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More on the partisan lines of the Uber fight

From Wonkblog, another interesting look at how the fight over the so-called “sharing economy”, in particular transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, is playing out nationally.

In its short life, however, the sharing economy has seldom reflected a clear schism between Republicans and Democrats — an argument Grover Norquist tries to make today in a provocative opinion piece for Reuters. Companies like Uber, he writes with Patrick Gleason, can help the GOP “gain control” of cities where they’ve been all but absent for years. Their logic:

Yet despite the Democrats’ urban dominance, cities may soon be up for grabs. For the party’s refusal to embrace the innovative technology and disruptive businesses that have greatly improved city life presents a challenge to Democrats — and an opportunity for Republicans.

Democrats are facing a tough choice. A big part of their base is the unions now facing off against such disruptive innovations as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and charter schools. Do Democrats support the regulations pushed by taxi and other unions that help to protect the status quo but can also stifle competition? Or do they embrace innovative technologies and businesses that expand transportation options, create jobs and are increasingly welcomed by another key Democratic constituency: urban dwellers, particularly young urban dwellers?

Norquist and Gleason are right that there will no doubt be political fallout from the sharing economy. I recently met a number of cab drivers in Chicago who pledged to me that they would fight against the reelection of Mayor Rahm Emanuel because of his support for services like Uber and Lyft there. But it’s not at all clear that this fallout will favor Republicans.

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The point here isn’t that Democrats are all supporters of the sharing economy. It’s that support isn’t as contingent on ideology as Norquist and Gleason suggest. And the political lines are definitely not so tidy as to suggest that Republicans can leverage liberals’ “refusal to embrace the innovative technology” to sweep back into favor with urban voters. There’s room here for Democrats to acknowledge that markets can partly regulate themselves — with the help of technology — in ways that weren’t possible in the past; there’s room for Republicans to acknowledge that we need laws mandating commercial auto insurance anyway.

We’ve heard a lot from Democrats on these issues precisely because they’re playing out in cities so far. And, inevitably, elected Democrats like Rahm Emanuel will be forced to take positions that will please some core constituents at the expense of others. The tension between unions and young consumers is particularly compelling. Republicans should absolutely jump into that fray. They haven’t found a lot of reasons to talk to urban voters lately — if people like Norquist think this is one, that’s great.

But the fact that this debate isn’t neatly drawn into liberal and conservative camps is a testament to the policy issues raised by the sharing economy: They’re incredibly, incredibly messy. They also aren’t purely about big-picture ideological battles over less regulation or more union power, the kind of divisive themes that animate federal policy debates. They’re about the gritty details of auto insurance policies and tax receipts and access for disabled consumers. That’s not the stuff of pithy partisan slogans.

As author Emily Badger notes, this issue has not played out along partisan lines so far. Uber and Lyft have made their way into cities like San Francisco and Seattle working with the local governments there. Trying to make this into an R-versus-D fight will surely be a loser at least in the short term precisely because cities are overwhelmingly Democratic right now. Uber and Lyft can’t get approved in Houston without at least two Democrats supporting it, and indeed can’t even come up for a vote without Mayor Parker putting it on the agenda.

Of course, Norquist is playing a long game, and a few losses up front aren’t a setback to him but a catalyst. I still have a hard time buying this as a wedge issue. Norquist envisions a future army of disillusioned Uber (and Lyft and AirBnB and whatever other sharing economy companies are out there trying to gain a foothold) users turning to his brand of small-government deregulators as the saviors of their smartphone apps. But most people who live in cities like having a certain level of service and infrastructure, and they accept that there’s a higher level of taxes to provide for that. It’s not exactly a coincidence that cities tend to be Democratic, after all. If what you really want is lower taxes and you don’t care so much for things like sewer systems and professional fire departments, well, that’s what the suburbs and unincorporated areas are for. It’s not like these are hard to find or move to in most metro areas.

Again, though, this is a long game. Norquist is hoping to bring younger people – those who are way more likely to be Uber users in the first place – to a more generalized preference of deregulation and less government. I like to think that the millennial crowd already has a clear view of what he’s trying to sell them, but let’s all admit that predicting what politics will look like in 20 or 30 years is considerably sillier than trying to predict what it will look like in 2 or 3 years, or even 2 or 3 months. One reason for that is because nobody knows what society will look like in 20 or 30 years. Uber thinks driverless cars will eventually replace their human chauffeurs. Some other people think driverless cars will be the end of Uber and its ilk. Who knows? Maybe society won’t accept driverless cars and unions like SEIU make a push to organize Uber drivers. Anything can happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s likely to happen.

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One Comment

  1. bedmondson says:

    The point is, since 90+% of people from all political backgrounds support Uber and if a local government blocks them in support of an entrenched small interest, it creates a perfect easy to use issue for the opposing political party in the next election cycle.

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