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Why Silicon Valley Is So Bad at Politics

A new initiative to revitalize the Democratic Party betrays the tech industry's blind spots.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Two years ago, Mark Pincus, the billionaire who is responsible for Farmville, the 21st century’s answer to the Dutch Tulip Craze, had a big idea. “In this election, we’d want a million people to raise one billion dollars to run Mike Bloomberg for president,” he told The New Yorker. “Through Kickstarter.” He added, “I believe there’s a million people who’d like to give a ‘fuck you’ to both political parties.”

Pincus’s analysis was half-right. Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party and Bernie Sanders’s strong showing in the Democratic primary proved that there are well more than a million people ready to throw both middle fingers in the air at the political establishment. But the devil is in the details, and in this case the devil is Michael Bloomberg, a centrist plutocrat who, despite being one of America’s most famous “independent” politicians, represents a stratospheric elite that straddles both parties and is the source of so much popular discontent on both the left and the right. If nothing else, the 2016 election was a massive rebuttal of the idea that what Americans really want is President Michael Bloomberg.

Yet Bloomberg continues to be the political model of choice for Silicon Valley. Last week, Pincus and Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn launched Win The Future, or WTF, an initiative to revitalize a broken and beleaguered Democratic Party. WTF comes from a very Bloombergian ideological starting point—“pro-social [and] pro-planet, but also pro-business and pro-economy,” as Pincus put it—while offering a distinct Silicon Valley twist, an online platform that will allow users to upvote ideas and policies they’d like the Democratic Party to adopt.

It represents an almost comically naive belief about politics, one that is prevalent throughout Silicon Valley: that if you combine technology with listening to people, you’ll discover that most Americans broadly agree with the likes of Pincus, Hoffman, and Bloomberg.

When it comes to mocking WTF, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit. The ideas and policies with the most upvotes will be placed on billboards, a decidedly low-tech medium, outside Washington, D.C.’s airports, so politicians can see them. Only one potential WTF political candidate has been mentioned: Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins, who Deadspin described two years ago as “an incorrigible asshole.” Even Pincus’s valid concern about the impenetrability of the Democratic Party came wrapped in a clueless attempt to reach out to the Democratic National Committee via its website. “Twice in the last year, I typed in five paragraphs of feedback, and it says, ‘We’ll get back to you,’” he told Recode. “And no one ever gets back to you.”

Pincus’s complaints about lack of access are especially rich when you consider that he is one of relatively few people in this country who has actual influence over its two political parties. “It’s become this competitive insider’s world,” Pincus told Recode. “Whether it’s me or my family and friends ... we just feel—we’ve always felt—left out. It just feels like the bar is so high for any of us to have a voice and choice.” Pinkus was a major donor to President Barack Obama who spent $2.5 million in the last election cycle.

Still, this also means Pincus knows firsthand what big donations can and can’t get you. If even billionaires feel shut out by a political system that was developed to cater to them, things may be even bleaker than they seem. But WTF does little to actually solve the problem. Instead, it mashes up Twitter and Reddit, spreads it to as many people as it can, and expects the rest to take care of itself.

Pincus and Hoffman are betting on an idea that has undergirded similar projects like Third Way and the Innovation Party, one that is reminiscent of the way Hollywood traditionally has approached politics. They believe that there is a deeply rooted American political consciousness that both parties ignore and that partisanship obscures. They believe that the solutions to our problems are not only obvious, but that a clear majority of Americans approve of them.

There may be some broad, banal truth to this. People want good schools and clean air and water, and they don’t want to die because health care is unaffordable. But there are cavernous disagreements about how to accomplish these things, and figuring out how to accomplish these things (or to ignore them) is what politics is actually about. Pincus and Hoffman have rightfully identified a vanishing center in American politics, but they wrongly assume that adopting a “centrist” platform automatically makes this platform widely popular.

In fact, the only “centrist” platform that has a known base of support in this country—if we define “centrist” to mean a mix of Democratic and Republican positions—is the 2016 platform of Donald Trump. And Trump succeeded by doing the exact opposite of what Pincus and Hoffman are proposing, with a platform that was socially illiberal, anti-planet, and pro-government when it came to issues like infrastructure and entitlements. That alone should give these Silicon Valley moguls pause.

That’s not to say that Pincus and Hoffman and WTF can’t be of service. There’s a lot that tech can do, as the Department of Digital Services has shown, to make government programs like Medicare more efficient, effective, and responsive. Pincus and Hoffman can also work toward their stated goal of lessening the gulf between the super-rich and everyone else when it comes to influencing party platforms. But if they really wanted to make the Democratic Party in their own image—even though the party already is in their own image, more or less—they could take a page out of the Koch playbook and spend millions to get “pro-business, pro-social” candidates elected to school boards and city councils and, in a decade or two, everywhere else.

The Kochs, after all, realized that the American people weren’t buying what they were selling, and adjusted their plans accordingly. The problem with Pincus and Hoffman is that they’re desperate to believe, despite all evidence, that they’re the political mainstream. They might spend millions before they discover that’s not the case.