The internet has been full of speculation lately that Mark Zuckerberg is laying the groundwork for a future presidential bid. The Guardian reports, “For months now, Zuckerberg’s Facebook profile has looked less and less like that of a tech CEO and more like that of a man out to win the Iowa caucus on the way to an outsider bid for the White House.” What should we make of this kind of speculation?
One place to start is with the overwhelmingly negative reaction to a Zuckerberg presidential bid tracked by one reporter on Twitter. Sage Lazzaro reports, “people really, really don’t want Zuckerberg in the White House or even the race . . . Everyone was replying and quote tweeting along the lines of ‘no no no no no please no.’” Some tweeters expressed concerns about his power to target voters with the piles of data available to him through Facebook: “the advantage he’ll have with FB is terrifying.” Others were worried about his financial integrity: “Like he’d divest from Facebook.” Still others protested the prospect of a presidential race overrun by the wealthy: “Great. Awesome. Cool. Election 2020: ‘Vote for our billionaire shithead, not the other side’s billionaire shithead.’ Can’t wait.”
These reactions are interesting, because they point to a different kind of populism than what we hear about in the news today: a schizophrenic, love-hate populism. Zuckerberg receives lots of praise for his philanthropy and for his entrepreneurial and tech savvy. But even people who use Facebook on a daily basis resent him for the power he wields in society, and many could not deny the Schadenfreude they felt when Zuckerberg’s multi-million dollar donation to charter schools in New Jersey was deemed a failure. The internet buzzes with both uncritical praise and fierce criticism of the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative. On the one hand, Americans treat Zuckerberg like the messiah that will save us from fake news through better Facebook feed algorithms. On the other hand, they angrily demand that he address the issue, blaming him for giving rise to fake news bubbles in the first place.
It is possible to interpret these differing reactions simply as the result of differing opinions: some people like Zuck, and some do not. But it would be more accurate to understand them as two expressions of a single split cultural personality. We praise figures like Zuckerberg and Bill Gates because they do things that are in line with today’s esteem for scientific and economic accomplishment. They are successful tech entrepreneurs, they support STEM education, they are humanists optimistic about progress (Zuckerberg wants to “cure all disease” within this century). And being a successful tech entrepreneur, supporting STEM education, and seeking to make the world a better place are great. But subconsciously, we sense that there is a lack of depth to a worldview based exclusively on the primacy of health, wealth, and technology.
Our visceral negative reaction to a Zuckerberg presidency comes from the fact that we don’t actually desire an “end of history” president. We won’t admit it, but we still want the world of politics to be “metaphysical.” We want politics to be about who we are more than about what we do, about our larger vision of the world than about achieving the greatest possible prosperity without directing it towards a greater belief or ideology.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stood primarily for cultural identities before they stood for specific policies—that is why there was so much raw emotion poured into the election. Mark Zuckerberg would be a post-ideological candidate in the worst sense, in that he would not strongly represent any ideal that a nation could gather around. He can represent for many people “who I want to be,” but can never represent to a people “who we want to be.”
We are therefore schizophrenic about Zuckerberg. To our zeitgeist, the tech entrepreneur represents salvation. To our humanity, an unsatisfying answer.