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Tech Billionaire Mark Pincus Admits He Was Blindsided By The Backlash To Win The Future

Upon launching their insurgency within the Democratic Party, Pincus and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman face tough questions from progressives.

Tech Billionaire Mark Pincus Admits He Was Blindsided By The Backlash To Win The Future

Mark Pincus is sitting in a big comfy chair in the giant atrium of game maker Zynga’s San Francisco headquarters—but he’s not sitting comfortably. The company’s cofounder and chairman sometimes leans forward, then reels back, occasionally folding his right leg under him. He’s animated by a mixture of emotions—enthusiasm, frustration, and a bit of shell shock. On July 3, Pincus, LinkedIn cofounder (and fellow billionaire) Reid Hoffman, and environmentalist/entrepreneur Adam Werbach broke a very open secret—formally announcing their insurgency within the Democratic Party called Win the Future, a name designed to enable its cheeky abbreviation: WTF.

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After firing off that salvo, Pincus and partners are still reeling from the counterattack. WTF aims to rock the party establishment that backed centrists like Hillary Clinton, but it’s also managed to stir up the progressive left wing of the party, which responded to the group’s launch with an angry retort: If the Democrats are already too cozy with the wealthy and connected, why get in bed with billionaire centrists from Silicon Valley? No wonder Pincus looks rattled this afternoon. Calmly sitting next to him with a bemused smile on his face is Werbach, a former Sierra Club president who’s battled the far left for years.

Mark Pincus [Photo: Flickr user Christopher Michel]
WTF’s mission, in short, is to crowdsource ideas (and funding) both to put pressure on incumbent Democrats for specific political initiatives and to support political campaigns by outsiders who will run for office. In Pincus’s vision, it could be a political version of Product Hunt, a site where people post about cool new products, and community members “upvote” or endorse the ones they think are best.

“I think we’re in a moment where I think a lot of people feel it’s hard to say anything other than “WTF!,” Pincus tells Fast Company. “I find WTF to be a truth moment. It’s an absolute truth, and I’m not going to normalize where we are, and I’m not going to normalize what’s going on with our [current Trump] administration.” Though Pincus and Hoffman are billed as equal backers of WTF, Pincus has been more active, at least as its public face.

“WTF” also sums up the response of many of the group’s critics. “Pincus sounds like a parody of someone wanting to be in politics but with no sense of how anything works,” writes Chris Nolan, founder of political advertising and analytics firm Spot-On, in one of a series of exasperated emails to me. Her take is representative of what many critics have said on Twitter or in interviews (the Huffington Post has an especially good collection of quotes) following the announcement of the group on Recode on July 3. Pincus and Hoffman have been condemned as clueless billionaire tech bros with a blind faith in the internet’s ability to solve all problems and little understanding of what’s feasible politically.

All this outrage over an organization whose only specific proposal so far is a Twitter hashtag-based contest to put up provocative billboards in Washington, D.C. “It’s a very first, small, zero-point-one little effort, which is achievable,” says Pincus. “Say we’re going to put up a billboard outside of Reagan National or Dulles [airports], and members of Congress and the Washington political class will eventually drive by it, and they’ll see it, and they’ll realize that a lot of their peers are seeing it too. That’s to me a louder thing to do, for a lot less money and effort, than [contacting] them with emails or letters that they have a summer intern trying to delete or throw away.”

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(One possible glitch: The main approach to Reagan National Airport is via the scenic George Washington Memorial Parkway, where outdoor advertising is prohibited.)

The leading billboard contender so far appears to be, “Healthcare is a right, not a privilege. We need visionary leaders in Congress fighting for the people.” Pincus’s nominee is a billboard proposing free education for anyone studying engineering.

Politics is about more than what you do, however; it’s about whom you do it to. Though it’s not an official WTF position, Pincus has talked openly about supporting Democratic candidates to challenge House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California Senator Diane Feinstein. In political parlance, he’s talked about “primarying” these powerful female incumbents, an idea which sparked plenty of criticism.

“Two white guy billionaires from Silicon Valley, where white guys are getting a bad rap (deservedly) are calling for challenges to the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate and the former Speaker of the House, both of whom happen to be women,” writes Nolan.

Vanity Fair tech correspondent Maya Kosoff was no kinder: “At a time when the culture seems fed up with Silicon Valley navel-gazing, Win the Future brings to the table the worst aspects of the tech industry: the arrogance to think that politics can be “hacked”; the hubris to think that they are the one to overhaul it; and a total misunderstanding of the system they’re trying to disrupt.”

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Disenfranchised Billionaires?

While critics portray Pincus as epitomizing the super-wealthy establishment, he sees himself—and nearly all Americans—as disenfranchised from a party system that doesn’t care about outsiders. “It’s a systemic issue, and it’s a cultural issue and it’s now—I think what’s going on worldwide is that people don’t trust the system and they don’t trust therefore that they are being fairly represented,” says Pincus.

Reid Hoffman [Photo: Flickr user Joi Ito]
He explains how he has twice written detailed comments in the feedback form on the Democratic Party website, only to get back a form letter months later. “[The party] wants your three dollars,” says Pincus, who has given a lot more to politics. He has donated almost $2.5 million to candidates and political causes, according to Recode (a figure Pincus says looks accurate). Together, Pincus and Hoffman have put up $500,000 to initially fund WTF, with smaller donations from friends such as movie producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and VCers Fred Wilson and Sunil Paul.

But Pincus still feels shut out of the establishment. “It feels elite to me. Not in a tech-people elite [way] but like a Yale, super-brainy, smarter-than-all-of-us professional politician [way that says], ‘What the fuck do you know?,'” says Pincus. “Can you name the capital of every country in the world and who their president is? No? Then shut up.”

To Pincus, it’s mind-boggling that Democrats aren’t more alarmed at the state of the party, which lost not only the U.S. House and Senate but a slew of governorships and state legislatures during the Obama years. “So my point is, either people agree on the problem state or they don’t,” says Pincus. “And if you don’t, then your head is in the sand. And I don’t even think I can have a debate with you.” But the party establishment just wants to stay the course, says Pincus, blaming Hillary Clinton’s loss on outside factors like Russian meddling.

“On the one hand, everyone thinks it’s perfectly fair to challenge Trump and the administration, and that’s good for democracy,” says Pincus. “But at least the critics we’re hearing from don’t think that we should be challenging the core of how the Democratic party is working. And that makes us traitors to them.”

I ask Pincus if he feels that WTF’s goals and intentions were misunderstood, by pundits and critics in the Democratic establishment, as being Silicon Valley elitist as opposed to crowdsourced inclusive. “I think we were probably completely understood by these people, and they intentionally misrepresented what we were doing and attacked us,” he says. But didn’t WTF strike first? After all, Pincus has harshly criticized the party establishment and talked—albeit informally—about toppling incumbents. “I wouldn’t say we’re looking for [a fight], but I would say that we are not hiding from one,” he tells me.

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Still, Pincus seems surprised by how harsh the response has been—especially the charges that he and Hoffman are egotistical tech bros. “I don’t want this to be about me, or Reid. And you’re going to see us in the coming weeks bring forth a lot more people to tell their story and what this means to them,” says Pincus. He expects new leaders to emerge from WTF, upstarts and outsiders, and not all of them will be white men.

“We have a trail of folks all the way around, and obviously we’re targeting certain [political] races, so we’re interested in certain states,” says Adam Werbach. “So in those places, we are identifying candidates and building infrastructure in those areas to support them.”

“This isn’t any platform for me, in any way. Or Reid,” says Pincus. “We just want to help, and I’m sorry if we’re not the best messenger. I can’t help it. Sorry.”

Several of WTF’s founders and advisors are women, including one of its three board members, Claudia Ceniceros, who serves alongside Pincus and Werbach. And WTF is committed to making sure that at least half of the candidates it supports are women, says Werbach. As proof of his bona fides, Pincus points out that women comprise half of Zynga’s board. Men do dominate the list of principal funders, though. “It’s hard to control who’s willing to write a check for more then $10,000,” says Pincus.

Internet To The Rescue?

Pincus is especially harsh in his criticism of both parties’ tech strategies. “When you go to our political system, I feel like it’s intentionally kept in the last century,” says Pincus. “In every other facet of life, we turn to social media for instant response time, complete transparency.” Yet the preponderance of fake news and alternative facts—and the role of partisans on both sides in promoting them—calls into question how transparent social media really is.

Adam Werbach [Photo: Flickr user Anna Hanks]
WTF does seem honestly committed to transparency, with all its advantages and disadvantages. “We haven’t done message discipline and PR,” says Werbach. “And talking about it openly, talking about ideas like primarying Diane Feinstein or Nancy Pelosi, those are politically explosive ideas, particularly when they’re not decided yet. Largely what we want to do is keep a relatively open framework so that the members can decide what we are going to do.” (Werbach is no stranger to backlash. Many environmentalists vilified Werbach after his Sierra Club years when his green consulting firm, Act Now, took on Walmart as a major client. In that case, he was partly vindicated since Walmart has since been praised for its sustainability initiatives.)

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Being so open to ideas may make WTF look naïve, however, like its only solid idea is “the internet.” Its strategy seems not so much “If you build it, they will come” as “They will come, and they will build it—if you provide a website and a hashtag.”

But Pincus, who says he’s dedicating 50% of his time to WTF, claims he is in for the long process of building an effort up through the crowdsource process. “We would love to see if we get to critical mass around an agenda,” says Pincus. “We would love to lobby with these candidates on behalf of our members to see their agenda become more the agenda of these candidates, and hopefully in a way to help these candidates win elections. We want to try to get to some audiences that we think aren’t heard and are left out of the process.”

About the author

Sean Captain is a technology journalist and editor. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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