The existence of a technology gap between Democrats and Republicans is widely accepted, whether measured by the parties’ use of social media to mobilize voters or by the political leanings of leading tech entrepreneurs. The Harvard Public Opinion Project’s (HPOP) newest national survey examines whether the Republicans’ distance from technology also applies to the party’s youngest generation. The survey reveals that a plurality of 18- to 29- year old Republicans (and Independents, as a matter of fact) believe that they do not have control over their personal technology privacy, while a plurality of Democrats believe that they do have control.
Survey respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statement that they have control over their personal technology privacy. Thirty-eight percent of Democrats agreed, while 30 percent disagreed. Meanwhile, the breakdown was 34-36 among Republicans, and 28-38 among Independents. While the split was nearly even among Republicans, the results showcase their relative lack of confidence in their control over privacy as compared with the Democrats.
This partisan discrepancy in the attitudes towards technology and privacy can be expanded to a broader observation about the two parties’ different approaches towards incorporating technology into their politics. While the Republicans tend to utilize technology as a separate layer on top of the politics conducted in our physical, offline world, the Democrats leave more room for the integration of our online and offline spheres.
A variety of recent political tech start-ups on both sides exemplify these divergent approaches. The Republicans are not quite the Luddites that public perception casts them to be. Indeed, motivated by their belief in small and limited government, Republicans have promoted tech innovations that may prove more game-changing in the short run. Recent Republican-led projects include Project Madison, an online platform that would allow citizens to crowdsource individual amendments to legislation, and the DATA Act, which would have paved a pathway for citizens to track government spending online. Notably, Republican-sponsored technology has minimal effects on the private lives of its users. Instead, the focus is on creating channels through which citizens are “empowered” to make a change without being affected themselves.
Meanwhile, innovations on the side of the Democrats suggest a wildly different approach to technology use. The Democrats have so far concentrated on and monopolized the field of strategic use of data (with progressive startups such as NationBuilder and NGP VAN), which by nature intertwines details of our personal lives in the physical sphere with the online sphere.
Beyond data-related projects, the evolution of organizations like Rock the Vote also showcases the Democrats’ more integration-oriented approach to technology use. Rock the Vote was founded by Democratic campaign worker and political fundraiser Steve Barr and the prominently liberal Virgin Records executive Jeff Ayeroff. In the early 2000s, Rock the Vote rolled out the first online voter registration system in the nation; in 2004, more than 1.2 million young voters registered through its website. Rock the Vote (along with other online voter registration tools like TurboVote) has gained increasing popularity among liberals and on liberal college campuses.
Through Rock the Vote’s use of citizen data and information (including addresses and social security numbers) for voter registration, we observe more of a two-way channel of influence between the user and the technology. In order to take advantage of the technology, users must surrender some personal information and privacy. This is a strikingly different approach to technology than the one-way channel created by Republican political tech innovations. In the latter, the user is empowered to make a change, but no personal information is required.
The chicken-egg question undoubtedly arises from here. Has this difference in approach to the integration of technology in politics led to less confidence in technology privacy on the Republican side, or is it the other way around? Regardless of the answer, the HPOP survey’s findings with respect to millennials should prompt further questions regarding the likely future impact of the parties’ contrasting approaches to technology. Given the proven impact of technology on voter mobilization and fundraising, such questions may have profound implications for the parties’ success in future campaigns.