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DANTE RAMOS

Uber, Airbnb become ideological flash points

By Globe Columnist 

When the sharing economy first hit town, there was nothing obviously right-wing about it.

Services like Uber and Airbnb catered to people in big cities, blue America’s power base. The repurposing of underused vehicles and apartments promised big environmental benefits. The very phrase “sharing economy” promised less materialism and more “Sesame Street.”

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But in recent weeks, the debate over sharing via for-profit apps has taken on a sharply ideological edge — one that could turn these insurgent new products into yet another flash point along the usual left-right divide.

In liberal San Francisco, community activists have pushed a ballot measure limiting short-term rentals, amid fears that users of the apartment-sharing site Airbnb are helping to push housing prices up. In New York, Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio, an ally of the traditional taxi industry, is in a PR war with Uber, the leading ride-hailing company.

De Blasio wants to limit the proliferation of Uber cars in his city and is enlisting labor and social-justice groups to the cause. “Uber is Walmart on wheels!” declared a sign at a rally Monday. (The company has responded aggressively, altering its app to show New York users a “de Blasio’s Uber” mode featuring waits of 25 minutes or more.)

These street-level fights have national ramifications. In her big economic speech last week, Hillary Clinton criticized companies that misclassify regular workers as independent contractors — a dig at Uber, the target of high-profile litigation on the subject. Republicans portrayed her as a Luddite; Jeb Bush made a show of hopping into an Uber.

Georgetown political scientist Hans Noel, who studies how ideologies take shape, predicts that supporting taxi-like regulation for Uber will end up as the default position of the political left.

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That outcome wasn’t foreordained. In a parallel world, conservatives sympathetic to incumbent businesses might defend taxi medallion owners whose investments have suddenly evaporated. Preserving the taxi industry, with its long record of mistreating drivers for years, isn’t the most obvious liberal cause.

Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe took a high-profile job at Uber; in Massachusetts, former Democratic governor Deval Patrick became a defender of ride-hailing companies. These moves showed a certain liberal gusto for the Bay Area’s latest technology, but future Democrats might liken them instead to Franklin Roosevelt’s critique of federal employee unions — as a curiosity, an odd departure from the party’s eventual course.

“The liberal-conservative divide has this strong attractive power,” says Noel. Once distinct liberal and conservative positions begin to form, he argues, even people with somewhat divergent views gravitate toward their side’s stance. “They’re going to eventually circle the wagons,” Noel says, “once they start talking to each other.”

But when multifaceted issues become disputes between left and right, a lot gets lost. On obesity, Noel argues, a complex public-health discussion has largely narrowed to how hard to lean on corporations that sell soda and fast food.

Squeezing the debates over Uber and Airbnb into a similar framework would be a shame. The conveniences that these services offer are genuine advances, but the dilemmas they present are genuinely difficult: Can private actors like Uber and Airbnb be relied on to protect public safety? When the lines between old-fashioned categories — like “job” and “not a job” — begin to break down, what’s the best way of protecting workers?

In her speech, Clinton conspicuously avoided calling Uber out by name. Recognizing that the sharing economy isn’t going anywhere, other Democratic pols have proceeded still more carefully. While Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, for instance, supports some regulation of ride-hailing companies, he’s hardly forcing the issue to a conclusion. Caution is never ideologically satisfying, but for now it’s only wise.


Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.