Why Does Silicon Valley Vote Democrat?

Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page (Google), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), VP Mike Pence, President Donald Trump, Peter Thiel

This is the third topic in an ongoing series I’m doing on California and Silicon Valley. Part 1 explored #CalExit. Part 2 asked “What Does Silicon Valley Mean?” In this post: how to understand the way Silicon Valley votes.

Eyebrows were raised last summer when the Republican National Committee announced Paypal founder, tech investor and Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel would be a primetime speaker at the party’s convention to nominate Donald Trump. New York Magazine said he was the most interesting speaker choice in a lineup that was already untraditional. Thiel became the first GOP convention speaker in history to identify as being gay. Just as unusual, he is one of the few elites in Silicon Valley who publicly supported Trump.

Thiel faced a backlash from neighbors and colleagues in San Francisco and Silicon Valley who couldn’t fathom an educated peer supporting Trump.

This was a weird election, so you might wonder whether the treatment of Thiel was an aberration. However, from what I can tell, Silicon Valley is one of the strongest Democratic strongholds in the country. Ryan Hagemman, in the Niskanen Center blog writes:

Since the 1980s, the Valley has been a bastion of support for Democrats. In the most recent California primary, half a million residents in the Valley region voted; over 411,000 of them voted for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. That’s 80 percent support for Democrats. On top of that, almost 9 out of every 10 dollars contributed to political campaigns in the Valley landed in the pockets of candidates on the political left. — Silicon Valley is Eating the Democratic Party

Nate Silver reported on the Silicon Valley political imbalance after the 2012 election:

Mr. Obama won 84 percent of the vote, while Mitt Romney took just 13 percent…Mr. Obama won the nine counties of the Bay Area by margins ranging from 25 percentage points (in Napa County) to 71 percentage points (in the city and county of San Francisco). In Santa Clara County, home to much of the Silicon Valley, the margin was 42 percentage points. Over all, Mr. Obama won the election by 49 percentage points in the Bay Area, more than double his 22-point margin throughout California…Among employees who work for Google, Mr. Obama received about $720,000 in itemized contributions this year, compared with only $25,000 for Mr. Romney. That means that Mr. Obama collected almost 97 percent of the money between the two major candidates. Apple employees gave 91 percent of their dollars to Mr. Obama. At eBay, Mr. Obama received 89 percent of the money from employees.

In 2016, Hilary Clinton won the three major counties making up Silicon Valley with between 73% and 85% of the vote. Of all the political donations made by tech industry workers in 2016, 99% of the money went to Clinton.

New York Magazine looked at some of tech’s biggest titans political leanings and found more of a mixed group.

Marissa Mayer: The Yahoo CEO is as reliably Democratic as they come. She’s given a ton of money to the Democratic National Committee and is one of President Obama’s most successful Silicon Valleybundlers.
Sergey Brin: Mayer’s onetime boss, Google co-founder Brin is not a huge fan of the two-party political system. (Last year, he called for the winner of the 2012 presidential race to quit his political party and govern as an independent.) But his donations to the DNC and the Obama campaign make it clear which of the two parties he likesbetter.
Reid Hoffman: The LinkedIn co-founder and current VC gave $1 million to Priorities USA Action, an Obama-supporting super-PAC, in 2012. And his campaign donations show he’s a down-the-lineliberal.
Mark Zuckerberg: it’s fairly safe to say that Zuck is still a left-leaner, despite his support of Christie. He palled around with President Obama during the last campaign cycle, and his №2 at Facebook, COO Sheryl Sandberg, is a longtime Democratic donor. But his entry into Christie’s camp — and the fact that more of Facebook’s PAC money went to Republicans than Democrats last year — means that he is bucking the trend of easy politicalcategorization.
Sean Parker: The first chairman of Facebook is also a Democratic donor ($35,800 to the Obama campaign in 2012) and has said about his personal tax rate, “I am paying far too little in taxes at the moment, in particular on capital gains which should have been increased after the Bush era.” He is also involved in some weird initiative with AlGore.
Peter Thiel: Thiel, who works with Parker at the Founders Fund, is the libertarian godfather of Silicon Valley. He basically bankrolled Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign and wants to build a libertarian island utopia to host all his ideological bedfellows. He used to be considered something of an oddball, but now his views are creeping into Silicon Valley’smainstream.
Jeff Bezos: Amazon’s founder has never talked publicly about his political beliefs, but his friends described him as a libertarian in a March 2012 profile. He has skipped 18 of the last 21 elections, according to Envision Seattle, but he has given money to anti-tax initiatives in the past. He also gave $2.5 million to a same-sex marriage effort in Washington state. So,toss-up!
Marc Andreessen: The well-known venture capitalist shocked everyone by supporting Mitt Romney in 2012 after a lifetime of backing Democrats. Why? Because, he says, “I turned 40 last year and so I figured it was time to make the switch.” But also, he disdains liberal arts majors and derides the existence of the middle class as a fantasy. So maybe not all that much of a shocker.
Meg Whitman: The HP strugglebug is the only person on this list to have actually run for office. After losing her race for California governor as a Republican, she cut a six-figure check to a Romney-supporting super-PAC. She probably would have become a Romney cabinet member if he had won the race; instead, she gets to keep supporting the GOP from afar while tending to the burning wreckage of hercompany.
Steve Ballmer: The Microsoft CEO is actually something of a fence-sitter, since he has given money to some Democrats in addition to (a lot of) Republicans. But he also gave $2,500 in 2011 to something called the “Every Republican Is Crucial PAC,” and worked on George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, so it’s fairly clear where his loyalties lie.

In a short post, Wired Magazine drew some cartoons suggesting that big tech’s leaders mostly just support what favors them economically.

Andrew Rae
The Love and Lockdown Party: Party Leader: Apple CEO Tim Cook; Platform: Every American is entitled to certain unalienable rights, including the rights to marry whoever you want and to buy an unhackable iPhone.

Are there any conservatives in Silicon Valley besides Peter Thiel?

It can feel like there aren’t, but The Guardian reports that there are at least a few others. Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and TJ Rogers, the founder of Cypress Semiconductor stand out. They aren’t alone:

Other tech leaders, such as Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Intel’s Craig Barrett, Dell’s Michael Dell and AOL’s Tim Armstrong, have been major donors to the GOP, while HP’s Carly Fiorina and eBay’s Meg Whitman have both run (unsuccessfully) for elected office as Republicans.

However that list is pretty short. And the rest of the names in the article are all pretty closely related to Thiel in one way or another.

Why Does Silicon Valley Love Democrats and Dismiss the GOP?

That was the title of an interview the American Enterprise Institute did with Greg Ferenstein, who recently published “The Age of Optimists”, a book about Silicon Valley politics. Ferenstein’s elevator pitch answer:

“Silicon Valley and, broadly, urbanized professionals, represent an entirely new political category — not libertarian, not Democrat, and not Republican. I argue that they are pro-capitalism and pro-government and their belief is that the government should be an investor in citizens to make them more educated, entrepreneurial and civic, rather than act as a regulator of the two parties.

He is saying that the Silicon Valley ideology (which I detailed in my last post) is a different thing than the traditional Republican or Democratic platforms, but that the Democratic party comes closest because they support education and civics and making people healthier.

Ferenstein argues that Silicon Valley professionals are highly collectivist. The Bay Area was the epicenter of the sixties counter-culture. And that spirit is still alive both at Burning Man and in the politics of the bay. Ferenstein writes, “They believe that every single person has a positive obligation to society and the government can help people or coerce people or incentive into making a unique contribution.”

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Silicon Valley represents a new kind of Democrat

If silicon Valley tends to vote blue, it’s not because they are died in the wool Democratic party people. One major example is the topic of equality. Ferenstein explains, “If you look at traditional Democrats, most of what they do on social justice or whatever is they try to make people more equal and give them stable lives.” Meanwhile, “Silicon Valley is all about inequity and unpredictability. They really believe that some people are much more productive or inventive than others. One of the ways in which this manifests itself is performance based funding, where they will encourage competition among schools and will give some schools more money than other. Labor unions hate it.” Ferenstein describes it so well here:

The Silicon Valley ideology thinks about government as an investor rather than as a protector, arguing that the government’s role is to invest in making people as awesome as possible. Silicon Valley Democrats want to make people in general educated and entrepreneurial, rather than singling out disadvantaged groups and regulating capitalism to protect them. It’s pro-government and pro-capitalism.

What you have in Silicon Valley, argues Ferenstein is an ideology that is simultaneously both “Libertarian but very pro-government.” They are anti-regulation on the one hand, but pro-Obamacare on the other hand. They hate labor unions and support high-skilled immigration, free trade, and funding non-unionized charter schools. On the other hand, “They are not anti-tax, and they are not anti-redistribution. They are generally anti-regulation, but they are pro anything that uses their wealth to help the common good in way that doesn’t inhibit economic disruption and innovation.” It is well worth reading Ferenstein’s arguments that Silicon Valley represents an entirely different political category.

Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Political Values

Greg Ferenstein has a 2x2 matrix to plot where Silicon Valley falls on the ideological grid. His Y-axis is “Progress and Meritocracy” versus “Order and Stability.” His x-axis measures Individualism versus Interdpendence.

In Ferenstein’s grid, the diagonal boxes are politically united: Libertarians and Neo-cons both vote Republican despite having different views on the America’s role in the world and how much government should intervene in people’s personal lives. Tech-Democrats and “Protectocrats” both vote Democratic despite differing on questions like affirmative action, unions, and open borders.

Ryan Hagemann of the Niskanen Center also has a helpful 2x2 included in his brilliant analysis of Silicon Valley’s responses to the World Values Survey, which explores four different values sets: self-expression, survival, traditional and secular rational. He explains them:

Traditional values are those that tend to emphasize what you may expect: deference to authority and traditional notions of family values, stressing the importance of religion, and close family bonds. They also track closely to high levels of national pride and a more nationalistic viewpoint. On the other side are secular-rational values, which tend towards the opposite preferences, emphasizing ambivalence towards traditional moral institutions and religion.
Survival values prioritize security, both economic and physical. This perspective is dominated by an ethnocentric outlook and a limited willingness to tolerate outsiders. Self-expression values, by contrast, are those placing high priority on the opposite: high degrees of tolerance for outside groups, non-traditional family structures, and a greater focus on engendering trust in society through civic engagement and participation in economic and political life.

Hagemann created this 2x2 to plot explain how the different values systems interrelate:

In Hagemann’s 2x2 the top row is politically united in the Democratic party under the theme of secular-rationalism. The bottom row is politically united under the theme of traditionalism. However one can see how the verticals are similar too. Some Bernie supporters found common cause in Trump’s distrust of Washington and support for American Workers. On the other hand, many “elite” Republicans and Sillicon Valley elites united in their disdain for trump. What you don’t see are the parties in the diagonal groups getting along well. Silicon Valley wants free trade and open borders while Trump wants…well, you know. Bernie Sanders wants free college education paid for by the government and the Right-Libertarians think he’s a Communist.

Part of what we may have seen in this past election is the beginnings of a realignment of the major political parties. Hagemann explains,

“Government, the traditional Democratic mantra goes, is used as a countervailing force pushing back against the competing interests between business and labor, ensuring the excesses of capitalism remain under control and the benefits are more equitably shared across society…Historically, the Democrats have been the survival values party for the poor and the working class. But they’ve been becoming the self-expression values party for the cosmopolitan professional class for quite a while now. Mr. Trump is helping to consolidate that development. There’s a stark conflict between these two values-based factions, which is why Democrats won’t be able to hold onto white, poorer working class, union voters and will lose the non-white survival values voters when running against conservative populist nationalists in the future.

Does the Democratic Party turn toward the Bernie Sanders faction and try to steal back the coalition that elected Trump? That will be difficult if they continue to prioritize secular-rational values over traditional. And the party may have a financial incentive not to do that. There are 159 U.S. tech billionaires worth a combined $818 billion. And the vast majority of them vote Democrat. As Hagemann points out, “That’s a lot of potential campaign contributions; it’s also a lot more than the party can expect in the future from their longtime union allies, whose membership dues are poised to continue deteriorating in an era of outsourced manufacturing and increased automation.”

I’ll end this post with another quote from Hagemann, whom I think sums up his argument nicely in these two paragraphs:

“Innovation” and “disruption” aren’t just buzzwords in the Valley. They are living representations of the emancipative-secular-rational worldview that defines the region’s culture and drive. The tech community is in favor of constant market destabilization because of a belief in the emancipatory power of markets generally, and the theory of creative destruction in particular. “Innovation is a race and competition is good” is their mantra.
Unfortunately for the DNC and other party bosses, this runs counter to the old blue collar unionized Democrat’s perspective, which hopes to stabilize market forces to benefit the middle class. What we have here, in essence, is the struggle between what Virginia Postrel once called dynamism and stasism — between a future governed by liberal techno-optimists who embrace values that lead to the open-ended future, and reactionary technocrats who eschew a future of stupendous possibilities for the stability and certainty of the present.

Silicon Valley is eating the world. Will it eat the future of politics too?

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