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Labor & Economy

The Sharing Economy's Liberal Lobbyists

Charles Davis

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It was 2008 and presidential hopeful Barack Obama was inspiring millions of people with his promise to disrupt politics as usual – and a new startup called Airbnb was turning that enthusiasm for change into millions of dollars. Denver, the site of that year’s Democratic National Convention, was expecting 80,000 people to come watch the senator from Illinois accept his party’s nomination. The city had space for less than half.

“Obama supporters can host other Obama supporters,” is what CEO Brian Chesky recalls thinking to himself. In a profile of the company, the Huffington Post notes how that idea was turned into cash. “Airbnb, which lets users rent out part or all of their homes, blasted bloggers in Denver with company information.”  It “sold ‘Obama O’s’ cereal around town,” garnering news coverage as “an innovative solution to the city’s lodging crisis.”

Founded in 2007, Airbnb is today valued at more than $25 billion and the  for-profit sharing economy it helped usher in is no longer so new. More than just a pitch to Silicon Valley’s angel investors, the sharing economy is big business in 2015, whether it involves sharing a home or a ride for money. What hasn’t changed is the fuzzily liberal rhetoric of we, the people, taking on the establishment whenever we fire up an app in search of an independent contractor. The change is that the public relations strategy is in many cases managed by the very people who watched the launch of Obama’s award-winning general election campaign from a skybox seat in Denver.

That companies hire those close to power to pursue their interests is nothing new or remarkable. What’s interesting is that when these particular companies decide they need someone to help them put a progressive veneer on a capitalist agenda they hire the very best in the business: Democrats.

In August, for instance, Airbnb announced the appointment of long-time Democratic operative Chris Lehane as its head of global policy and public affairs; Lehane was the chief spokesman for Al Gore’s 2000 run for the White House and served as an aide to Bill Clinton. That hiring came a year after Uber, the ride-hailing app-maker, brought on David Plouffe, the guy who actually ran Obama’s 2008 campaign (a year before, Politico reported, the company paid Craig Hughes, another veteran of that campaign, to devise its public relations strategy).

Lyft, meanwhile, has hired the Podesta Group to lobby for its app-based taxi service on Capitol Hill; the firm is headed by the brother of Obama’s former chief of staff, while  a former aide to Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Ed Markey will be doing the actual lobbying. Lyft is also employing the services of a lobbying firm headed by Dick Gephardt, the former Democratic Speaker of the House.

With professional Democrats in charge of the talking points, it’s understandable if the rhetoric seems familiar. Remarking on his hiring at Uber, Plouffe sounded as if he were using a template. “Uber has the chance to be a once-in-a-decade if not once-in-a-generation company,” he said. “Of course, that poses a threat to some, and I’ve watched as the taxi industry cartel has tried to stand in the way of technology and big change.”

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, another Democrat, vouched for Plouffe’s ability to promote any product. “From my insurgent campaign in 2006 and since, David has shown an interest in and an appetite for challenging established ways – and winning,” said Patrick. “As we have seen in Boston, one of its first cities, so has Uber.”

That language of “change” and the casting of a corporate entity as an enemy of moneyed interests is a prominent feature of the sharing sector’s PR. Hailing a cab used to be pain, now it isn’t, provided there’s a data connection, and people afraid of big change want to stop that. The rhetoric, understandably, highlights these firms’ stronger arguments: that hailing a cab used to be a pain, for example, but now it isn’t. What they want people to do is believe that to accept the good, one must live with the bad: rising rents from apartments being turned into short-term housing; employees with none of the rights or benefits that once came with working for an employer.

Los Angeles is one of several cities looking to regulate the sharing sector and Airbnb in particular, over concerns that the company’s service is prompting landlords to take rental units off what is one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. On the one hand, what Airbnb provides seems just: a chance for all of us to make a little spending money by renting a room we don’t need to someone who wants it. That’s of course what the company emphasizes. “The thousands of Angelenos sharing their homes while they’re away… aren’t commercial operators – the vast majority are middle-class families,” a spokesman told the Los Angeles Times.

The spokesman neglected to add that 35 percent of the company’s revenue comes from those commercial operators, as noted by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy: that is, people who aren’t so little listing more than just their primary residence. Airbnb has tentatively endorsed a proposal that would limit its service in L.A. to those renting out their own residences, an acknowledgement of the problematic aspects of its service, but it’s not willing to limit its service unilaterally. That is instructive. In order to elude regulation, PR men with liberal pedigrees are deploying rhetoric that’s worked for Democrats – down to using the “middle-class families” line, as opposed to “the poor and working class” – to get the public to believe that to keep the baby, it must drink the bathwater.

As with politicians, the public would do well to remember that corporations, which by charter are required to maximize profit, only concern themselves with what’s good for society as a whole if compelled. That these corporations are buying up liberals – Obama spokesmen have ended up everywhere from McDonalds to Amazon – shows an awareness that their regressive nature requires a progressive face. And Donald Trump aside, the demographics are in Democrats’ favor, as their competitors’ supporters are growing old and will do what old people do. To continue making that green, then, particularly at the state and local level, the smart money is on blue.

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