The "sharing economy" is so interesting primarily because it has cracked open all kinds of fault lines, where it's often difficult to tell which side the good guys reside on. We have taxi drivers pitted against amateur chauffeurs, hotel chains against homeowners, incumbent businesses with legitimate gripes against "micro-entrepreneurs" trying to make money in ways regulation never envisioned.
There's a clash between entrenched laws and technological change, between officials who support new ideas and regulators charged with enforcing older ones. There's a tension between public safety and consumer demand, between tax revenue and new economic models, between affordable housing stock and housing that's more affordable when the person living in it can rent out her den.
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 Americans for Tax Reform colleague 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.
Norquist and Gleason describe with a broad brush "liberal and progressive resistance to Uber and its ilk," as if all resistance were liberal, and all liberals were united in their opposition. In fact, Emanuel called for and signed new regulations in Chicago that legalize UberX and Lyft. Seattle's new mayor, Ed Murray, just negotiated new regulations that these same companies support. He's a Democrat. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has fought Airbnb. He's a Democrat. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the first state bill (sponsored by Democrats) clearing the way for UberX and Lyft. He's a Democrat.
New Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto backs similar regulation — he's a Democrat — but the state's public utilities commission has been threatening these companies anyway. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a pro-Uber bill (sponsored by a Republican state representative) that she said did not do enough to protect consumer safety. She's a Republican.
Norquist and Gleason cite the example that "June began with Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s administration sending a cease and desist letter to Uber." But they don't mention that, by early July, Virginia was already reversing course.
Last year, the U.S. House committee on small business held an initial hearing on the sharing economy, and I watched Democrats and Republicans take turns rewording the same questions about what the government could do to help. Partisan theater didn't seem to occur to anyone. And consumers show a similar ambivalence. For some, the sharing economy is about progressive virtues (community!), for others libertarian values (less regulation!). Marco Rubio is a fan of Uber. So is Gavin Newsom.
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.