Apple. Google. Microsoft. Facebook. Twitter. Uber. Tesla. Netflix. eBay. Intel. On February 7th, over 100 American companies co-signed an amicus curiae brief — otherwise known as a “friend of the court” brief — for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, expressing opposition to the Trump Administration’s Muslim travel ban. On February 9th, the Court ruled against Trump’s executive order.
Silicon Valley has moved to the forefront of political resistance, amplifying the tech voice over that of Democratic politicians traditionally expected to lead. Temporarily, the relationship between the Valley and the Democratic Party is an important vehicle for pushing back against the Trump Administration. Going forward, however, a long-term bond has the potential to be parasitic.
Silicon Valley’s involvement in the amicus curiae brief is not the first time the Valley has demonstrated opposition to President Trump. In July 2016, during the heat of the Presidential campaign, 140 tech executives and entrepreneurs signed a scathing letter condemning Donald Trump, and preaching inclusiveness. Save for a select few leaders in the Valley, like billionaire Trump delegate Peter Thiel, support for the sitting President was hard to come by on the campaign trail.
The amicus curiae brief may be the peak of Silicon Valley political involvement or the materialization of a growing technology-political partnership, but there is no doubt that Silicon Valley is predominantly blue. On all three fronts — employees, products, and customers — technology companies have shown Democratic tendencies. For example, thousands of employees walked out of Google campuses around the world in protest of the Trump travel ban.
Where did this corporate political activism come from? One rationale is money; the court brief emphasized that “ultimately, American workers and the economy will suffer as a result” of the executive order. Multinational tech companies have vested fiscal interest in the ability to hire skilled workers from the seven nations Donald Trump delineated as the targets of the executive order. Silicon Valley’s self-interest directly aligns with the Democratic Party’s values in the case of the executive order.
Another linked logic for Silicon Valley’s Democratic tendencies lies in the tech corporations’ primarily urban and left-leaning consumer base. For example, after Uber CEO Travis Kalanick agreed to join Trump’s business advisory council, blue voices formed a #DeleteUber movement strong enough that Kalanick stepped down from the council altogether. When Under Armour’s CEO came out in support of Trump, the left-leaning Internet erupted and share prices took a hit. Arguably, tech companies joined the original court brief out of a conformist fear of losing customers.
Then there is the puzzling example of Elon Musk, Tesla and SpaceX CEO. Musk remains on Trump’s business council, and yet his companies also signed the court brief. Tesla and SpaceX’s corporate self-interests do not coincide with the travel ban, but Musk still hopes to steer the Trump Administration in the right economic direction by sitting on the council. Musk’s variability questions a long-term relationship between Democrats and tech titans.
Silicon Valley’s noise about the executive order will reverberate in the Democratic Party, even if this political statement is an anomaly.
On a short-term level, this tech titan political activism has the capacity to motivate and inspire a liberal-heavy consumer base to turn out to the polls in the coming elections. When lines between the private and public sector blur, politics becomes harder to ignore. Big Silicon Valley names can reach a young, often apathetic, but technologically-active voter base. These corporations also make a difference through funding and supporting reactionary Democratic candidates. These dynamics have the potential to create a sea-change for American Democrats.
Almost all of the million-dollar donors in the 2016 Presidential race supported Republican candidates. At the end of the election cycle, tech employees and executives had donated a minimal total of $8.1 million in the Presidential election, and 95% of that money went to Hillary Clinton. This sum could increase exponentially in 2018 and 2020 if tech executives like Zuckerberg (net worth of $57.2 billion) felt compelled to chip in.
The potential monetary support from Silicon Valley, however, presents a decisive dilemma for the Democratic Party. As the Democratic Party tends to oppose the Citizens United decision, Democratic leaders have to weigh the added value of campaign contributions against the potential public relations loss of relying on corporate money. Likewise, tech executives donating to Democratic campaigns will agitate right-wing consumers, which is exhibited through those accusing Facebook of curtailing conservative news. In the future, Silicon Valley donations to Democrats could be detrimental to both groups.
Further, the tech reaction to the executive order diverts attention away from the ostensible leaders of the Democratic Party. Whereas political leaders like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressional Democrats can be silenced and overshadowed in Congress, tech leaders have an uncensored ability to speak out, and an audience of millions of consumers at their disposal. This imbalance results in Mark Zuckerberg’s rumored Presidential ambitions, which pose a problem for the lifetime Democratic politicians. The turnover rate in the private sector, particularly in a hyper-competitive technology industry, means Silicon Valley is far too volatile to be trusted with any tangible political clout. Democrats do not want to fall into the same outsider mindset as Republicans did in their choice of Donald Trump.
Silicon Valley’s protest of the travel ban effectively reorients and amplifies the political conversation in this country. Though the Valley capitalized on its opportunity to speak out against the Trump policy, the correlation between the interests of the Democratic Party and the tech titans may be short-lived. Moreover, a long-term bond between the Valley and the Party compromises the interests of the former and the values of the latter. Therefore, a close Valley-Democrat relationship is best kept temporary.