×

Mark Pincus and Reid Hoffman are launching a new group to rethink the Democratic Party

Mark Pincus and Reid Hoffman want to hack the Democratic Party.

Not literally. Not the likes of what befell the team behind Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, resulting in scores of private emails being published online — and countless news stories that helped seal her defeat. No, Pincus, the co-founder of Zynga, and Hoffman, the brains behind LinkedIn, want to force Democrats to rewire their philosophical core, from their agenda to the way they choose candidates in elections — the stuff of politics, they said, that had been out of reach for most voters long before Donald Trump became president.

That's the guiding principle behind Win the Future, a new project by the tech duo that's launching in time for July 4. The effort — called, yes, WTF for short — aims to be "a new movement and force within the Democratic Party, which can act like its own virtual party," said Pincus, its lead architect, during an interview.

Read more from Recode:
Raiding the minibar — we're addicted to sexual harassment scandals
500 Startups' Dave McClure has resigned as general partner
Facebook's and Twitter's executive leadership are still the most white among big Silicon Valley companies

Think of WTF as equal parts platform and movement. Its new website will put political topics up for a vote — and the most resonant ideas will form the basis of the organization's orthodoxy. To start, the group will query supporters on two campaigns: Whether or not they believe engineering degrees should be free to all Americans, and if they oppose lawmakers who don't call for Trump's immediate impeachment.

Participants can submit their own proposals for platform planks — and if they win enough support, primarily through likes and retweets on Twitter, they'll become part of WTF's political DNA, too. Meanwhile, WTF plans to raise money in a bid to turn its most popular policy positions into billboard ads that will appear near airports serving Washington, D.C., ensuring that "members of Congress see it," Pincus said.

Reed Hoffman speaking at the ReCode Conference on May 30, 2017.
David A. Grogan | CNBC
Reed Hoffman speaking at the ReCode Conference on May 30, 2017.

WTF is also eyeing more audacious efforts: Initially, Pincus had planned to solicit feedback at launch on recruiting a potential challenger to Democrats' leader in the House, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, in a primary election. That idea is on hold — for now — but Pincus and Hoffman are still trying to solicit candidates to run elsewhere as so-called "WTF Democrats." For Pincus, one of his early targets: Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind. The two have met in recent months, in fact.

Together, the Zynga and LinkedIn leaders have contributed $500,000 to their still-evolving project, they said, and they're aided by Jeffrey Katzenberg, a major Democratic donor and former chairman of Disney, as well as venture capitalists Fred Wilson and Sunil Paul.

Of course, there is something of an irony in a new populist political platform backed by wealthy tech and media moguls who despise big-money politics yet historically have donated regularly and generously to Democratic candidates and causes.

Pincus sees it differently. "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," he said. "My only agenda is, I would like to see mainstream America more empowered to set an agenda."

That means joining the so-called "resistance" — that ever-growing collection of groups that oppose Trump — while challenging Democrats from the inside.

"We wanted to move beyond just thinking about this moment of resisting and get to what comes next," Pincus said during one of our conversations. "What could it look like for our country for the parties to be more open or inclusive, and get to a web-based process that puts more aggregated power into the voters' hands? And that's a big part of the genesis of WTF."

A party in "complete disarray"

Perhaps it is no surprise that Pincus arrived at WTF through the lens of video gaming. "And this will sound like the oddest analogy you've ever heard," he cautioned at the start of our interview in May.

"Gaming in 2007, believe it or not, was a declining industry, and no one saw it as a big growth area," Pincus began. "And my insight [was] that the biggest reason it was declining is that it was serving the hardcore gamer, and gaming was getting more complex and expensive."

Zynga founder Mark Pincus speaks during the 2014 Web Summit at the RDS, Nov. 6, 2014, in Dublin.
Getty Images
Zynga founder Mark Pincus speaks during the 2014 Web Summit at the RDS, Nov. 6, 2014, in Dublin.

The Xbox controller surely hadn't become easier to use, he said, and the price of purchasing a system certainly had risen dramatically. And as the games themselves grew "more hardcore in focus," in Pincus's estimation, "they also drove away the casual gamer and the mid-core gamer."

But Pincus believed fervently that adults had in them a "latent demand to play games." His solution for his own industry is now well-documented fare: The social-minded gaming company Zynga, which owns the likes of FarmVille and Words with Friends.

In politics, though, Pincus sees a similarly — needlessly — complex game. Replace the Xbox controller maybe with the impenetrable machinations of Congress, where bills and markups and votes are often the stuff of hard-to-discern theater. So, too, are the costs of playing increasingly high at a time when political money can — and does — flow uninhibited to campaigns in the forms of hard-to-track nonprofits and super PACs.

"It's become this competitive insider's world," said Pincus, who has donated nearly $2.5 million to candidates and causes, according to federal records. "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."

For years, Pincus had agonized for a "revolution." His blog posts dating as far back as 2003 called for a "web-based coalition" that could help "give a voice and choice to the people."

At the time, his plan was a different sort of website — called eparty.org — which he envisioned as a portal that "can be used by candidates to run campaigns and their constituents to have an ongoing voice in setting platform agendas and even picking new candidates," Pincus wrote in January 2006. It even had an early platform, from establishing "real gun control" to "digitizing Democracy."

Despite his writing, though, eparty.org never gained much traction — or really any attention — as some digitally minded, next-gen civics system. Reflecting on it, Pincus said in June that it faltered because the timing wasn't right. "As an entrepreneur, you can have an instinct, and your instinct is right but your idea you're substantiating that into is wrong, and the world is not ready for it," he told me.

That changed with Trump.

Fast-forward through the 2016 election, and Pincus and his friends — including LinkedIn's Hoffman, who served as an early Zynga board member, and Adam Werbach, the former president of the climate-focused Sierra Club — sensed a more urgent opportunity. They began huddling in the weeks after Trump's surprise victory, according to emails I obtained earlier this year, contemplating the early contours of a group they almost named the "Green Tea Party." Hoffman put forward that branding before he and Pincus ultimately settled on WTF.

Together, they picked up their pace in January, after the president signed his first executive order restricting immigration from majority-Muslim countries, a move that drew sharp rebukes from Apple, Facebook, Google and other tech giants in Silicon Valley and beyond.

"The first weeks of the Trump presidency have confirmed our fears," Werbach wrote to potential WTF allies on Jan. 29. "This list is long: banning Muslims from 7 countries, green lighting the keystone and Dakota access pipeline, defunding affordable healthcare, removing all mention of climate change from the White House website. He's moving quickly, and we need to move quickly as well."

Amid their planning, Werbach and others sought to study the Democratic Party's primary political organ, the Democratic National Committee. Quickly, though, they found themselves disillusioned. The DNC still appeared to be in "complete disarray," Werbach told potential backers, as party insiders squabbled as to whether to continue in the mold of Clinton, or to tack sharply leftward to appease the unrelenting supporters of her fellow Democratic contender, Bernie Sanders.

The DNC ultimately would begin the long process of self-repair in February, after it tapped Tom Perez — the former secretary of labor under President Barack Obama — as its leader. Still, folks like Werbach, Hoffman and Pincus long had found the party's primary means of adopting policy and supporting federal candidates to be impenetrable.

Pincus offered the example of the DNC's primary website. "Twice in the last year, I typed in five paragraphs of feedback, and it says, 'We'll get back to you,'" he said. "And no one ever gets back to you."

Moving on

Now, about eight months after Election Day, Hoffman still believes that the Democratic Party hasn't figured out how to pick up the pieces.

"I think it's nearly certain that it hasn't learned the lessons of 2016 yet," he told me days before WTF launched. "There are some very great voices. ... But as an overall whole, as a party, I think they're, frankly, still getting their act together on presenting a coherent view of the future that they want to build to."

Of course, WTF is hardly the first well-wired — or well-heeled — attempt to bolster the Democratic Party at a moment of apparent character crisis. Among the most infamous is MoveOn.org, the hyper-progressive political organization launched in the 1990s at first to defend then-President Bill Clinton from impeachment. Later, MoveOn.org became a resonant force in national politics, not least because of its fierce opposition to the war in Iraq — and the lawmakers who voted to authorize it.

"MoveOn was a model," Pincus said. "Wes Boyd put up a web page because he was pissed off. He had no plan, and he happened to have a 'Donate' button."

"MoveOn sent a very big message to the Democratic Party that they were not listening to a lot of people," he continued. "So, really, the big question is, can we be a vehicle for a lot of people to express a voice, and then by giving them a way to aggregate their voices, shift the power?"

As a general rule, Pincus told me in June, WTF aspires to be "pro-social [and] pro-planet, but also pro-business and pro-economy." The exact direction is up to its supporters, who can steer the organization through the campaigns they choose and promote, but it doesn't necessarily mean that WTF seeks to push Democrats further to the political left.

"I'm fearful the Democratic Party is already moving too far to the left," Pincus said. "I want to push the Democratic Party to be more in touch with mainstream America, and on some issues, that's more left, and on some issues it might be more right."

What WTF isn't: "Pro-politician," Pincus said. "So we'd like to see either political outsiders or politicians who are ready to put the people ahead of their career."

At first, Pincus planned to pitch potential supporters on challenging Pelosi, an audacious move at a time when insurgent Democrats are wondering if her leadership in the House has given Republicans too much opportunity to go on the attack. Days before the launch of WTF, however, the Zynga leader opted against proposing such a plan. (Asked if he backed a fight to unseat Pelosi, Hoffman told me hours earlier he was "waiting to see," but stressed that he's "certainly not opposed to it.")

Also on Pincus's potential target list: California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who he derided as a "career politician." Feinstein also isn't an introductory target for WTF, but Pincus said he's already had conversations with folks like Jenkins, the frontman of Third Eye Blind, about someday challenging her. Hoffman plans to have his own conversations with potential candidates, but declined to name any of his ideal recruits during an interview.

In the end, WTF could find itself on a collision course with long-established, well-funded Democratic interests like the DNC, which attracts the lion's share of fundraising dollars every election cycle, and serves as the primary conduit for bolstering office-seekers across the country.

And that's precisely the point. "I think part of the thing is to say, look, we're not about politics as usual," Hoffman said. "We have little patience for that on both sides. And so it may end up being some clash with the Democratic Party, but I think that's also part of what millennials and a swath of Americans want."

Whether the aftershock meaningfully reshapes what it means to be a Democrat, however, is the true existential question — one that faces not only Pincus and Hoffman and WTF, but the entirety of the anti-Trump resistance still maturing in tech hotbeds like Silicon Valley.

There are groups that newly seek to topple conservatives in congressional districts, invest in new campaign-tech startups, prop up more diverse federal candidates and empower state and local office-seekers who have struggled to use modern-day digital tools, and they all face the same fundamental challenge in penetrating and changing the Democratic Party's official organs. Even Hillary Clinton exited the 2016 presidential election exasperated by the DNC. Even DNC veterans — upset with her comments — acknowledge that the party still has much work to do.

To Pincus, at least, there's reason for hope. "Maybe they don't go in a back room in a Doubletree Hotel and emerge and tell us what they agreed is the party platform," he said. "Maybe there are some people in there who walk in and represent millions of peoples' wishes of what the agenda would be."

"It's not so much that we want to fight the Democratic Party, because we ultimately want to see Democrats win," he later told me. "But we would like to challenge the way that it works."

By Tony Romm, Re/code.net.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent, Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.