The GOP’s Uber Gambit: A Theoretical Interpretation

Like Yglesias, I noticed that Republicans have been trying to politicize Uber.  I thought it was pretty neat, in large part because this is one of the cases where political science gives us pretty clear predictions.  This effort won’t work, but even if it did it would likely be bad for both the Republican Party and Uber.  First, let me explain why this is unlikely to go anywhere:

In order for an issue to become a partisan issue, it must be both salient and divisive.  Salience just means whether an issue is important enough to be near the top-of-mind for many Americans.  The economy, welfare, crime, (maybe) foreign policy; all of these are persistent salient issues for Americans.  Others become more salient at specific times – the environment, civil rights, gay rights, etc.  The mechanisms of how issues become salient is complicated, but let’s ignore that for the moment.  Uber just isn’t important enough to ever become a salient issue for most Americans – especially since it only operates in large urban areas where most Americans don’t live.  Ah, you might retort – but that’s where young voters the GOP is trying to win live!

Sure, but it fails the test of divisiveness.  Most Americans don’t see any reason why Uber should be illegal*.  In fact, outside of taxi lobbyists and trade associations, I suspect you will have trouble finding any meaningful number of Americans opposed to allowing Uber.  If the Republicans succeed in raising the salience of Uber to any degree, the Democrats will side with Uber as well.  The current state of Democrats passing anti-Uber laws is an oddity simply because legislators protect incumbents when allowed to operate without public scrutiny (i.e., low salience) and because legislators in large cities are virtually all Democrats.  If the issue became widely salient, the Democrats would not obligingly line up behind a massively unpopular policy stance.

The implicit theory here, by the way, is that Uber could drive a realignment wherein the GOP captures younger voters.  The idea here is that the public has a wide range of opinions along multiple dimensions, and there are multiple stable equilibria for dividing them.  By exploiting a highly salient cross-cutting issue where each party is internally divided, political entrepreneurs can tip the parties into new configurations.  This is what happened with slavery in the 1850s and civil rights in the 1960s.  This is basically Rand Paul’s gambit for 2016, about which I will write more soon.  A few practical problems with applying this theory to Uber – it’s not salient enough, it’s not cross-cutting, and even if it worked current party leadership would lose their jobs as the party base completely changed.  So a pretty half-assed effort here all around.

Finally, I just want to touch on the consequences for Uber if the GOP’s plan worked, because they are terrible.  If an issue successfully becomes a partisan issue, the natural implication is that the other party lines up against it.  If the GOP succeeded, then Uber would find themselves in the crosshairs of the Democratic Party after the GOP had made the issue highly salient.  Democrats happen to run the cities where Uber operates.  The consequences for their business would be highly negative.

More generally – is it a good idea for minority parties to attempt to activate new partisan issues?  If you believe elections are mostly decided by fundamentals, it is a terrible idea.  By raising the salience of these issues, minority parties make majority party action more likely and in a direction that is likely to differ from the minority party’s preference.


*: Poll was commissioned by Uber.  Most polls on the issue are commissioned either by Uber or the taxi lobby.  This one had the fairest wording – asked whether existing regulations are sufficient or whether it should be regulated more heavily.  


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