In “The Ideas Industry,” I noted that Silicon Valley plutocrats tend to think about politics in a very different way than most other people:
Greg Ferenstein surveyed more than a hundred Silicon Valley founders to determine the gap between their political attitudes and those of the mass public. Silicon Valley elites were less likely to view political conflict as an entrenched problem so much as a piece of faulty code that needed to be hacked. Compared to the public, more than three times as many founders believed that “there’s no inherent conflict between major groups in society (workers vs. corporations, citizens vs. government, or America vs. other nations).” Many plutocrats will prefer policy solutions that simply bypass the state completely rather than try to reform existing policies. The ability of nonstate actors to implement policy solutions has a decidedly mixed record, however.
This seems worth bringing up again because a few Silicon Valley founders — Zynga’s Mark Pincus and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman — just launched a new political website. It is titled, I swear to God, Win the Future, or #WTF. The website explains:
#WTF is building the first people’s lobby where the members set the agenda. We’re starting with an ethos that is pro-social, pro-planet, and pro-business. Our objective is to help millions of Americans organize around a common platform. Our goal is to aggregate our voices and money around the issues that we want to top our government’s agenda. We want to turn that agenda into electoral wins and an overall mandate for our country. To move quickly, we’re using Twitter so anyone can propose, vote up, and engage with campaigns that they care most about.
Recode’s Tony Romm offers up some more morsels about the new site:
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. To start, the group will query supporters on two campaigns: Whether or not they believe engineering degrees should be free to all Americans, and if they oppose lawmakers who don’t call for Trump’s immediate impeachment.
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. The two have met in recent months, in fact.
It will surprise no Spoiler Alerts reader that as a first impression, WTF’s mission statement and initial ideas have prompted a fair amount of scorn, derision and ridicule, particularly from those who despise neoliberal Democrats.
As someone who is pretty comfortable with neoliberal centrists, I should be less hostile. But it’s hard to be sympathetic after Pincus explained his motivations to Business Insider’s Maxwell Tani:
Pincus, who has spent millions backing Democratic campaigns and organizations up and down the ticket for over a decade, said a major part of WTF came from his dissatisfaction with the way the Democratic Party was spending its energy and his money, noting that he was obsessively reading “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” to better understand why her campaign lost.
“I just don’t feel respected in the political process as a large donor or as a citizen voter,” Pincus said. “I just feel patronized. Everything I get is like, ‘Hey, you couldn’t possibly — it’s too complex and sophisticated what really goes on,’ and, ‘Hey, leave it to us, and we will go and represent you and fight the good fight, and just give us money.’ ” (emphasis added)
If Pincus thinks that developing a Kickstarter platform for symbolic politics is the solution to being patronized, he’s in for one heck of a reckoning. He’s also deeply unaware of exactly how much more influence someone like him has over the American political process than someone like myself.
So I get all the derision from Democratic activists, who tend to be further to the left than most. That said, if I was a progressive Democrat, I would not be too quick to dismiss Pincus, Hoffman, Mark Zuckerberg, et al. This is not because they are necessarily right about how to revitalize the Democrats — they are far more likely to be spectacularly wrong in that regard. But as Silicon Valley folks are fond of noting, one of the most effective ways to learn is through failure. Let them fail. Heck, maybe one of these efforts would actually succeed. I would love to see WTF try to find solutions to the problems Ryan Cooper raises in this trenchant column, for example. Simplifying government paperwork is a great thing for technocrats to address.
The deeper political reason is that in an era of political polarization, Democrats will need to make the extra effort to connect with high net-worth individuals. In a world of secular stagnation, most plutocrats will opt for the nationalist populism of Donald Trump over the economic populism of Bernie Sanders. For high net-worth individuals, at least right-wing populism comes with tax cuts, deregulation and attempts to shrink the size of the state. If left-wing populism is only about redistribution, the choice for plutocrats will be clear.
Sanders may very well be the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party right now. But unless and until money doesn’t matter in politics, Democrats will need to keep neoliberal billionaires inside their tent. So they should tolerate ideas like WTF. Or, to put it another way, WTF not?