Silicon Valley's Partisan Problem

Too many people still think both parties look the same.

Politics is intruding on tech Twitter. So I have to agree with Marc Bodnick, we need to take a detour into tech’s political discussion — even though certain newsletter writers make their living obsessing over banalities like IPO pops.

I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, no one is paying me for my political hot takes. On the other hand, I do think we have a weird problem. Tech elites on Twitter want their political opinions to be taken seriously, but they express them in short bursts on a forum that doesn’t allow for thoughtful rebuttal. Many of them get by on having dedicated followings who are knee-jerk aligned with their political views. So just as they position themselves as free thinkers, they express their political views in a way that allows them to dismiss their critics and bask in the praise of their politically-aligned followers. Meanwhile, the actual political commentariat doesn’t really care what they have to say.

So, humble tech newsletter writers feel compelled to weigh in.

I’m going to assume you know the political context: a majority of House Republicans want to challenge the election result on Jan. 6, a group of about a dozen Senators now support that effort, and the lame duck President of the United States was recorded pressuring Georgia’s Secretary of State to “find” enough votes to flip the state’s presidential winner. Some Republicans like former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senator Tom Cotton, and Senator Mitt Romney have come out and opposed efforts to challenge the election. Troublingly, all ten living former Secretaries of Defense decided that they needed to join together and write a warning against involving the military in election disputes. That’s weird.

Chris Sacca seemed to jumpstart a lot of the discussion on tech Twitter.

While many people agreed with him, there was also a strain of opposition. One product manager tweeted, “It's not true Chris. You're too deep in and letting yourself be fooled. One side is the slightly less worse option. That's the reality.”

Many in tech just keep quiet on Twitter when Republicans do crazy things. They prefer to complain about San Francisco socialists. I share Bodnick’s frustration with tech Twitter’s selective political tweeting.

Cyan Banister, the angel investor and former Founders Fund partner, is braver than most. Banister offered several tweets objecting to Sacca.

I don’t think this was a fair reading of Sacca’s tweet. I took Sacca to be saying that Democrats should embrace patriotic branding — not patriotism itself — given they’re the ones protecting the Constitutional system of government right now. Presumably defending the Constitution is the the most patriotic thing you can do, so might as well get credit for it by putting an American flag logo next to your name on Twitter.

(I have to note that it’s classic rich person Democrat that Sacca is totally fine with people who don’t agree with him on taxes or Medicare. You know, the actual political substance of what Democrats are trying to achieve. But it’s a smart tactical concession on tech Twitter. Good to remind people you’re still willing to agree to disagree when it comes to their money, just not when it comes to democracy.)

But if you look at Banister’s replies, it’s clear that Banister thinks Democrats and Republicans are similarly culpable in creating our current political crisis. After all, they both complained about elections!

I have to respond. The Democrats raised objections about Russian election interference with the support of the Trump Justice Department-appointed Special Counsel who found all sorts of troubling facts. Russians were charged with election interference. Trump encouraged the Russians to find Hillary Clinton’s emails on television. Don’t forget the President created a lot of the smoke himself by impeding the investigation. He fired his FBI director after demanding loyalty.

And remember that Clinton swiftly conceded the election. And the sitting Democratic president gracefully turned over power and offered counsel to the incoming administration. But yeah, they’re the same.

I mean this stuff is just infuriating. This is literally the second election that involves Donald Trump. Democrats handed over power the last time. This go around, elected Republicans have been fueling mistrust in the voting system and are now citing that widespread distrust as the reason that we need to investigate. It’s a wonderful circular argument.

Banister seems to want to shift the conversation to whether Republican voters are irredeemable. But the debate is over how to judge the Republican leaders they elected.

And ultimately it amounts to victim blaming. If an older sibling is picking on their younger sibling and a parent blames them both for fighting, that’s not fair. It undermines a parent’s credibility. You can’t apportion blame to everyone because that’s an easier world to accept. It just makes the situation worse.

They’re not just idle tweets. I looked up Banister’s political donations and they’re true to Banister’s professed beliefs. Banister has cut thousands of dollars to support Republican Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, according to Open Secrets. But in 2019, Banister also donated thousands of dollars to support Pete Buttigieg, the plucky small-town mayor beloved by the tech set.

Buttigieg is spending all his energy trying to foil those Republican Senators. The split support is just mindboggling to me. I don’t want to spoil things by telling you who that charming mayor decided to go work for. The Democratic President-elect is actively trying to win two more Democratic Senate seats in Georgia to wrest power from Lee, Cruz, and Paul and their ilk.

I tweeted Sunday that Chamath Palihapitiya donated to Ted Cruz in 2011 and that Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman donated money to Josh Hawley in 2018. Someone accused me of trying to censor political speech — and I could imagine the same critique being made against my harping on Banister’s tweets. I don’t see how I’m stopping them from doing anything. It’s probably good to have sufficiently strong convictions that you can weather criticism.

The real reason I’m spending so much time responding to Banister’s bothsidesing — is just that the fact patterns matter. Tech Twitter is full of intellectual posturing. Substack offers some space to see if things hold up in a few more than 280 characters.

Bobby Goodlatte took a stab at bothsidesing while holding on to his political convictions. (Goodlatte has earned a lot of credibility with me. He donated to his own father’s political opponent. That’s political courage.)

Right. I mean I agree with Goodlatte. San Francisco is horribly run and Miami’s mayor is doing some interesting things. But many Silicon Valley Democrats would agree with those assertions. Despite the strawmen that are constructed on Twitter, most Americans like heterodoxy. These tweets make it seem like this is a bold position to stake out. I don’t think it is.

We just live in a reality where one national party is trying to destroy our democratic system and we’re supposed to act like both parties are the same. Democrats and other people living in this reality are going crazy because there’s a subsection of people who refuse to see what’s happening in front of them.

There are plenty of odd political alliances. Jason Calacanis is a hardcore Trump hater, but he’s also raising money to hire a journalist to investigate the ultra-liberal San Francisco District attorney. (Banister is donating to that campaign as well.)

I don’t have an issue with this particularly, so long as they hire a credible reporter and give them the independence to chase the facts. I believe that Calacanis will do that. It’s good that tech people are taking an interest in local government even if they do it in their own weird way!

Ultimately, I’m hopeful that there will be more common ground in 2021. It’s hard to feel like things can sink any lower. But to get there we need to live in a shared political reality. Democracy is good. Trump did his best to undermine it. Many of the Republican Party’s elected leaders remain happy to go along for the ride — even after their guy lost the election.

And I genuinely believe that it matters what Silicon Valley thinks. Tech is the most important global industry. Business leaders have tons of influence in government, while little time to spend thinking about it. I’d love to see Silicon Valley’s political views evolve.

But there’s also reason to worry that Silicon Valley won’t find a shared political reality. Yes, Silicon Valley is full of liberal Democrats who are inclined to agree with this column. But there’s also a strong strain of political nihilism in Silicon Valley. Tech wants to believe that it operates according to principles — unlike other industries like banking or big oil. But just like those industries, Silicon Valley sees the benefit of cozying up to the politically powerful, protecting its own class and business interests in the process.

If all politicians are the same, then you can support whoever you want — those politicians just happen to be acting in your economic interest. You’re not the one without principles, you tell yourself. It’s the politicians that don’t have scruples.