Mark Zuckerberg still has a lot to learn about politics

September 19, 2013

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits for audience questions in an onstage interview for the Atlantic magazine in Washington, September 18, 2013. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Mark Zuckerberg has an idea of how Washington works. And it's not the vision most people in Washington share.

"The cynical view is that everything is broken," he said Wednesday at an event in Washington sponsored by the Atlantic. "My view is that the system is set up to avoid making catastrophic mistakes. And right now, the country is actually really divided and therefore few things should get done — except for the things people really agree on."

It's odd to hear one of the country's most important digital natives offer such an endorsement of The System, considering he hails from a place where "disruption" is generally the celebrated norm. Even more striking is how Zuckerberg's loyalty to the establishment persists even as the faith of those who represent him in Congress has faltered. Just about every day, some lawmaker goes on the floor to decry the country's broken tax system. Or its broken entitlement programs. Or its broken immigration system. Or even its broken Senate. Congressional transcripts already show 18 instances of the word "broken" this month alone.

Zuckerberg may be one of the only people here who thinks gridlock is a useful byproduct of politics. For the momentous issues like health care and immigration, maybe it is better not to move too hastily. But this is also an exceptionally gridlocked time in American politics, to the point that what should be fast-moving and routine winds up clogging up the pipes. Executive nominations are being blocked on purpose. Some aren't being made at all. Congress can't pass a budget. Nor can it agree these days to pay the debts it's incurred without throwing an annual fit.

These aren't things that'd be nice to have if we only had the time to sit down and work out our differences. Staffing the government and paying the bills on time are fundamental to a functioning government. Failing to do them in a timely manner has real economic costs.

So why is Zuckerberg so sanguine about a system that most experts view as deeply troubled? One possible explanation is that Zuckerberg is playing coy, holding his real policy views close to his vest to avoid alienating power brokers in Washington. He cleverly danced around a direct question about his personal partisan sympathies, suggesting he understands the value of being seen as above the fray.

But Zuckerberg's naiveté may also be genuine. Certainly his new immigration-oriented policy shop, FWD.us, made some major missteps in its first forays into Washington politics. Early on in its existence, FWD.us received stiff criticism for airing political ads that supported Republicans on non-immigration issues. The campaign was meant to give right-wing lawmakers cover in exchange for their support for immigration reform. But on Wednesday, Zuckerberg hinted that that might have been a mistake.

"There's been a lot to debug in making this work," he told the Atlantic's James Bennet in response to a question about the ads. Zuckerberg added that he was "shocked" to learn that senior Democrats in Congress would recoil at the idea of being funded by the same group that was also funding Republicans.

FWD.us is now composed of three organizations — the umbrella policy organization, a political shop that supports Democrats and a separate political shop that supports Republicans. Whether it'll pay off is unclear. Still, Zuckerberg is clearly proud of this distributed approach, which he regards as an untried model.

The Facebook founder may be an engineering and cultural visionary. But his political education is still just beginning.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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