Google Donates to Conservatives

Google has started donating lots of money to conservative causes after years of donating mostly to left-wing groups and candidates. This change in political behavior has prompted an interesting question: Why?

Google has historically donated to liberal groups to the near-exclusion of the right, which was taken to be a sign of their political ideology. Now, however, Google’s partisanship has come into question. With millions of dollars going into names like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, conservative think tanks, Google’s ideology has apparently swerved to the right, or at least to the center.

There are three potential explanations for why Google would change its political behavior in such a way.

First would be the politically simplistic approach, which is that Google has finally reached sufficient political maturity to embrace America’s right. This view would hold that Google has had a profound ideological shift and now sees itself as benefiting from conservatives. This underlies many Democrat’s feelings of betrayal when they hear that Google is donating to the Heritage Foundation.

Yet the “ideological shift” view is misled. While it may work well when applied to formerly-liberal college students, it does not hold true with multinational corporations. Unlike individuals, who are likely to go through changes in thinking about political issues, businesses have more persistent goals which often have the business’s survival at stake. In addition, this view fails to take into account the fact that Google continues to donate to left-leaning political causes, which ultimately rules out a drastic shift to the right.

Secondly, this change signifies a move to the political center. This is similar to the “ideological shift” view in that it is based upon the idea that Google’s political philosophy has changed and that the donations reflect that change. This is the view inherent in Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) statements about Google in the Huffington Post that “bipartisanship is a positive thing.”

While the “shift to the center” view frees itself from some of the drawbacks of the first view, it is itself not without fault. It takes a change in Google’s actions to imply a change in Google’s preferences. This does not necessarily follow, especially if Google’s previous actions failed to get them the policies they desired.

The third approach is that Google’s actions reflect a change in political strategy, not ideology. Google’s circumstances have led it to face dire consequences if they do not get the policy outcome they want in terms of patents, antitrust laws and China. With tensions between Google and Microsoft over the Chinese search-engine Baidu, Google was faced with a problem that could negatively impact Google’s prospects in China, a huge market.

For any entity that has a lot of financial resources, political ideology is subservient to political outcome. While we may donate $5 to a campaign, we do not expect our contribution to make the candidate profoundly change his (or her) view about issues that are dear to us. We donate because that candidate already represents our complex preferences more closely than the other candidate.

The way that individuals contribute to politics is different from the way that businesses and entities with a lot of financial resources do. Businesses can hold campaign contributions over candidates’ heads and wait for the politicians to embrace their views.

Many groups and businesses that are making a difference in American politics are playing a complex game of political strategy that involves donating extensive amounts of money to both sides. This means that no matter who wins, the donor’s policies are favored by the victor. To these strategic donors, the world of politics is not zero-sum and they can seek a favorable political outcome regardless of who is in the White House.

According to OpenSecrets.org, a group that analyzes campaign finance, many corporations were top donors to both Barack Obama and John McCain’s campaigns in 2008. These include Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley.  This shows that major businesses, or at least banks, are filling the coffers of both Republicans and Democrats in an attempt to secure favorable policies. Why couldn’t Google do the same?

Further evidence that Google’s change in political strategy does not reflect a change in ideology can be provided by looking at the politics of Microsoft in the early 2000s. While their contributions have slumped significantly since then, there is a curious pattern to be seen. In the 1998 congressional midterms, Microsoft seriously favored the Republicans, donating $800,000 to them as opposed to $300,000 to Democrats. Yet their behavior changed in the 2000 presidential election, when Microsoft donated $2.1 million to the Republicans and $1.6 million to the Democrats. The Democrat’s share of Microsoft-earned contributions went from 27 percent in 1998 to 43 percent in 2000, a significant increase. Since then, Democrats have received consistent proportions of Microsoft’s contributions.

Google’s case looks just like Microsoft of the early 2000s. While Google has donated nominal amounts to Republican campaigns, 2011 reflects a change in their past behavior. Google is partaking in political strategy to hedge its bets and protect itself from the possibility of a Republican White House in 2012. With so much at stake for Google’s future in terms of US public policy, Google had better continue such strategic maneuvering. Otherwise, Google’s preferred policies will rise and fall with the Democrats in Washington, leaving them vulnerable in a very-possible future when Democrats do not control the Congress and the White House.

Tyler Hunt is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at thhunt@uci.edu