Ah, the dream of “disruption.” The allure of the “platform.” The magic of “crowdsourcing.” If only we could apply the technologies of Silicon Valley to the mess of Democratic Party politics, then the world would be a better place.
Such is the dream of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Reid Hoffman and Mark Pincus. They are wealthy tech moguls, creators of LinkedIn, the professional networking platform, and Zynga, the social gaming company, respectively. With advance publicity from venture capital news feed Axios and tech news site Recode they have launched WTF, which doesn’t stand for “What the f**k,” but rather "Win the Future."
Adopting the ubiquitous online acronym is kind of cute, but kind of pointless too. It makes you wonder, WTFATGUT, as in, "What the f**k are these guys up to?"
“If you look at the ethos of Silicon Valley and look at the ethos of our companies ... it’s not about me, it’s not about Reid, it’s about us getting out of the way,” Pincus told Recode. “My only agenda is, I would like to see mainstream America more empowered to set an agenda.”
The moguls' reasoning is obvious. Both have had huge business success creating virtual communities. They have found ways to attract tens of millions of people to their online sites. They have created tools to engage, entertain and empower users to come together in mutually useful ways.
Now they want to create such a community within the Democratic Party and the "resistance,” that loose coalition of forces in and around the Democratic Party determined to thwart and end the Trump presidency. Pincus says his goal is “a web-based process that puts more aggregated power into the voters’ hands.”
That’s not a bad concept. But that's not what Hoffman and Pincus are doing. They are not getting out of the way and letting platform users collectively decide. They seem determined to get in the way, as their initial decisions show.
Initially, Hoffman and Pincus contemplated WTF as a platform to organize a challenge to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, for better or worse, embodies the party in Washington, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who epitomizes the Hillary Clinton approach to politics.
In theory, a mass-based online platform could stimulate debate and forge consensus about what the party should do. A well-designed platform could identify candidates and messages that have the most appeal and set priorities.
Two Lame Questions
But WTF isn’t going to do that. Hoffman has said he’s still open to the idea of challenging Pelosi, but he isn’t putting his money where his mouth is. Instead, WTF says it will ask users to decide on a couple of lame propositions that will inspire few outside of Silicon Valley.
As its opening bid, WTF will ask Democrats and progressives two questions. First, whether or not rank-and-file Democrats believe engineering degrees should be free to all Americans; and second, whether progressives should oppose lawmakers who don’t call for Trump’s immediate impeachment.
The first isn’t a bad idea: It’s a modest Silicon Valley twist on Bernie Sanders’ idea of free college tuition for all, which has been implemented in a modest way by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
But free college tuition for would-be engineers is hardly the sort of Big Idea or proposition that will resonate with the anti-Trump resistance, or, for that matter, Trump supporters. It's an idea that will mostly resonate with tech moguls like themselves who imagine that everybody aspires to be just like them.
The second proposition addresses a key issue, but in a manipulative way. The strategic question is whether the Democratic Party stands for the impeachment of Trump and whether that is a winning proposition in the 2018 midterm elections.
WTF wants to avoid debating that strategic question in favor of the tactical question of whether the party should support candidates who don’t support impeachment. This convoluted phrasing suggests that the party should be open to supporting candidates who don’t support impeachment.
Maybe. Maybe not. Ideally, that would be something Democratic and progressive WTF users would decide for themselves. Instead, the WTF moguls ask a loaded question designed to get the answer they want.
Gaming the Platform
Rather than create a platform and get out of way, Hoffman and Pincus are trying to steer the debate toward the results they want. They don’t want the controversy that would surround an intra-party effort to oust Pelosi and/or Feinstein. (“I'm fearful the Democratic Party is already moving too far to the left," Pincus told Recode.) They don’t want their platform to empower those who say Democratic incumbents are a problem and that impeachment is a winning proposition.
Instead, they focus on their pet issues, which seem to be developing the tech workforce and avoiding ideological controversy. In other words, they’re gaming the platform, which is exactly the opposite of what they did in their businesses.
Zynga doesn’t tell you what game to play. LinkedIn doesn’t tell you where to apply for a job. But WTF effectively wants to tell Democrats and progressives what to play and where to work. That's not a recipe for reviving the party; it's a plan for hijacking the resistance.