Tech giants celebrate gay marriage, continue to fund anti-LGBT politicians
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalizing same sex marriage across the United States, many of the nation’s brands united to praise the move.
That included a number of America’s biggest tech firms which found clever ways to show how delighted they were by the decision:
YouTube created a video titled #ProudToLove in honor of the occasion. Google users who searched for terms related to same sex marriage were greeted by a rainbow-colored banner atop their browsers. Facebook added a feature allowing users to apply a rainbow filter to their profile image with the click of a button.
The message could not be clearer: Google and Facebook stand side-by-side with the LGBT community, and they are happy to spend unlimited social media capital to make that point.
Unfortunately, when it comes to their actual capital, the message is considerably less clear.
While publicly telegraphing their support of gay marriage, the fact is several tech giants, including Facebook and Google, have made political donations or offered material support to politicians and political groups that have worked to jeopardize and threaten the rights of gay Americans.
The salad days of corporate expenditures toward political movements in America really began in 2010 after the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC lifted many of the restrictions on campaign spending by companies. It’s worth pointing out that three of the justices who voted in favor of Citizens United voted against legalizing same sex marriage. Because, according to Antonin Scalia, the Constitution protects a billionaire’s right to buy an election, but it does not protect a person’s right to marry whomever they like.
Then in 2014, the decision in McCutcheon v. FEC struck down limits on how much cash individuals could contribute to parties and campaign committees. Given executive paychecks have reached unprecedented heights in America, this meant millions of dollars more flowing from CEOs to the political causes they support.
As companies and CEOs have gotten richer, and as the courts have made it easier than ever to give to committees that support candidates, donations from tech companies also shifted rightward. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2010 Google’s political action committee or PAC gave $189,500 to Democratic Congressional campaigns and $153,500 to Republicans. By 2012, that ratio had evened out, with $430,500 going to Democrats, and $445,000 to Republicans, and in 2014 Google gave $515,200 to Democrats and $521,800 to Republicans.
This trend follows for a number of major tech firms including Facebook and eBay. The more-or-less evenly bipartisan cash hauls run contrary to the narrative that tech firms are liberal hippie utopians -- and, for that matter, the counter-narrative that Silicon Valley has gone full conservative-libertarian.
Is there anything inherently wrong with giving to a few more Republicans than Democrats? In most cases, of course not. But the move toward the right does matter to the extent that, like so many issues in today’s political landscape in America, marriage equality is intensely partisan: Of the 54 Republicans in the Senate, only 4 support same sex marriage (Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rob Portman of Ohio). Republican marriage equality supporters made up an even smaller minority in the House, at 10 of out of 247. (For the record, zero Democratic senators and four Democratic House representatives oppose same sex marriage).
This means tit’s nearly impossible to donate to a Republican politician without also donating to an opponent to same sex marriage. That includes the so-called techno-libertarian wunderkinds like Rand Paul who have curried favor with Silicon Valley. Despite his libertarian bonafides, Paul announced his opposition to the Supreme Court ruling in an op-ed at TIME yesterday. His rationale is that the government should “get out of the marriage business altogether.” That’s a fine thought, but the reality is that the government is already deeply entrenched in the “marriage business,” and it doesn’t change the fact that statutes which bar some people from getting married violate the Constitution’s assurances of equal treatment under the law.
Despite his stance, former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has planned a huge fundraiser for Paul next week. Tech companies have already laid the groundwork for donations to the Senator, with Google’s PAC giving the candidate $4,000 in the last election cycle, eBay’s PAC giving $5,000, and Facebook’s PAC giving $1,000. As evidenced by the upcoming fundraiser, Paul is eying the tech industry for major donations. Despite Paul’s self-appointed position as “the tech industry’s Republican,” however, many are skeptical of his ability to attract cash from top tech donors like Facebook investor Peter Thiel. Thiel, although he gave $2.6 million to his father Ron’s campaign, was said to be unhappy with Rand Paul’s policy rollout and/or skeptical of his chances for victory, according to Politico.
But Rand Paul is just the tip of the iceberg. Take Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), for example. Goodlatte has a number of anti-gay bonafides on his record. He voted "yes" on proposed Constitutional amendments banning same sex marriage and defining marriage as one-man-one-woman on numerous occasions. He even voted to ban gay people from adopting a child in Washington, DC.
The tech industry has been all about Goodlatte in recent years. In April 2014, the Silicon Valley policy group TechNet – which was founded by industry heavyhitters Jim Barksdale, John Doerr, and John Chambers – hosted a fundraising event for Goodlatte at the home of then Oracle CFO (now co-CEO) Safra Catz. According to Roll Call, five Oracle executives, including Catz and founder/then-CEO Larry Ellison, gave $25,000 to the Goodlatte Victory Committee at the event. A PAC run by Cisco gave another $25,000, eBay gave $10,000 through something called the Committee for Responsible Internet Commerce. And Gayle Conway – wife of Ron Conway (a Pando investor) – gave $10,000. None of these firms would be caught dead publicly sympathizing with the bigot hicks who want to protect “traditional” marriage.
Perhaps most curious, however, is the $5,200 donation given by the PAC belonging to software giant Salesforce. Readers may recall that Salesforce’s CEO Marc Benioff eviscerated Indiana governor Mike Pence on Twitter after Pence signed a “Religious Freedom” law that many feared could be used to discriminate against consumers on the basis of sexual orientation. And Benioff went way past social media activism: He canceled all required travel of Salesforce employees to the state of Indiana and pledged to "dramatically reduce [Salesforce's] investment in IN based on [its] employees' & customers' outrage over the Religious Freedom Bill." No one would question Benioff’s devotion to the cause of equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. So why wasn’t Goodlatte’s awful record in this regard more closely scrutinized?
It might be because pols like Goodlatte are bigots “only” on paper, perfunctorily checking “NO” next to “same sex marriage” and other gay rights initiatives out of party loyalty -- you can spot these Republicans by their post-SCOTUS decision press releases, which invariably include the words “I respect” in conjunction with “the court’s ruling” or “the law of the land.” Unlike many of his Republican colleagues, Goodlatte didn’t even release a press release in the wake of the decision, and his website contains no reference to same sex politics beyond a few vague references to religious liberty. His silence – and more importantly, his voting record – speak volumes, however.
Not all recipients of tech industry cash are so shy in their anti-gay stances. Tea Party darling Ted Cruz (R-TX), the self-appointed king of racist, fact-denying homophobes the world over, is among the more unlikely politicians to have received a share of Silicon Valley’s astounding profits. In the wake of last week’s ruling, Cruz advised county clerks in his state to deny marriage licenses to same sex couples and doubled-down on efforts to push a Constitutional amendment giving states the right to ban same sex marriage. No stranger to hyperbole, Cruz also stated that between the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act and its marriage equality ruling Americans were witnesses to “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” Just let that sink in.
And yet Google, despite all of its free love celebrations last week, gave $10,000 to Cruz in 2012 and $2,500 in 2014 through the company’s PAC. Other Cruz donors include Facebook’s PAC which gave $3,500 to Cruz in 2012, eBay’s PAC which gave $1,500 in 2014, and Cisco’s PAC which gave $2,500 in 2012.
Yes, these are fairly small amounts. $12,500 in two years is almost nothing to Google, which saw $66 billion in revenue last year, and it's almost nothing to Cruz whose presidential Super PACs have raised $37 million so far ahead of the 2016 race. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of the cash Google spends in Washington goes toward advocating for individual issues – the firm spent $16.83 billion on federal lobbying last year.
Some might wonder, then, why should we care about the Cruz donations? The flip-side of this question, however, is why would Google bother forging a tie with a candidate as controversial as Cruz at all, particularly if the amount given is of such little consequence? Is there a price of admission for even thinking about asking for a politician’s help? Is it a symbolic gesture in case of a nightmare scenario in which Cruz is elected president?
A few thousand dollars may not always mean much to a federal candidate. But that money goes a lot farther when put toward local and state elections, where the campaign spending isn’t quite so outlandish. Facebook, for example, took heat last year when it donated $10,000 to Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes who had not long earlier filed to appeal a ruling that would have made same sex marriage legal in Utah. When pressed about the donation, Facebook simply gave canned responses about its devotion to diversity, but never rescinded nor condemned the donation.
The relationships between big tech firms and anti-gay politicians are enormously complicated. Sometimes donations barely move the needle in terms of the cash amounts, and sometimes they’re legitimately significant – pro-Goodlatte groups ended up scoring $143,000 at that one Silicon Valley fundraiser.
Sometimes the donations go through a byzantine web of political action committees and other times they come from individual executives. On that point, regardless of whether or not you think Proposition 8 donor Brandon Eich should have been ousted as CEO of Mozilla after it was revealed that he made a donation to support California's same sex marriage ban, Proposition 8, it’s difficult to divorce entirely the donations top tech executives make from the broader reputations of their firms. From where do you think these executives get all of their money?
There is one quality, however, that is shared by almost every instance of a big tech firm giving to money to a bigot: The excuse.
Every time a tech giant is asked to explain why they support an anti-equality candidate, the company patiently explains that the politician in question also supports some other important issue -- like immigration or net neutrality.
That’s true; nobody seriously believes that Larry Page and Sergey Brin aim to fund some secret rightwing Renaissance of homophobes. But the question of giving all Americans the right to marry whomever they choose is not some wonky policy issue that is strengthened by debate on both sides. Nor is it an initiative that requires mindbogglingly complex logistics like the Affordable Care Act. Marriage equality is about granting a basic human right under the Constitution to every American. And if a major tech company were to take a hard moral stance against donating to anti-gay politicians – rather than just sitting around Photoshopping inspiring Twitter memes about the SCOTUS decision – it might change the tenor of the dialogue around this issue in the Republican Party. A record-high 60 percent of Americans support same sex marriage, so we know that the will of the people is not enough to change the minds of lawmakers. Money speaks exponentially more loudly to politicians than surveys do.
With same sex marriage now sanctified, codified, and protected by the Supreme Court, maybe there will be fewer reasons for GOP candidates to integrate anti-gay sentiments into their major crusades and press release talking points. Or not: the Supreme Court’s decision hasn’t stopped each and every last Republican presidential candidate from huffing and flapping their homophobic jowls over phantom attacks on “religious freedom” as they attempt to skirt around the fact that they’re on the wrong side of history.