Republicans Believe Uber Will Help Them Win Back America's Cities

With each passing year, the population of urban areas is growing — and most of those cities are run by Democrats. But a key Republican believes the ride-sharing service Uber is the killer app that can create a future wedge between labor unions and Democratic politicians, driving them from power.

The theory comes from the fertile mind of Grover Norquist, the founder and president of the influential group Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist has good reason to look for political gains in urban areas: Demographic trends do not favor the GOP and they're only getting worse. Writing in Commentary, former Bush Administration official Pete Wehner flatly stated, "It's an undeniable empirical truth that the GOP coalition is shrinking… the Republican task isn't simply to nominate a candidate who can fire up the base; it is to find principled conservative leaders who can win over voters who are not now voting for the GOP at the presidential level. "

And it's not just because the American electorate is becoming younger and more diverse; it's also due to where that electorate is living. As a recent survey noted:

Between 1988 and 2012, the 25 top counties for net Democratic vote gain included many of the most populous counties in the country (They include Los Angeles at the top, eight of the ten most populous (LA, plus Cook [Chicago], San Diego and Orange [CA], Dallas, Kings [Brooklyn], Queens and Miami-Dade) and 15 of the top 25 most populous. The rest, without exception, are large counties that include a major city or are urbanized inner suburbs of a major city.

The top gainers for the GOP, in contrast, tend to be in much smaller counties on the periphery of metropolitan areas ("exurbs"). The top 25 GOP gainers include no county in the US top 25 in population and include only one in the top 50. And the magnitude of GOP gains in the top 25 is much smaller than those enjoyed by the Democrats.

Meanwhile, as the urban growth rate has jumped from 9.7% and 12.1% in the past decade, only two of the 15 largest U.S. cities have Republican mayors, and 13 of those 15 have Democratic-controlled city councils.

Is the "share economy" the future wedge issue?

Republicans Believe Uber Will Help Them Win Back America's Cities

And here's where Uber, the poster app for the "share economy," comes into play. Norquist argues that Uber (and similar tech-enabled business innovations, such as Lyft and Airbnb) could put Democrats on the defensive, forcing them to choose between organized labor — an essential part of the Democratic base — and services that are popular among urban voters:

Many of these innovative new businesses ....are favorites of city dwellers, which means most of the leading Democratic constituencies — including educated professionals, gays, minorities, single women and working mothers.

This puts Democratic politicians in an awkward position because influential stakeholders like taxi commissions and their unions worry about competition from these innovators. Taxi unions, for example, are often the biggest champions of the legislative and regulatory attacks against the smartphone app-based companies. And when it comes to the coalitions that make up the Democratic Party, labor unions dwarf most other competing factions in terms of political and financial strength.

So who will Democratic politicians side with — unions, who see danger in disruptive businesses, or popular share-economy companies?....Liberal and progressive resistance to Uber and its ilk isn't just about money; it's also ideological…..The nature of these businesses may indeed disturb progressives who prefer a unionized labor force, along with top-down, centralized economic models and policies.

Politically, this presents an opportunity for Republicans to make a comeback in cities. By championing the often disruptive share-economy businesses, defending them against the status quo and focusing their political campaigns on these issues, the GOP can show it is the party that embraces companies that improve the quality of life in cities.

But, while the growth of the share economy might translate into political fallout in coming elections, it's far from certain that this fallout will largely favor Republicans. Over at the Washington Post's Wonkblog, Emily Badger, who covers urban policy, observes:

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.

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.