What Chuck Schumer’s Imaginary Couple Might Think About the “Techlash”
Voters want policymakers to make tech work for them — not mess with services they like
Chuck Schumer didn’t become Senate Majority Leader by being bad at politics. Quite the opposite: he’s won more than a dozen elections, served 40 years in Congress, and worked his way to the top of the Senate Democratic Caucus in part by keeping in mind two of his imaginary constituents.
Offhand that might sound silly, because Sen. Schumer has nearly 20 million real constituents. But in practice, it has proved to be a helpful gut check. Early in his career, Schumer invented a fictional typical middle-class couple to help keep him grounded in what his constituents want. He named them Joe and Eileen Bailey.
In Schumer’s telling, Joe is an insurance salesman and Eileen works in a doctor’s office. They are 45 years old, live in Nassau County, Long Island, and voted for Trump in 2016 (though they split their vote in 2020). Schumer said earlier this year that “the fact that the world has changed [means] the Baileys feel they need more help in so many different ways” — primarily economic help from the government.
The fictional Baileys serve as an important counterweight to the chattering Beltway classes of advocates, staffers, and journalists — who are generally more liberal than most politicians’ constituencies. But spend enough time in the Beltway bubble, and you might start thinking that Twitter’s trending topics represent what voters care about.
But smart Democratic politicians (including President Biden) channel the Baileys, not Politico. And when it comes to tech policy, where I focus and have spent most of my career, I wonder whether Democratic policymakers might benefit from thinking about what the typical Baileys would want them to do about tech.
The Baileys Aren’t Tech Savvy, But Value Tech Services
In Washington, much of the policy and press conversation about tech focuses on how big companies are using, or abusing, their power. This is a valuable conversation — but it’s happening on a different planet from the Baileys.
The Baileys aren’t super tech savvy, but they probably love iMessage and Facetime for staying in touch with their kids. They relied on DoorDash, Instacart, and Amazon as lifelines during the pandemic. They use Facebook to stay in touch with old friends. If you told them that the federal government was looking at breaking up Google and Facebook, they might have a hard time figuring out why.
The Baileys are likely satisfied with most tech services, like the majority of consumers. The American Customer Satisfaction Index — the most authoritative source on consumer happiness — shows that Apple, Amazon, and Google are consistently among the highest-rated companies in the country.
Unfortunately, these satisfied tech consumers are getting ignored by much of the tech policy conversation. Tech policy ideas sometimes migrate from academia to think tanks, and ultimately policymakers, without having much connection to what consumers really want.
Tech Policy Ignores the Baileys
Unfortunately, in politics the views of generally satisfied voters like the Baileys sometimes get drowned out by those who are up in arms. We’ve seen lots of examples of this in tech:
- In 2019, California Democratic legislators passed AB 5 to turn all gig workers and freelancers into employees, but two years later their own voters approved Proposition 22, reversing that policy for gig workers. Organized labor has major influence among legislators, but ordinary voters paid greater heed to the wishes of gig drivers who value flexibility. Case in point: Prop 22 passed with 60% voter support in the home district of AB 5’s chief sponsor.
- In 2020, local restaurant lobby organizations persuaded more than 70 cities and states to cap restaurant fees paid to delivery services like DoorDash and Grubhub. Sounds fine, until you remember that these low-margin delivery services’ costs hadn’t changed — so customers like the fictional Baileys end up paying more for food delivery.
- Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee recently passed legislation that would help smaller tech companies like Yelp, Spotify, and Match that spar with bigger companies like Google and Apple. But that legislation would arguably make consumers’ life worse, by banning conveniences like Amazon Prime or iMessage on the iPhone. That legislation certainly helps Yelp, but probably not the Baileys.
No politician wants to get consistently crosswise with their constituents, and the danger here is that elected Democrats are misreading their constituents’ views. As someone who wants to see Democrats winning and holding office, I especially worry about them losing touch with what their voters really care about.
What Your Parents Want and Don’t Want from Tech
When you think of the fictional Baileys, think of your parents or grandparents. What do they want the government to actually do, or not do, about the tech industry?
I believe my parents want technology to make their lives easier; want to know that technology services aren’t violating their own interests; and want the government to keep a close eye on big tech companies.
My parents wouldn’t want regulation to cause their prices to go up; don’t want the government to mess up what’s working fine or pick sides between companies; and don’t want to have to read the fine print in order to be protected.
Earlier this year when tech industry CEOs appeared on Capitol Hill to testify, some activist groups planted cardboard cutouts on the National Mall to draw press attention. But you know what we *haven’t* seen in the last few years? Any voters marching on the U.S. Capitol — or in Albany, or Sacramento — demanding that policymakers make their smartphones dumber, raise their rideshare costs, or break up large tech companies.
What are voters saying instead? My organization, Chamber of Progress, conducted a Morning Consult survey in June to ask them. They said that they most wanted Congress to focus on the economy, public health, and climate change ahead of their work on tech regulation.
People Want Common-Sense Tech Legislating, Not Causes or Culture Wars
A lot of tech policy ideas right now are driven by extreme voices on both sides: Abolish Section 230. Break up big tech. Forcing gig workers into employees, even if they prefer flexibility. Requiring companies to carry even harmful content. None of these ideas is likely to be enacted, because each lacks broad bipartisan (or even sometimes broad Democratic) support.
Matt Yglesias has referred to a phenomenon called “Secret Congress,” which points out that Congress actually does pass bipartisan legislation on substantive topics — but only when said topics are distinctly *not* in the headlines. When a President or leaders of an opposition party are speaking about a topic, that’s usually a sign that legislating on that topic is less likely.
This is especially true now that the tech industry has become weaponized in the culture war. The right and left are fighting each other about what kind of political speech should be allowed online, with Twitter and Facebook in the crossfire. Labor and management are squaring off, and labor disputes within Amazon, Uber, and Lyft are closely covered. Florida Republicans, followed by Texas Republicans, passed a ridiculous law requiring social platforms to carry all speech.
But if you want to see sensible progress, look at purple states like Virginia and Colorado, which passed reasonable laws on consumer privacy and autonomous vehicles, respectively. And look at “Secret Congress” — on issues where people are paying little attention.
The Baileys Want the “Tarmac Rule” for Tech
A dozen years ago Congress met the problem of 5-hour airport delays by nudging the DOT to impose a new three hour tarmac rule. They didn’t break up Delta Airlines or threaten taxation. The new rules responded to a concrete consumer problem — and they worked.
If policymakers want to do something useful about tech, they should think about what the Baileys might want. Here’s what I think that could be:
- Set privacy standards. Most people don’t have time to read lengthy terms of service. They accept that free services are supported by advertising, and find some of the targeted ads they see to be useful. But they’d also rest easier knowing that there are some basic privacy safeguards in place, which is why they’d like to see Congress pass consumer privacy legislation.
- Make it easy to switch. Most people love how easy it is to move their cell phone number from AT&T to Verizon. They’d love for it to be that easy to switch to new social networks, shopping sites, and information services. (There’s a pending proposal by Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon to do just that).
- Help everyone participate in tech. Tech can’t be seen as something that benefits only privileged coastal tech workers; its benefits need to extend everywhere. Most people want the government to expand broadband access and training to help more people gain tech jobs.
- Stop consolidation that raises prices. The Federal Trade Commission is trying to unwind Facebook’s nine year old and seven year old acquisitions of Instagram and Whatsapp, respectively. But these are all free products, and social networking is competitive. On the other hand, local hospital and large ag supplier mergers have surely hit consumers in their pocketbooks.
- Make flexible work better. Not everyone wants to be a full-time employee, but all workers want to be assured of good wages and benefits. Most people have seen how work has changed throughout their lifetimes, and they’d like to see policymakers create a third worker category in between full time employee and independent contractor.
- Say yes to innovation in regulated spaces. Most people love how Uber and Airbnb injected fresh, consumer-friendly innovation into the stagnant taxi and hotel businesses. They’d love to see governments unleashing the same kind of innovation in other frustrating regulated spaces like health, finance, education, and transportation. That means saying “yes” to autonomous vehicles, delivery drones, and financial technology that gets rid of middlemen.
Policymakers: Figure Out What Most Of Your Voters Want
Yes, Chuck Schumer’s invention of Joe and Eileen Bailey is a bit silly. But when it comes to tech, I’d like to think that the imaginary Baileys know how far we’ve come.
They appreciate the ways that technology has made work, entertainment, shopping, learning, and family life easier. And they want the government to play a sensible role in making companies behave.
Because they are generally happy with technology, they’re not writing angry letters asking their representatives to regulate tech. And they’d be unhappy if politicians messed up the services that they love and depend on.
So when Democratic policymakers are thinking about what they should do about the tech industry, they could do worse than think about what Joe and Eileen would want.
The Chamber of Progress (progresschamber.org) is a new center-left tech industry policy coalition promoting technology’s progressive future. We work to ensure that all Americans benefit from technological leaps, and that the tech industry operates responsibly and fairly.
Our work is supported by our corporate partners, but our partners do not sit on our board of directors and do not have a vote on or veto over our positions. We do not speak for individual partner companies and remain true to our stated principles even when our partners disagree.