Democrats can campaign on technology for edge in 2020

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While most Democratic candidates are ramping up for the 2018 midterm elections, at least two hopefuls have cast their gazes farther afield. Last year, John Delaney, a congressman representing Maryland’s sixth district, and Andrew Yang, a New York author and entrepreneur, threw their hats into the ring for the 2020 presidential election, leaving pundits baffled at their early and unexpected announcements. Both are longshots to win — Delaney is a little-known third-term representative and Yang is likely to double his campaign as a book tour for his manifesto, “The War on Normal People,” which hit shelves earlier this month — but they could end up making a bigger splash than most pundits predict.

Each of the two has opted to make technology and automation, peripheral topics at best in recent elections, central to his campaign. Delaney, a cofounder of the Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus and sponsor of the Future of Artificial Intelligence Act, has made bolstering American innovation and mitigating disruptions to U.S. labor markets the keystone of his platform. Yang, who worries that a third of American workers could lose their jobs to automation over the next 12 years, wants to give every working-age adult in the United States $1,000 per month, no strings attached. These ideas are atypical for presidential candidates, to say the least, but 2020 is destined to be an unusual election anyway. If the two play their cards right, they could nudge their rivals over the tipping point and help send them off to the roboraces.

{mosads}An election centered on technology and automation, while unprecedented in recent memory, is not hard to imagine. Despite Donald Trump’s fixation on trade in his 2016 campaign — a fixation he shared with Bernie Sanders and later Hillary Clinton — more U.S. job losses in recent decades have been due to domestic innovation than international competition. Over 85 percent of manufacturing job losses in the United States during the turbulent 2000s, for instance, were attributable to technology and automation. With advances in artificial intelligence and robotics occurring at breakneck speed, Silicon Valley’s disruptive aspects are entering the public consciousness in a pronounced way.

Numerous catastrophic projections have already emanated from academia, think tanks, and government. During the final months of the Obama administration, for example, the White House released a report warning that up to 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be replaced due to computerization, based on the findings of a 2013 study by Oxford University. The McKinsey Global Institute has similarly estimated that automation could displace 400 million to 800 million workers worldwide by 2030. Not all prognoses are this grim — economic forecasting is an inexact science, and these reports also predict significant job creation in many cases — but most experts agree that disruption will be pronounced, even if net job losses are minimal or nonexistent.

Americans have taken this possibility to heart. Polls indicate that although public attitudes toward technology are generally positive, many are worried that innovation could exacerbate unemployment and inequality. Researchers at Northeastern University and Gallup found in a recent study that 58 percent of U.S. adults view new technology as a greater threat to jobs than immigration and offshoring. The story is much the same when it comes to inequality, with 63 percent of Americans anticipating that technological innovation will widen the gap between rich and poor.

The numbers are especially high among those on the left. The study found 67 percent of Democrats viewed automation-related job losses as a threat to labor markets. A staggering 71 percent of self-described liberals saw new technologies as likely to ratchet up economic inequality. Democratic presidential hopefuls, then, have much to gain by tackling these issues head on during their primary campaigns. If fears over the economic fallout of automation continue to mount, voters could flock to candidates who offer antidotes to technology-induced anxieties. Delaney and Yang, even if they gain only limited traction, could anchor the discourse around these issues and force other candidates to address them, lest they lose ground to their more forward-looking peers.

Emphasizing automation could also play well in the general election. Doing so would provide the eventual Democratic nominee with a strong counterpoint to the narrative of a Trump administration that has championed economic nationalism. Preoccupied with escalating trade tensions, President Trump and his Cabinet have taken a laissez-faire approach to technology. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s dismissiveness toward artificial intelligence and robotics is representative of the administration’s general outlook. Automation-related job losses, the former Goldman Sachs executive said last year, are “not even on our radar screen.” This apathy leaves an opening for Democrats to make headway with the 48 percent of Republican voters who believe innovation to be more disruptive than globalization when it comes to employment.

Given that the Trump administration’s departure from historical norms has thrown the American political landscape into disarray and that a majority of would-be voters are worried about technology’s labor market effects, the 2020 election is ripe for political disruption. Whether jobs actually end up disappearing is almost irrelevant. With announcements like Waymo’s recent purchase of 20,000 self-driving cars beginning to make their way into the news cycle, voter perception that the prospect of automation hangs over the country like the sword of Damocles provides more than sufficient grist for the enterprising politician.

Delaney and Yang, with their focus on technology, are well positioned to tap or steer this wave of public sentiment as they challenge the Washington status quo. Underdogs with more ideas than clout, they much resemble the Silicon Valley startups whose innovation has set the stage for the ongoing drama over automation. They may not win the race or even their party’s nomination, but they could influence the political environment into which more well-known candidates emerge. An early nudge from a couple of longshots could be the push needed to automate the policy focus of heavyweight contenders as they vie for the presidency.

Kyle Evanoff is a research associate in international economics and U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Megan Roberts is associate director for international institutions and global governance at at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags Bernie Sanders campaign Democrats Donald Trump economy Election Hillary Clinton John Delaney Labor Republicans Science Steven Mnuchin Technology

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