The Secret Republicans of Silicon Valley

In an industry where only liberal ideas are “allowed,” many libertarians and conservatives keep their political views secret.

Rebecca Nelson
April 8, 2015, 1 a.m.

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.

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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.

(RE­LATED: It’s Hard Out There for a Bay Area Con­ser­vat­ive)

“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.”

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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.

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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.