Tech Bajillionaires Urge Millennial Democrats to 'Democratize Capitalism'

David Binder, David Plouffe, Michael Nutter, and Chris Lehane at the sharing economy panel at the DNC
David Binder, David Plouffe, Michael Nutter, and Chris Lehane at the sharing economy panel at the DNC

“If you’re going to speak millennial, you need to be talking about the sharing economy,” Chris Lehane, a former top political advisor to President Bill Clinton, told the crowd inside the Philadelphia Center for Architecture this morning. “It’s all about democratizing capitalism.”

This term, “democratizing capitalism,” was invoked at least four times by Lehane — almost as much as “millennial” and “sharing” — during a panel on the second day of the Democratic National Convention.

Lehane, who now works for Airbnb, was sitting next to former Obama campaign manager and current Uber employee David Plouffe, and the moderator, former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter. David Binder, a researcher, was also on hand to provide some insight into the opinions of millennials. Panelists joked about their Uber ratings and gave testimonials to the efficacy of the services provided by their employers.

The occasion for the Airbnb-sponsored event was a new Airbnb-sponsored report showing that 74% of millennials have a favorable view of the sharing economy as a whole, while 58% of millennials have a “favorable” opinion of Airbnb.

"Democratizing capitalism,” Lehane explained, means that millennials are taking the economy into their own hands — and the Democratic party should help young people do that. Why? As Plouffe explained, the sharing economy has proven to be a fairly effective organizing cause among young people.

“I think politically, you’re seeing large contingent of the Obama coalition demanding the sharing economy,” Plouffe said, singling out urban minorities and suburban mothers. “What’s really important is that these services are saving people time and money. The sharing economy will make our cities more prosperous, and politically we’re seeing the Obama coalition really relying on it.”

If the Democrats can become the party of the sharing economy by deregulating the housing and labor markets, the panelists argued, that would hold the key to the millennial vote, which will become the largest voting bloc in the country within a few years. But first they have to convince politicians that the sharing economy is part of the solution, not the problem. That’s especially difficult as the dawn of the sharing economy has led to multi-billion dollar valuations for its two largest companies, but done nothing to narrow widening inequality nationwide.

“What’s the number one reason, according to a Harvard study, that people stay trapped in poverty?” Plouffe asked the audience. “It’s not test scores or crime rates. It’s the inaccessibility of public transportation. If we give people time and money, that’s a huge benefit. We understand that there’s going to be some tension with these products, but the reason we’ve made so much progress is people are really focusing on the data and the facts.”

The best and brightest minds in the Democratic Party haven’t just accommodated the demands of the growing “sharing economy” sector, they're now on its payroll. Along with Plouffe and Lehane, former Attorney General Eric Holder has been working with AirBnb on its discrimination policy. Former Obama political director Michael Masserman works for Lyft, Obama’s ex-assistant press secretary Nick Papas works for Airbnb, former Obama economic advisor Alan Krueger studied the Uber labor force for Uber — you get the picture.

This creates a conflict within the Democratic Party  — labor and fair housing advocates have lined up against AirBnb and Uber, accusing them of misclassifying workers and supercharging displacement of minority communities (indeed, the mostly Obama-appointed National Labor Relations Board could deliver a serious blow to the company any day now). Airbnb has continued to fight battles with municipalities in New York and San Francisco. When Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio moved to regulate the number of Uber drivers on New York City streets, the company launched a noisy, successful smear campaign and reconfigured their app to mock him.

But Plouffe dismissed the idea that the sharing economy’s chosen political party was in any turmoil on the issue. He pointed to Uber’s recent founding of drivers guilds in New York as an example of how the company was responding to its driver’s unionization efforts.

“Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, these issues transcend the historic political way of approaching them,” Lehane said, right before Plouffe excused himself from the panel early. His Uber was waiting for him outside. 

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