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How Uber and the Gig Economy Are Making Voters as Disposable as Temp Workers

The new gig economy has created a temporary politics of disposable voters.

A series of recent PR skirmishes between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush over the role of Uber workers in the new on-demand sharing economy has made it clear that both candidates are focused on disposable temp voters, who are the electoral analog to the disposable temp workers who now drive the US economy. A temp economy has, in effect, produced a temp politics.

This new temp politics is not about building social consensus and a governing majority around a bold, unifying democratic vision for the future. Rather, it is about building temporary electoral majorities in key swing states, using sophisticated PR tactics, powerful data tools and social media to push emotional hot button issues down to the level of the individual. The objective is to pick off demographic niches from a confused and splintered electorate that has been fed a steady diet of intentionally divisive politics for more than three decades amid widespread economic anxiety that is inherent in the new gig economy.

The model of disposable workers that drives the so-called sharing economy has spilled into social and political life.

Temp politics is an outgrowth of the sweeping transformation of economic, social and political life over the past 35 years to fit the demands of global capital for “flexible,” nonunion labor markets that fuel growth in monopoly profits, irrespective of the social and environmental costs. In this new economic order, voters have become as interchangeable and disposable as temp workers.

Clinton and Bush Get Uberized

During a July 13 media event to announce her economic plan for the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton made a public show of exquisite handwringing over the lack of worker protections in what she called the new “gig economy,” using ride-share companies such as Uber as an example.

Jeb Bush countered by staging a July 16 visit to a Silicon Valley tech startup using an Uber car and driver, gushing to the media that the dawn of the new Uber worker model “should be a time for celebration.” Bush declared that companies such as Uber are “disrupting the old order” of traditional “taxi cab cartels,” while his campaign released a press statement calling for an end to “big government, Hillary-supported taxi regulations.”

Clinton presents herself as the champion of beleaguered workers who now have “gigs” without benefits instead of “jobs.” Bush has adopted the language of a faux revolutionary, spouting slogans about the disruptive genius of the market and the brilliant new ways that workers “can customize their lives” and use gigs as Uber drivers to stay debt-free while in college.

What has gone unremarked in this early PR dust-up is that the model of disposable workers that drives the so-called sharing economy has spilled into social and political life in profound new ways, creating for the first time an enormous cohort of disposable temp voters with weak or no party affiliation. The PR tactics of both candidates are aimed at these unaffiliated temp voters, who confront the acid realities of the new gig economy daily.

The Rise of the Gig Economy

Of the 160,000 people in the United States who work full- or part-time for Uber, only 4,000 are direct employees who enjoy health, dental and vision insurance. Uber drivers are low-wage, temp “contractors” who use their own cars, pay their own insurance and are left to fend for themselves without benefits. Wall Street loves the Uber model. In what CNBC calls a “funding frenzy,” on-demand companies such as Uber raised $4.1 billion in capital in 2014, with investment expected to double to over $8 billion in 2015.

As a reflection of this economic Uberization, temp workers now account for 18 percent of the US workforce, having grown from 18 million to 32 million between 2001 and 2014. Yet the gig economy extends well beyond startups. Apple, for example, directly employs only 10 percent of more than 1 million workers making and selling their products worldwide.

Jeb Bush’s callow celebration of economic disruption as an unalloyed good driven by entrepreneurial genius is a conscious diversion to cut off discussion about the nature and extent of the disruption, about who benefits and who loses.

The media posturing by Clinton and Bush over Uber is an early test of their strategies for reaching these anxious worker-voters.

For example, a 2014 study of employment patterns commissioned by the Freelancers Union, an advocacy group for freelance workers, puts the total temp workforce in the United States at one-third of all workers if freelancers are included. The New York Times reports that in surveying this historic shift to temp labor, Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union, “puts the scale of the dislocation on a par with that caused by the spread of railroads before and after the Civil War and the boom in the mass production of goods during the early 20th century.”

These new workers have no permanent affiliation with, nor allegiance to, a company or organization, such as a union, that might represent their economic interests or provide health and retirement benefits. At the same time, nearly one-fourth of workers with full-time jobs report permanent anxiety and uncertainty about either losing their positions or having their hours cut, while 34 percent worry about benefit cuts.

The media posturing by Clinton and Bush over Uber is an early test of their strategies for reaching these anxious worker-voters. They cannot win a general election unless they find ways to capitalize on their economic uncertainty, especially in key swing states. Examining historic shifts in voter perceptions and allegiance makes it clear why this is the case.

Disposable Temp Voters in the Gig Economy

The percentage of Americans who identify as political independents has risen in lock step with the increase in temp employment and economic uncertainty, jumping to 46 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013. This is the highest percentage in the 25 years since Gallup began polling party identification. Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent of Americans want a third political party because they believe Democrats and Republicans “do such a poor job” of representing their interests. Among self-described independents, 71 percent favor the formation of a third party. This rise in unrepresented voters is also reflected in the record low approval voters give Congress, 14 percent in 2013.

A 2014 analysis of US political typologies by Pew Research concludes that only 43 percent of registered voters can be counted on to vote reliably Republican or Democratic. Among the remaining 57 percent of registered voters, Pew identifies six voter groups who are increasingly up for grabs in national elections, hence the focus by parties on niche voting blocs and much-vaunted undecided voters. These voters are undecided because after 35 years of deliberate political polarization, a disproportionate percentage are either gig workers or are living with daily economic anxiety and job insecurity. Neither party represents their interests. They are splintered and abandoned in both their economic and political lives.

Knowing that Democratic and Republican base voters are insufficient to carry important swing states, the presidential candidates for each party have to find ways to temporarily appeal to the new unaffiliated voter. Permanent allegiance to either party is unnecessary. Candidates from the two corporate-funded parties need their votes only temporarily, in one election. After the election, they are truly disposable; they just “melt away” without gaining meaningful political or economic representation.

During the campaign, and between attack ads that now account for 70 percent of advertising in presidential elections, the candidates will be testing a variety of policy pitches to lure these voters into their column.

Policy Solutions for Gig Workers

As a solution to the problem of jobless worker-voters that the gig economy has created, Clinton is touting vaguely defined tax incentives to induce companies such as Uber to adopt modest profit-sharing programs. After announcing this tepid proposal at her July 13 press event, a senior policy adviser for her campaign told a national media forum the next day that Clinton has “no beef” with Uber, which she believes is adding “excitement, opportunity and innovation” to the economy.

In contrast, Bush sees Uber as a perfect model of disruptive capitalism that advances worker freedom and should be emulated and expanded nationwide, not changed or regulated. Bush touts Uber and other workerless companies as models for what a “21st century” outsourced government should look like.

The candidates share the capitalist faith of their powerful economic benefactors in market outcomes.

Truly disruptive solutions, such as demanding complete worker ownership (because worker-contractors are the de facto corporate managers in the gig economy) or providing every person in the United States with a guaranteed income (because work as we know it has become obsolete) will not be discussed by either party-anointed candidate.

The corporate and Wall Street patrons for whom Clinton and Bush speak, and who have already flooded their campaigns and their bulging super PACs with more than $176 million in cash, do not want changes in current lucrative ownership arrangements. The candidates share the capitalist faith of their powerful economic benefactors in market outcomes that benefit these job creators as sacred and inviolable.

Because the campaign ahead may cost as much as $5 billion, the argument between Clinton and Bush is not about radical change aimed at disrupting an economy rigged in favor of their wealthy donors. It is about the purity of their faith in the mythology of markets. Clinton is a true believer, but to reach disaffected voters, she might do penance for disruptive market inequities by offering a few tepid, ameliorative policy proposals.

Bush is more devout. He is burning with the capitalist fire and campaigning to convert temp voters to his crusade to cast out demonic government regulators and liberate worker-voters from the “old order,” presumably the order in which at least some of them had health insurance and pensions.

From Temp Voter to Permanently Organized Citizen

Disaffected voters know that they lack powerful institutional representation and that the Democratic and Republican parties therefore see them as increasingly disposable, both politically and economically. Voters see through euphemistic descriptions of a dynamic new sharing economy as an absurd propagandistic distortion of the underlying reality.

Neither profits nor benefits, let alone ownership and decision-making, will be shared with temp worker-voters under a President Clinton or Bush. These corporate-sponsored candidates seek a one-off victory cobbled together from disaffected temp worker-voters at any cost. Clinton may be the lesser of the two evils, but they are both captive to powerful economic interests that benefit from a temp economy fueled by contingent worker-voters.

In his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Vermont’s social democratic senator, Bernie Sanders, is calling for a “grassroots political revolution” predicated on a mass movement of permanently organized and engaged citizens. Whatever his political prospects may be in 2016, Sanders is pointing his supporters in the right direction.

More than 80 percent of voters believe that negative, polarizing campaigns are undermining democracy. Yet US politics is now in a state of permanent campaign, explicitly designed to polarize these same voters. Making politics as divisive as possible discourages ongoing voter involvement in the political process, but it increases partisan turnout. This superheated campaign environment allows lavishly funded campaign operatives armed with sophisticated data and media tools to target and pick off disaffected splinter groups with emotional hot button appeals.

Lacking nationally organized institutional representation, individual worker-voters are relentlessly assaulted with emotionally laden wedge issues. It is easy to succumb to the corporate-funded politics of division, but it is a fatal dilution of political agency.

The only antidote to being treated as disposable temp worker-voters is to become permanently organized citizen-activists united around a relentless movement for the re-democratization of political and economic life. Creating such a permanent movement while maintaining the essential “plurality of resistance” to be effective is the greatest challenge that citizens face in confronting a new temporary political economy predicated on human disposability.

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