You can wax rhapsodic about the power of disruptive models and the sharing economy all you want, but sometimes the gatekeepers of the status quo, their Praetorian Guards, aren't seduced by rhetoric and inevitability. Sometimes they need to be fought with muscle, strategy, marketing and David Plouffe.
Uber's hiring of the mastermind of President Obama's 2008 presidential campaign has been obsessively reported on by the media, although the company's objective is no deep secret requiring reportorial investigation. Travis Kalanick, the company's sharp-tongued founder, said that Plouffe will be the company's "campaign manager," drawing the battle lines with an extension of the political metaphor: "There's an incumbent...the big-taxi cartel...and we're the challenger."
There's no doubt that Uber, Airbnb, and other peer-to-peer platforms are running afoul of regulators with increasing frequency, and taking big-company steps to manage the confrontation; back in 2012 Airbnb hired Yahoo's head of government affairs for precisely that purpose.
Are regulations inhibiting the dreams of entrepreneurs, the explosion of the sharing economy, and innovative new peer-to-peer marketplaces? Is government able to move fast enough to accommodate innovation? How much protection do consumers require in an era of instant, transparent information, when communities establish self-policing mechanisms? Those are the core questions, and one's response to them is informed by their fundamental view of the role of government and technology.
The fact that Plouffe, who activated the Millennial generation in 2008, has decided to work in favor of innovation -- and is about to spit in the eye of regulation -- raises some provocative questions about that generation, their views, and their current and future influence on the political landscape and calculus.
The appeal of Plouffe to Uber is clear. He enlisted Millennials and Gen-xers on behalf of Senator Obama's hope and change narrative, message, and social media campaign. Even before 2008, as director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Plouffe was the ultimate flag-bearer of his party's values; like his ex-boss, his political life has been spent in support of the positive role of government, the sacred value of unions, and a fundamental skepticism of business. But he's now crossed the Rubicon and abandoned entire zip codes of that that entire belief architecture.
Indeed, Plouffe has been hired to construct a brand narrative, and activation strategy in support of a CEO who's a free market fundamentalist, whose language sounds very much like those who have spent decades attacking the Democrat's core base of support; and there's no doubt that he's going to leverage the natural constituencies for this argument, with Millennials at the core. The tension is clear -- on one hand Plouffe is channeling the Millennial belief in technology's nearly utopian power -- on the other, he's joined a company that is animated by a hostility to the existing Democratic Party base of unions, working-class voters, and the political apparatus they support.
Kalanick has said:
"We're in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber, and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi," ... nobody likes him, he's not a nice character, but he's so woven into the political machinery and fabric that a lot of people owe him favors."
Kalanick's views also fly in the face of President Obama's deeply-held belief that the wealthy have a social obligation. Hard to believe that the man who helped elect him is now working for someone who has said this:
"One of the interesting stats I came across was that 50% of all California taxes are paid by 141,000 people. This hit home as I had recently finished Atlas Shrugged. If 141,000 affluent people in CA went "on strike", CA would be done for... another reason you can't keep increasing taxes to pay for unaccountable government programs..."
Even more of a slap in the face to the president: Uber has become a poster child for Republicans: As the Daily Beast, reports, "Earlier this month, the Republican National Committee circulated a petition to "show your support for Uber," as they fight the red tape put in place by "liberal government bureaucrats." Grover Norquist, the right-wing anti-tax activist, has gone as far as to say that Uber is its own political party, tweeting in June: "Today, there are two political parties/movements in America. One is UBER, the other is with the taxi commission. Choose."
Meanwhile, we've all read that Rand Paul is winning over Millennials with a hands-off, Libertarian set of views that make him sound like the college dean from heaven. As Ruth Marcus wrote in the Washington Post, Paul is "exquisitely attuned to the you're-not-the-boss-of-me ethos of the younger generation." Speaking at the Reboot conference, he said pointedly "The crowd wants good service... you rate your Uber driver, your stay at a hotel. As information becomes more widespread, maybe you need less and less government."
But Millennials are a complex generation; as much as they believe in technology and its cascade of liberating benefits, and as wary as they are of the Nanny State, they also are convinced that government has an important role in solving big social problems. As the Wall Street Journal put it:
Survey data suggest that Millennials...who helped twice elect Barack Obama...are nearly as liberal in their corporate outlook as they are in their political point of view. They want to work for companies with public service missions. They want their employers to contribute to social and ethical causes. They'd rather make less money but do something that they love. They are comfortable with government regulation.
This demonstrates their complexity. On one hand, Millennials want government to get out of the way of innovation, and the other they recognize the role that business and government need to play. Both Rand Paul -- who is eponymous with Ayn Rand and her Objectivist values -- and Travis Kalanick, whose Twitter avatar is pulled from the cover of Atlas Shrugged -- will need to balance the push-pull of the Millennial mindset to succeed. But neither businesspeople nor politicians shine at nuance.
As presidential advisors and confidantes peel away, their destinations say a lot about their values. There were a lot of ways for David Plouffe to make boatloads of money in the private sector, but it's hard to interpret the fact that he chose this particular battle to be anything but some form of incipient, free-market libertarianism. Not to mention a public slap at beliefs of his boss. In a different time, you can be sure that the former community organizer would have been fighting Uber and defending the taxi drivers.
If Plouffe's move is a canary in a generational cage, it could be that the Millennials will be far harder for our conventional business and political structures to handle than anyone has fully realized.
Follow Adam Hanft on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hanft