THE BLOG
05/15/2013 01:33 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2013

Mark Zuckerberg's Failed Experiment in Technocratic Social Change

Getty Images

Fwd.us, Mark Zuckerberg's widely reviled, rapidly dissolving Washington DC lobby group, heralds itself as the bringer of "different and innovative tactics" to the usual Beltway brand of back room politicking. As has become abundantly clear over the past few weeks, the reality of Fwd.us is anything but that. Zuckerberg's DC outfit has not only failed to bring anything new to its approach to the pay-to-play, back-scratching culture of Congress, but has in fact made the most cynical kind of Machiavellian horse trading into its signature style. As Branch.com CEO Josh Miller has noted, it's a style identical to that of the pharmaceutical and gun lobbies.

How did so many smart and powerful people so quickly and thoroughly screw up such a simple and straightforward task? As Fwd.us never tires of pointing out, its founders and contributors are the A-list set of Silicon Valley luminaries: people like Bill Gates, Marissa Mayer, Sean Parker, and, before he withdrew in protest, Elon Musk. The immediate legislative objective of the organization, by the standards of the political kingdom whose castle it aimed to storm, isn't exactly world historical. Fwd.us is committed to spending lots of tech cash to help pass bipartisan immigration reform, an issue that's already at the very front of the President's legislative agenda and one for which both parties are under extraordinary popular pressure to strike a compromise. What's more, Fwd.us' core constituency in Silicon Valley is already united in consensus behind the group's position. After jumping into the fray at the eleventh hour, all Fwd.us had to do was to keep up the appearance of being a formidable player in negotiations for long enough for a bill to be passed, and then bow for the unearned applause. As one unimpressed tech lobbyist told the New Republic:

"They're taking an issue where a win was already in sight, and basically they were going to try to get credit. There seemed to be almost a hubris. 'All the people who'd been lobbying on this for years, they're incompetent, it's only when we, Zuckerberg's group, gets involved in it, that we can turn the tide.'"

Now, barely a month after its first birthday, a Google News search for "fwd.us" serves up page after page of stories about the backlash the group brought upon itself from environmentalists, progressive organizations and its own erstwhile tech industry boosters for its strategy of running ads applauding regressive social and environmental positions by senators whose votes Fwd.us is trying to buy. Not a sentence in any of them speaks to any meaningful contribution the group has made to the overall reform effort. For all the press it has garnered, Fwd.us" own "In the News" web page includes only one article dated after the group's launch -- and that article doesn't even mention Fwd.us.

Fwd.us' spectacular failure has much to do with the hubris of its founders, but it also has something to do with the myopically technocratic culture of the business world, and, in particular, Silicon Valley. The pervasive assumption among politically engaged business leaders that intractable social problems are merely technical puzzles to be solved by disinterested and enlightened experts is problematic enough on its own, especially when it's a hallmark of the president's own worldview. When those same simplistic notions are married to one's understanding of the political process itself, the outcome is even more disastrous.

Fwd.us' leaders seemed to believe they could run a high-profile political campaign in the same way as a product development initiative: by throwing a lot of money in the pot, hiring very smart people, giving them the space to do what they do best, and keeping a lid on what information gets out to the public. It's a managerial approach to politics that's practically designed to fail. As anyone who's not paid to believe otherwise could have told them, the most successful issue advocacy efforts are not the ones run by cliques of secretive, well-compensated consultants; they're the ones that have movements behind them.

The Obama administration learned the difference between the two during its first term, when the President was forced to match up his insular, expert-approved inside game on the stimulus bill and on health care reform with the spreading wildfire of the Tea Party movement. Obama got his bills in the end, but only after exhausting his limited bank of political capital in an interminable campaign of asymmetrical warfare with an opponent that got stronger the longer the struggle dragged out. Obama won his narrow legislative victories, but he lost his Congressional majorities in the process.

Later, the Tea Party movement itself learned a similar lesson. Caught in a power struggle between local grassroots activists and the seasoned Astroturf professionals at Freedomworks and Americans For Prosperity, local Tea Party leaders who chose to side with the latter found themselves branded as traitors to the founding principles of the movement. As it turned out, the fresh-faced activists who fueled the fire of the Tea Party movement cared about more than mere short term political victories for the GOP political operatives who hoisted their banner. They wanted to shape the world in their own image, and after a short-lived honeymoon with the Republican Party establishment, they found that it wasn't Nancy Pelosi, but the professional DC co-opters who stood in their way.

Tech industry rhetoric about "crowdsourcing" and "disruptive innovation" aside, the kinds of messy, bottom-up, confrontational movements that fundamentally transform politics are alien species in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley. Successful business leaders excel at developing practical solutions to identifiable problems in a relatively constrained arena of entrepreneurs, investors and consumers. That is the world of the marketplace. It is not the world of political engagement.

Behind the immigration reform effort is what is arguably the most widespread, powerful and enduring movement since the Civil Rights era. It's a movement that will prove to dwarf the Tea Party in its scope and longevity. It is this movement, and the demographic shifts that are adding to its ranks every day, that moves the needle inexorably toward passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Whatever Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues add to this historical tide are but drops in the bucket, which is exactly what makes their tactics of expediency -- of sacrificing critical environmental issues that truly are in precarious shape to serve their narrow organizational goals -- so odious and unnecessary.

Zuckerberg's defenders -- the few that are left -- will undoubtedly point to naïveté to the sausage-making ways of Washington on the part of Fwd.us' detractors. Some already have. And in a fight on another issue, perhaps they'd be right. Sometimes, the kinds of unseemly trade-offs that are at the center of Fwd.us' lobbying strategy are just the regrettable price to pay for representative democracy. But on this issue, Fwd.us' tactic isn't just cynical, it's gratuitous. The movement behind immigration reform doesn't need Mark Zuckerberg; at this point, he's a peripheral and ridiculous distraction at best.

What is truly naïve is the remarkable notion that a handful of tech industry titans can step in front of a social movement, cut a few checks and change history. That's the fantasy behind Zuckerberg's vision of Fwd.us, just as it was the fantasy behind his faux heroism in forking $100 million over to Newark public schools while the cameras were rolling on Oprah, with questionable accountability and transparency. Washington (like Newark) may be a hopelessly corrupt place, but meaningful social change is still a harder task than that, even for the digital technocrats of the ruling class.

Leighton blogs at Dog Park Media.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?