Like most Americans, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus are unhappy with the state of today’s politics. But unlike most Americans, they are billionaires. So this week, they announced a new political group aiming to reform politics, and in particular, the Democratic Party.
In other words, we’re now at the point in the electoral cycle — and this happens every four years! — when the enlightened business leaders decide that they represent the voice of the forgotten, centrist masses.
This time around, the new group is called Win the Future, or #WTF, and it has something approximately like an agenda. "Imagine voting for a President we're truly excited about. Imagine a government that promotes capitalism and civil rights," Pincus said.
But it's mostly a blank slate. Members will set its direction, in “a modern people’s lobby that empowers all of us to choose our leaders and set our agenda.” They will use Twitter to crowdsource voices and money around a common set of ideas. “We’re starting with an ethos that is pro-social, pro-planet, and pro-business,” says the site.
Progressives mock it, but what Pincus and Hoffman are attempting to do is update a type of suburban political framework that has dominated the Democratic Party for over forty years. Whether this particular venture works, the promotion of a sort of high-tech, pro-environment and media-friendly anti-politics is really just the promotion of the status quo.
There’s a long history of wealthy, highly connected, and powerful people trying to fix Democratic politics. In 2006, lobbyists launched Hot Soup, a website targeting an audience of “opinion leaders around the country who use the Internet to help make up their minds”. Founders included Matthew Dowd of Bush-Cheney, Democratic lobbyists Joe Lockhart, Michael Feldman, and Carter Eskew, and Ron Fournier, chief political writer of the Associated Press.
“Among the controversial topics already slated for discussion,” said the site, “will be corporate responsibility, society, and religion.” It would be organized like MySpace, the go-to social network of 2006. It didn’t last, but its founders remain influential to this day.
In 2005, Third Way was founded by moderate Democrats to generate a modern progressive agenda. Board members included defense contractor Bernard Schwartz, JP Morgan executive Bill Daley, Goldman Sachs partner Michael Novogratz, and insurance executive Peter Lewis. This group emerged in the wake of the Democratic losses to George W. Bush and the Republican Party, and held substantial influence on Capitol Hill among Democrats. Depending on who you talk to, it still does.
In 1985, as a triumphant Reagan began his second term, Al From helped form the Democratic Leadership Council to do the same thing. He recruited hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, media mogul Barry Diller, and Goldman Sachs executives Robert Rubin and Jon Corzine to rebuild the Democratic Party. The Council recruited candidates, started state chapters, and eventually helped elect Bill Clinton. Yet, in 1994, this strategy led to the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives, which Democrats had mostly held since the 1930s.
You can even go back further, to 1981, when a faction of the Democrats first began rebuilding in the wake of the shattering loss to Ronald Reagan. Organized by economist Lester Thurow, they began labeling themselves “Atari Democrats,” arguing for government promotion of high-tech industries. They sought to get rid of traditional trade laws that protected American workers and communities, and proposed retraining of workers, deregulation of finance, and investment in the tech sector.
The truth is, there really is a missing center in American politics. Hoffman and Pincus are right to point at a gap, and their message tends to sell, over and over and over again, at least within the Democratic Party. It is basically what Hillary Clinton sought, and it was the presidency of Barack Obama: dignified, technocratic, Ivy league, not too right, not too left. You could go back to the 1920s, and Herbert Hoover’s notion of “Associationalism”, to find this strong yearning for everyone to cooperate in putting together a society that works for everyone, mediated by the powerful. We need a politics centered on being pro-capitalism, pro-planet, and pro-social.
Unfortunately, the truth is that changing politics at this moment isn’t about getting one more chance to put Atari Democrats in power. It isn’t about rejecting politicians in favor of famous amateurs — a favorite trope of both the powerful and the powerless. It isn’t to go left, either. Changing politics is about refocusing democratic deliberation on the places where power exists. And right now, power exists exactly where Hoffman and Pincus made their fortunes: Silicon Valley.
For forty years, Democrats have repeatedly positioned themselves to curry favor with big business, to push away questions of regional inequality, labor rights, small business rights, family farms, and genuinely open markets for goods and services. They have sought deregulation, the deemphasis of antitrust, the promotion of financial markets, and public investment in high tech businesses with high profit margins (as opposed to basic research).
At the same time, they began attacking politicians, weakening public service through privatization initiatives and wondering why, as Al Gore noted in the 1990s, government procurement couldn’t be as efficient as selling books on Amazon. The result is what you’d expect: a weak, bloated, inefficient, and corrupt government run by frightened, unrepresentative politicians, and a few big tech platforms, a few giant asset management firms, a few big ag firms, and the private equity and hedge fund industries controlling our commercial systems, our media, our culture, and thus, our politics.
Even Hoffman and Pincus feel this control. Hoffman sold his business to Microsoft, and Pincus’s company is at the mercy of Facebook.
Business leaders have an important role to play in our politics. So do political scientists, intellectuals, economists, and lawyers. But for forty years, this network of politically empowered elites have largely promoted a political system in which corporate concentration is both the central factor in determining political power and yet goes virtually unacknowledged.
This isn’t a scheme or a conspiracy, and it isn’t a bad faith way to pool wealth in the hands of a few. Hoffman and Pincus, like many before them, are genuinely concerned about American politics, and want to see a world that works for their children, and the children of others. Both are entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs tend to be builders.
It’s time for all of us to open our eyes, however, and see that the intellectual foundations of our political order are rotten. The suffering that people feel — the indignities of our politics — are not caused by bad politicians, or a lack of dignity among political leaders. They’re the result of excessively strong monopolies, and the often well-meaning businessmen controlling them, suppressing the American people, American businesses, American cities, and America itself.