For Senator Marco Rubio, Uber’s not just an easy tool for fast rides. It’s an app of political persuasion. In his new book, “American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone,” in a chapter called “Making America Safe for Uber,” the Florida Republican trumpets Uber’s effect on pliable young minds. He details how Uber influenced the views of the students he taught in a Florida politics class at Miami’s Florida International University, once they found out it wasn't just for their friends in Washington:
The students in my class were genuinely intrigued by this innovative service and wondered why they didn’t have it in Miami. I explained to them that it was because of regulations created by government. Politicians, I said, had passed rules to stifle competition that might threaten their constituents and supporters in the existing taxi and sedan service industry. In Miami, for example, there was a government-created cap on the number of sedan medallions allowed in the city. That regulation effectively shut out any competition to the existing car service companies—competition like Uber.
As my progressive young students listened to me explain why government was preventing them from using their cell phones to get home from the bars on Saturday night, I could see their minds change. They went from fervently believing that big government is necessary to protect the little guy to realizing that big government is often used to stick it to the little guy. Before I knew it, I was talking to a bunch of 20- and 21-year-old anti-regulatory activists.
This isn’t the first time that Rubio has championed the company, nor is it the first time Republicans have eagerly claimed it as their own. Last year, the Republican National Committee launched a petition “in Support of Innovative Companies like Uber.” In patriotic text, it touted, “Our country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit. Our cities deserve innovative and effective solutions without government getting in the way,” and denounced the roadblocks, red tape, and “strangling regulations” set up by “taxi unions and liberal government.”
Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, sure does have a whiff of Ayn Rand off-the-range about him, even a little Tea Party bomb-thrower. (He said last May, “We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber, and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi.”) But as with many a fringe political phenomenon, the politics of Uber partake of both parties' visions.
Last August, the company hired David Plouffe, formerly President Obama’s former campaign manager. According to the Daily Beast, “Uber has hired political muscle all over the country: in D.C., it has the Franklin Square Group (Apple, Google). In New York, it has Bradley Tusk (Michael Bloomberg’s former campaign manager). In Chicago, it has Michael Kasper (the lawyer who got Rahm Emanuel on the ballot).” Hardly sounds like a red calling card.
(Michael Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg Politics parent company Bloomberg LP.)
But last July, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, noting that Democrats currently govern “most big U.S. cities,” wrote that Uber “can help the GOP gain control of the cities.”
The truth is that support for, and opposition to, Uber, isn’t for now fully decipherable along party lines. Conservative governors like Republican Jan Brewer of Arizona have moved against the company, and conservative cities like Orlando, Houston, and San Antonio have favored regulations that discourage usage of Uber. The fact is, Uber reigns in liberal towns like New York and San Francisco, where it was made. The company announced Tuesday that it would share ridership data with the city of Boston—a partnership without precedent, in quite a left-leaning town.
Rubio may want to claim the app as useful Republican propaganda machinery. But it’s an app, not a party line: for young people, convenience is king. Silicon Valley’s wars over regulation aren’t quite black or white, red or blue, at least not yet. And how far behind the phrase “sharing economy” could Republicans get?