Silicon Valley can't save the Democrats
Here's the thing about politics: Everybody thinks they can do it better than the professionals.
In that sense, it isn't surprising that a couple of super-rich Silicon Valley entrepreneurs would come along thinking they can "disrupt" an entire political party. As this story in Recode tells us, Mark Pincus and Reid Hoffman are ready to save the Democrats:
Pincus, the co-founder of Zynga, and Hoffman, the brains behind LinkedIn, want to force Democrats to rewire their philosophical core, from their agenda to the way they choose candidates in elections — the stuff of politics, they said, that had been out of reach for most voters long before Donald Trump became president.
That's the guiding principle behind Win the Future, a new project by the tech duo that's launching in time for July 4. The effort — called, yes, WTF for short — aims to be "a new movement and force within the Democratic Party, which can act like its own virtual party," said Pincus, its lead architect, during an interview.
Think of WTF as equal parts platform and movement. Its new website will put political topics up for a vote — and the most resonant ideas will form the basis of the organization's orthodoxy. [Recode]
Zynga, in case you were unaware, is the game company that had its biggest hit with Farmville. LinkedIn, as you surely are aware, is the company that allows people you neither know nor care to know to send you emails asking you to join their network, even though you thought you canceled your membership five years ago.
Let me pause at this point to say that I would never make an unequivocal defense of the strategic acumen of Democratic Party insiders (ahem). They screw up all the time. They get things wrong, they make mistakes, they miss opportunities, and they get caught in old ways of thinking. But that isn't because they just haven't been "disrupted" by Silicon Valley yet. It's in large part because politics is complicated and defined by uncertainty.
One of my core beliefs about Washington is that, as the screenwriter William Goldman said about Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything." To clarify, there are many things about which people know a great deal, but predicting political outcomes is incredibly hard, given the massive number of variables and unexpected events that affect who wins an election or whether a consequential piece of legislation passes. That's what makes it interesting, but it also means that even people who master the mechanics of politics can fail.
Yet everyone thinks that if they were in charge, their side would always win. (And yes, this applies to people who work in politics themselves. Ask any mid-ranking campaign staffer why his candidate lost and the answer will inevitably be, "If only they had listened to me!") Everyone who watches the news thinks that they understand what it's all about, because they've learned the basics. That's particularly true because journalists spend so much time talking about strategy — what rhetoric politicians are using, which voter groups they're trying to appeal to, who's up and who's down. Watching those kinds of reports makes you feel like you've gotten a glimpse behind the curtain and seen the hidden gears and levers.
The problem is that even if you grasp all the mechanics of the process, that doesn't mean you have a secret key that would transform your favored party's fortunes. But if you're rich, you probably think you do. Everyone around you is constantly telling you how brilliant you are, and on the occasions when you meet politicians, they listen avidly to your ideas, making you feel that they are amazed by your insight. (You may or may not be aware that they have a lot of practice at this particular kind of interaction, and are also eager for you to give them some of your money.) You walk away thinking that you totally rocked that senator's world when you told her about your idea for a new message her party should use.
The history of rich guys thinking that the fact of their wealth makes them political geniuses is about as long as the history of rich guys investing money in politics. Ask any party operative or political non-profit executive about it, and they'll roll their eyes and tell you stories about the ludicrous ideas some major donor has dropped on them. But nobody says to the donor, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," because that would insult them and then the money would stop coming in.
Silicon Valley gazillionaires may be particularly prone to believing themselves to be political geniuses, because their community has an ideology about its own brilliance. They disrupt everything, using their incomparable minds to shatter the old ways and replace them with a shining and limitless future! Of course, sometimes it's actually true. But other times you're not Jeff Bezos remaking shopping or Larry Page and Sergey Brin changing our relationship to information — you're just a guy who made millions on a time-wasting game people (used to) play while they were bored at work. And there were a thousand people just as smart as you who didn't have the right luck or timing.
But let's not be hasty. Perhaps WTF has some ideas so revolutionary that they can truly remake our politics. Let's see:
Participants can submit their own proposals for platform planks — and if they win enough support, primarily through likes and retweets on Twitter, they'll become part of WTF's political DNA, too. Meanwhile, WTF plans to raise money in a bid to turn its most popular policy positions into billboard ads that will appear near airports serving Washington, D.C., ensuring that "members of Congress see it," Pincus said.
WTF is also eyeing more audacious efforts: Initially, Pincus had planned to solicit feedback at launch on recruiting a potential challenger to Democrats' leader in the House, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, in a primary election. That idea is on hold — for now — but Pincus and Hoffman are still trying to solicit candidates to run elsewhere as so-called "WTF Democrats." For Pincus, one of his early targets: Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind. [Recode]
Whoa whoa whoa — ads on billboards??? You just blew my mind. How is it nobody ever thought of that before?
As for the guy from Third Eye Blind, I've got nothing against him. He should run for office if he wants! But perhaps "I heard this rock star talk about politics and he didn't sound like a complete idiot so maybe he should be my congressman" isn't some kind of revolutionary idea that will transform America into a post-partisan utopia of clear thinking.
To repeat, there's no reason to think the Democratic Party couldn't use reform. For starters, they need to make a much heavier investment in grassroots organization that's sustainable between elections. And Silicon Valley could certainly help (perhaps shoring up the party's cybersecurity might a start; you might remember that was something of a problem in 2016). There's precedent here, too: Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns benefited hugely from tech industry people who built powerful tools for volunteers to connect and organize.
But if you think that American politics is going to be completely upended once we create a new political version of Farmville or LinkedIn (or Uber or Snapchat or Kayak or anything else), then you're probably going to be disappointed. But don't let me stop you — there are probably worse ways to waste your money.