Deep in Silicon Valley, where the free market reigns and the exchange of ideas is celebrated, a subset of tech workers are hiding their true selves. Working as programmers and software engineers, they don’t want the stigma that comes with revealing who they really are.
They’re the tech company employees, startup founders, and CEOs who vote for and donate to Republican candidates, bucking the Bay Area’s liberal supremacy. Fearing the repercussions of associating with a much-maligned minority, they keep their political views fiercely hidden.
“It’s a liberal echo chamber,” Garrett Johnson, a co-founder of Lincoln Labs, which was started in 2013 to connect the right-of-center outsiders in Silicon Valley, told National Journal. “People have been convinced that Silicon Valley is reflexively liberal or progressive. And so their response is to conform.”
Silicon Valley has long been a bastion of liberalism. Since George H.W. Bush won Napa County in 1988, Republican presidential nominees have lost every county in the Bay Area. In 2012, President Obama won 84 percent of the vote in San Francisco to Mitt Romney’s 13 percent and raised more for his reelection campaign from Bay Area donors than from those in New York or Hollywood. Political donations specifically from tech workers follow that trend: Google employees collectively gave $720,000 to Obama in 2012, versus $25,000 for Romney. Crowdpac, a nonpartisan political analytics firm, found that between 1979 and 2012, tech companies have overwhelmingly favored liberal candidates.
Rather than ruffle feathers—or worse—Republicans who work there often just keep quiet. Rich Tafel, who coaches tech companies in politics and policy, understands the dynamic. The founder of the gay group Log Cabin Republicans, he’s had many Republicans in Silicon Valley confide to him their true political views.
“You just learn how to operate, if you will, in the closet as a Republican,” Tafel told National Journal. “You keep your viewpoints to yourself.”
One startup CEO who has worked in Silicon Valley for more than a decade says that while it’s popular to talk politics in the workplace, the underlying assumption is that everyone has similar views.
The CEO, who generally votes Republican and donates to GOP candidates—he spoke on background to conceal his right-leaning views—said that in 2012, “you wouldn’t want to say you’re voting for Romney in the election.” At the same time, openly expressing one’s support for Obama was “incredibly common.”
His opposition to raising the minimum wage is just one area where he diverges with most of his colleagues. “If you say something like, ‘We need a higher minimum wage,’ you don’t get critiqued,” he said. But he would never reveal his more conservative outlook on the matter.
“They can’t fathom that somebody disagrees with them,” he said. “And I disagree with them. So I’m not going to open up that box.”
Closeted Republicans aren’t just a phenomenon in the tech industry. In Hollywood, where acclaimed movie stars and directors throw lavish fundraisers for Democrats and unabashedly support liberal causes, Republicans are a rare breed. Friends of Abe, a GOP support group of sorts, caters to A-list conservatives in the entertainment industry. Only a handful of its members have made their affiliation known, and its roster is kept secret out of fears of a blacklisting reminiscent of the McCarthy era.
For some right-leaning techies, the GOP brand itself is a liability. The startup CEO stressed that there are “a number of ideas that conservatives have that I totally disagree with,” such as opposition to same-sex marriage, and he abhors the thought of being lumped in with Republicans who deny climate change or evolution.
“Republicans are regarded as assholes,” he said. “And I wouldn’t want to be associated with assholes.”
Another Republican who founded a small San Francisco-based startup told National Journal that he’s worried potential partners and investors would be turned off by his libertarian views. Recently, it seems like all of his peers in Silicon Valley have been outspoken about their opposition to the thwarted religious liberty law in Indiana, he said. He thinks business owners should be allowed to decide whom they serve, and if they discriminate against gays, people can choose not to patronize their business. He won’t discuss that view, though, or debate his left-leaning colleagues on Facebook or Twitter.
“If I were to speak out about something like that, maybe one of these companies wants to buy my company one day and the CEO is like, ‘Oh, I remember this guy saying all this stuff about this thing that I really disagree with.’ And that obviously could have negative effects,” he said. “Getting your point across isn’t worth it.”
The consequences for being outed for conservative views can be dire. In a highly public controversy last year, newly-hired Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who is registered as an independent in California, stepped down after critics attacked his 2008 donation to support Proposition 8, the anti-same-sex marriage law in California. Eich, who declined to comment for this story, faced an internal uprising from within the Mozilla community, as well as boycotts from other tech companies, and quit after just two weeks on the job.
Though Eich’s was an extreme case, some Republicans in Silicon Valley fear that if they go public, they’ll face subtler, less direct repercussions. The CEO who spoke on background keeps his conservative-leaning views to himself, he said, because he doesn’t want to risk people not liking him, which could hurt his job in imperceptible ways. As a leader, he needs to be able to inspire people to join and thrive in his company. If he’s “contrarian,” he said, he can’t build the necessary camaraderie to succeed.
Matthew Del Carlo, the former president of the San Francisco Young Republicans and the COO of the California Young Republican Federation, said that transparent Republicans can have a much harder time finding work in the Bay Area. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘If I found out that this person’s a Republican, their resume’s off the list.’”
Prominent Republicans do openly work in Silicon Valley, and not all of them feel stigmatized for their political views. Billionaire Paypal founder Peter Thiel is a high-profile GOP supporter who has made considerable donations to presidential contender Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate run and former congressman Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential super PAC. And Sarah Pompei, who handled Romney’s regional press in 2012 and now serves as Hewlett-Packard’s director of corporate communications, told National Journal she’s never felt denigrated for her conservative views.
Both Pompei and Thiel, who declined to comment for this story, prove success in the tech industry is possible for Republicans who are open about their political leanings. But they wield more power and cachet than the average start-up employee.
“There’s fearless people out there that don’t care, but those tend to be people that are in a better position financially. They’re secure in their job,” Del Carlo said. Those with more to lose, he said, often find it easier to keep quiet.
Still, Thiel’s attention-getting fundraising for GOP candidates and libertarian causes, along with other high-profile Republicans in the tech sector, show that the climate in Silicon Valley is—albeit incrementally—becoming more politically inclusive. Lincoln Labs, the group dedicated to connecting right-of-center techies in the Bay Area, has been a big part of that effort. Earlier this year, its annual conference, Reboot, brought libertarians and conservatives from Silicon Valley to Washington to hear Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul speak on deregulation, net neutrality, and other tech-industry priorities.
Throughout the year, the organization holds meetups and hackathons to build a “sense of community, so that people don’t feel like they are isolated,” Johnson said. He and Lincoln Labs’ other co-founders, Aaron Ginn and Chris Abrams, want to empower a true exchange of ideas within the tech community, without ostracizing any one view.
“Silicon Valley purports to be a place where the best ideas win,” Johnson said. “If we are going to encourage diversity, let’s not just stop with gender and ethnicity. How about ideological perspective?”
Conservatives and libertarians in Silicon Valley like Johnson are pioneering a new kind of Republican. With a distinctly libertarian flavor, they align with the party on the principles of liberty and limited government, but don’t necessarily lean right on—or care much about—social issues.
The entrepreneurs and techies of the Bay Area, said Tafel, are “very aligned to what could be a Republican party.” They just need to come out.
This story has been updated to clarify Brendan Eich’s political status.