of how extensive it is.
The Review, a complex, heterogeneous, and committed group, was founded with the motto fiat lux (“let there be light”). For 30 years, it has fought Stanford’s liberal and left majority, and over that time it has built a history and network quite impressive for a publication of its size. And in Silicon Valley, Review alumni have built an infrastructure that spans many billions of dollars in both company market value and personal wealth.
One former editor told me, “the guy in charge of The Review [Thiel] has become an icon, and I think we all kind of respect that he continues to meet with us.” As I was concluding an interview, the editor explained to me that he or she could not be quoted directly for various comments because “these people run the world.”
As one of the people who runs the world correctly announced in his first editor’s note 30 years ago, the Stanford Review is here to stay.
In the course of reporting this story, I interviewed over a dozen current and former Review affiliates, many of whom I talked with at length. The following is a collection of quotes from Review affiliates I interviewed discussing the publication and Thiel’s role in it. Interviews were done in person, over the phone, or through email.
My personal contacts with Peter have been limited to meeting him a few times at Review events. I have read a lot of what he has written. I would say that he sits squarely within, one of the two main types of Review participants over the years. He’s a philosophical libertarian who is willing to fight. The other Review strain has been religious Christians, and people who are not familiar with these groups might be surprised to find out how many very religious Christians, what I would call fundamentalist Christians, are philosophical libertarians. I have known MANY through The Review.
Alec Rawls, former opinion editor
On Silicon Valley and the Review network:
I think a lot of what makes The Review successful is also what makes particularly companies in the tech space successful. You spot something basically unquestioned or unchallenged in some way and you at least probe why that is the case and you are willing to see things without the dogma that weighs other people down. In some industries, that’s more successful than others. It certainly has enormous obvious apparent benefits in finance and in venture capital in particular and in the way you approach startups…
…The thing I would say is that there are like-minded individuals. The Review attracts a particular kind of individual and those individuals tend to do pretty well in certain spaces where the skills of thinking outside the box, being willing to challenge dogma and not be afraid to speak truth to power are useful, and it is often the case they find themselves aligning particularly well with companies that share similar values that perhaps not surprisingly often come from The Review itself. So technology comes to mind and I wouldn’t go much further than that.
Harry Elliott ’18, former editor-in-chief
Obviously [Thiel]’s not meddling in the day-to-day affairs, and he’s not really following what’s happening on campus…The reason the network exists at all is because this tends to exist for any sort of minority, and it’s weird calling a group of predominantly white people a minority, but in some sense, when there’s a group of people that share an uncommon characteristic and they’re in the relative minority, they tend to stick together…It’s like, you have this group of thinkers who are fairly unorthodox in terms of the college context, and they find solace and comfort and companionship in one another, but also there’s a certain sort of willingness to say what hasn’t been said, or explore what hasn’t been explored…So that’s why I think there’s such a strong network, because, you know, there is this culture of being on the fringe, and that’s hard to come by in society these days.
“When writing for The Review, is there sometimes an element of performance? A couple people have told me that they wrote articles for The Review that they didn’t actually believe the thesis of but they thought it was important that the viewpoint should be represented even if they didn’t themselves hold that viewpoint.”
The Review will put up a front, but you have to remember that it’s a collection of pretty diverse individuals to be quite honest. Most of the meetings are debates and they can get really fierce. There are people who are classic Republicans and there are people who voted for Obama, and who are very liberal characters. Some EICs [editors-in-chief] have actually been very liberal in their own personal beliefs [but served] for the sake of that dialogue.
On internal debates and alternative perspectives:
We [The Review] have really intense debates over things. People paint The Review picture as one sort of person or one sort of idea; [in reality,] each individual writer has really different ideas…A big thing we tried to push is that if you disagree with a Review article, write it and publish it in The Review!
Mackenzie Yaryura ’17, former editor-in-chief
“What do you see as the mission of The Review? Is this something that you think has changed over the years? And potentially a similar question: Does The Review have a consistent institutional voice?”
The mission of The Review is to voice thoughts that are worth considering but absent in the broader campus discourse. There are a lot of good ideas that are ignored by the broader intellectual community due to their controversial nature, their complexity or strangeness, or just plain bad luck, and that’s a shame. When any group is in broad alignment on any question, it risks missing out on valuable ideas outside of that consensus. Now of course not all controversial, wacky, or unlucky ideas are good ones — the consensus can be and is right on a lot of things — but it’s worth pushing the boundaries of what that is instead of blindly accepting it. This is valuable for the fact that it may help us get a bit closer to the truth. It is also valuable in its own right as an intellectual exercise. Stanford is a university, after all. The role of college in my view is to expand your understanding of the world, and not just the part with which you’re comfortable.
Devon Zuegel ’16, former editor-in-chief
To give voice to unheard (or underheard) opinions). To my understanding this hasn’t changed. I think pursuing that goal is the “institutional voice” – beyond that, staff is pretty heterodox.
Philip Clark ’18, former editor-in-chief
On past Review volumes:
I always had things to say and continued to write opinion columns, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, for quite a few years, which allowed me to meet whole generations of Review editors and writers. Many of the volumes were hilarious. It is not for no reason that the left tries to shut down opposing speech. In any direct contest of ideas they get annihilated and The Review was full of people who loved to annihilate leftist idiocies. It didn’t require any kind of extremism. It just required rationality, and a contest between rationality and irrationality inevitably raises irresistible opportunities for humorous wit, which at times became a Review specialty. Aman Verjee and Bruce Gibney were masters of the craft, but many partook. Other volumes were staid. Every group had its own personality.
Alec Rawls, former opinion editor
“Under your tenure as editor-in-chief, The Review was at the center of campus discourse. You were named [by Stanford Politics] the number one ‘politico’ on campus. Do you view that as a success in terms of The Review’s mission?”
I think it is important for The Review to be in the center of discourse especially when you identify a time when you have an editorial staff that is willing to face the public to some extent and say ‘this is what we believe’ and make that clear. A Review that has sufficient power and sufficient strength of message to be able to combine the two can make a genuine difference in the way that people think about stuff. And I don’t think that’s going to be available to Review members all the time and I don’t think it’s something The Review should strive to all the time but sometimes the pieces come together. I like to think we change campus substantially for the better.
Harry Elliott ’18, former editor-in-chief
“Clearly there is at least some fraction of campus that objects quite loudly and harshly to The Review. Do you think most Stanford students have a good understanding of what The Review is about?”
No, I don’t think they do. Many Stanford students seem to see The Review as a bastion of rich white male conservatives who just want to publish articles that stir everyone up and hurt minorities. I don’t think this is accurate at all. Just by the nature of social media, The Review gets the most attention for its most contentious articles. But we publish many more moderate articles- for example, while our piece opposing ethnic housing last year received much backlash, we also published a piece praising ethnic housing that received much less attention. Also, The Review is very diverse. Members hail from New York to Michigan, and hold very different opinions. Discussions are heated and thoughtful- I haven’t found a higher caliber of discussion anywhere else at Stanford. People in The Review tend to be well-read and skeptical, not ideologues. I joined The Review for the people and the discussion, and I think it’s unfortunate that people judge The Review without ever having attended a meeting or reading a fair selection of articles.
Anna Mitchell ’18, current editor-in-chief
I think the answer to that question is a bit cyclical. There have definitely been periods when swaths of campus appreciated the stories and initiatives we put out and times when that was not as much the case. We maintain editorially consistent standards on our side, but the nature of voicing underheard opinions is that not all of them will be wildly popular.
Philip Clark ‘18, former editor-in-chief
The most thoughtful people I knew did have a good understanding of The Review’s mission to expand the universe of discourse on campus. Ours is a meta discussion, an argument that debate on campus is far too constrained to a limited range of ideas. Many of my closest friends were people who disagreed with me vehemently on object level issues (e.g. the role of guns in society) but appreciated that I wanted to learn more about the issue, where they were coming from, and about myself. In return I deeply value that in others, more than any one view someone holds on a specific political issue…In my four years at Stanford, the campus reception of the publication varied quite a bit. This was in part because of variance in The Review’s nuance and ability to communicate its message and also in part because of changes in the student body, broader community, and current events. Overall, I’d say that most students did have a good understanding of what The Review is about, while a vocal minority did not.
Devon Zuegel ’16, former editor-in-chief
Update, Nov. 27, 10pm: The Review’s 2010-2016 tax forms were filed using a Form 990-N (e-Postcard), available here, meaning that the Review had less than $50,000 in revenue during those years. Also, Alec Rawls is listed as the “Principal Officer” from 2013 through 2016.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Granato ’17 was a contributing editor at Stanford Politics until his graduation in June 2017. He majored in economics and pursued his interests in economics and politics through organizations like Stanford in Government and the Stanford Economics Association. At Stanford Politics, he wrote on a variety of topics, including social mobility and class at Stanford and the Bay Area’s housing crisis. He is currently pursuing a career in academic economics.
Additional on-campus archival research was contributed by Stanford Politics reporters Daniel Ferreira and Emily Katz.