We recently learned that Elizabeth Warren is the kind of presidential candidate Mark Zuckerberg considers an existential threat to Facebook. She is, after all, determined to break up the sprawling social-networking empire. But what about the others? What sort of presidential candidate does Zuckerberg consider an existential asset to Facebook? We may have an answer: step right up, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Bloomberg recently reported that Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, privately recommended candidates for technical positions at the Buttigieg campaign. Zuckerberg and the Buttigieg folks were quick to minimize the connections, portraying them as akin to a boss forwarding résumés rather than some kind of endorsement. But Zuckerberg’s attempts at deflection were imperfect at best.
He and Buttigieg share friends, as well as an education—they both completed their Harvard schooling in 2004, Zuckerberg as a sophomore departing for Silicon Valley, Buttigieg as a magna cum laude graduate headed for Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Most significantly, they share a persona: the confident, disruption-peddling wonder-kid with a modern startup mentality.
To be clear, I’m not invoking the startup founder who revels in visionary, outside-the-box thinking. That would be Andrew Yang, a Democratic candidate with deep Silicon Valley roots who wants to stave off what he sees as technology-led dystopia through a guaranteed income of $1,000 a month. No, I mean a startup founder like Zuckerberg, who is confident in his honorable motives, quick to adapt to changing circumstances, and determined to win at all costs.
Buttigieg’s campaign manager, Mike Schuhl, embraced the Silicon Valley comparison early on. “We want to build a campaign that’s a little disruptive, kind of entrepreneurial,” he told the Associated Press in the spring. “Right now, it feels like a startup.” The campaign’s national investment chair, Swati Mylavarapu, a former partner at the prominent venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, told WIRED this summer that her Silicon Valley background was an asset. “At the outset,” she said, “I have a fundamental appreciation for how small but very nimble teams of talented young people can do really big things and change the world for the better.”
Look at the adjectives Mylavarapu invoked in that one sentence: nimble, talented, young, better. Not long ago, a Silicon Valley startup would, indeed, have been seen as a worthy model for someone aspiring to be president. Hell, there was a time when political pundits thought Zuckerberg himself should be a candidate! In 2017, when Buttigieg and Zuckerberg took a car ride through South Bend that was broadcast to Facebook Live, the man thought to be testing the presidential waters was Zuckerberg, who turned 35 this year and thus became constitutionally eligible to run.
For 2020, however, the problem with using the startup as a model for a campaign is that the public knows better, in no small part because of the scrutiny of Facebook’s history of missteps and abuses. In place of supposed Silicon Valley virtues like idealism, flexibility, and merit we now detect opportunism, self-dealing, individualism, overblown promises, and, as always, a great man to lead us.
For example, we once might have seen Silicon Valley’s support for Buttigieg as a meritocratic triumph in its own right—brilliant tech leaders seek out the best leader to recommend to the public and discover a young man who taught himself Norwegian and won a Rhodes scholarship. But, in fact, the connection is based in elitist networking. Buttigieg connected with his important supporters when he was not quite a teenager, making friends at Harvard with Facebook’s early team and other soon-to-be Silicon Valley figures like Mylavarapu, who volunteered with Buttigieg as part of Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
These friends have helped him raise money through his relatively short political career, and, as we’ve learned from Bloomberg, have pointed talented programmers and product managers toward positions in the campaign. This is similar to how the so-called PayPal mafia worked. A group of young executives, many with Stanford educations, used their dot-com wealth and a network of talented programmers to dominate startup culture in early 2000s.