25 January 2010

Game Changer: The Supreme Court, Campaign Finance, and Social Media

Last week, depending on how you look at it, the US Supreme Court either struck a blow for free speech or ended democracy as we know it.

In a controversial 5-4 decision that overturned decades of precedent, the Court rejected several specific restrictions on corporate (and union) spending on political campaigns. The decision arguably gives large companies (who dramatically outspend labor and other interests on political activities today) the ability to spend virtually unlimited amounts of money on television commercials that mention political candidates by name at any time during a campaign.

I found it very interesting that mainstream media coverage of this decision immediately leaped to the conclusion that this meant we will see millions more political attack ads on television. We will, but that's just the beginning of it. I didn't really see much about how companies can leverage the online channel now - I think that's because mainstream journalists and beltway pundits still have no clue how the Internet works.

As the reaction from the party in, ahem, "power" suggests, the ruling strikes fear in the hearts of any Democrat who wants to take on an industry. Dems are already trying to draft legislation that will curtail the Court's ruling and looking for angles to make it work - companies that get money from the government (The GOP opened that door recently on abortion restrictions in proposed health care legislation), companies that make most of their money overseas, and so on. Regardless, it looks like large companies will have much more influence over the political process for the forseeable future, and Democrats will be looking for something to level the playing field again.

They'll start by looking at sites like Act Blue and the political blogosphere - the virtual ATM that propelled President Obama to victory in 2008. It's no secret that the Obama campaign leveraged social media to break all kinds of fundraising records.

Small problem, though. The political blogosphere is amazingly polarized and cynical. It's not a place for consensus-builders or moderates. The people who raised money for the President online think the President must deliver on the things he promised in the campaign. They feel betrayed on health care, on civil rights, on labor and environment issues, and on our presence in Guantanamo Bay and the Middle East. They largely think the Administration has said one thing and done another when addressing big bank bailouts and regulation, and all things financial.

So if the Democrats want the cash it will take to beat back corporate financing of campaigns, they really have four options:

1) Just do what companies tell them to and try to figure out a way to save face with voters.
2) Double-down with the trial bar, historically the largest source of funding for the Democrats
3) Deliver on the things they promised to the liberal bloggers and open the spigots back up
4) Create a new, massive social network of inspired moderates

Right now the Democrats' answer lies in social media channels. It's the one thing the GOP and its corporate allies really don't do well. The challenge with this option, however, is having the courage to cede part of its agenda to real people.

Stay tuned.

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