Imagine a 21st-century campaign without paid TV ads. Before Google bought
YouTube, politics without those golden handcuffs would have seemed like a pipe
dream. Instead, in the home stretch of a dreary midterm election, an entirely
new political system, driven by interactive digital media, not broadcast
dollars, is just on the horizon.
According to Larry Makinson, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation,
"House races in the last full cycle cost over $1 million." Although Ben
Franklin used his war chest to print flyers and broadsides to hand to
Philadelphia's few thousand residents when the first Congress was convened,
today, incumbents and challengers spend billions on TV ads blasting their
opponents and boosting themselves. When I asked a state senate candidate what
he needed to win, without missing a beat, he replied, "$500,000 for TV ads."
Odd, I thought, doesn't he need anyone to vote for him?
It's an electoral mirage that broadcast media, with its high priced ads,
still rules. In fact, it's like a supernova, whose glow we still see years
after its death. The final nail in the broadcast coffin was the new century's
most successful business, Google, investing more than $1 billion dollars in
YouTube, an unprofitable startup.
The Google/YouTube partnership means the revolution won't be broadcast,
but will be shown on Internet TV, which has replaced broadcast media for the
get-what-we-want-when-we-want-it generation, and, at least for now, it's free.
But what does watching Bob in Omaha's karaoke performance of an Eminem song
have to do with the future of politics?
If posting Internet videos is free, if any candidate can create and share
a 30-second ad or documentary at virtually no cost, this could well mark the
end of broadcast media's rule and mean the end of egregious campaign spending,
no laws necessary.
Certainly, the shift to Internet TV won't drive all money from politics.
Wealthy candidates will still pay for slicker videos, hire more sycophantic
consultants to tell them what to say, and replace volunteer callers and
petition carriers with paid staff. But the gulf between needing to raise $3
million to run for the U.S. Senate now versus, say, one-sixth of that amount in
a YouTube world, is the difference between only a handful of elite candidates
being able to run for Congress and win -- and the rest of us getting more
equal access to political power.
The cornerstone of the Connected Age is a shift in power from institutions
to individuals. The ability to communicate one to many now rests in the hands
of people effectively using social media tools such as YouTube, MySpace and
FaceBook. Assembly member Patty Berg, D-Eureka, claims to be running
California's first major paperless, all-Internet campaign race.
Our civic life is blossoming into realms far beyond voting, as Connected
Age groups such as The Sunlight Foundation (www.sunlightfoundation.com) make
access to databases with information about where and how money fuels Congress
as easy as pushing a button. Just as we have removed the middlemen from sales
of our memorabilia and the purchase of books, so too, now, can we now find
candidates with a message, vision and appeal that suits us, when and how we
want to watch and listen to them.
The biggest threats to this new, more level political playing field are
the same kind of monied interests that control unequal access to health care
and artificially inflated phone access charges. When Congress reconvenes, the
members will try to end the equal-access proposition that made the Internet the
most important technological advance of the past half century.
They will lobby to pass legislation enabling corporations to charge higher
fees for exclusive access to online content. That means a company such as
Comcast could slow your access to iTunes, then steer you to its own pricier
The fight for net neutrality -- and by extension, YouTube politics --
will define 21st century democracy. It will determine whether we preserve
expanding opportunities for free speech and innovative ideas for anyone,
anytime -- or recreate broadcast online.
YouTube politics offers us the chance to significantly reduce the need for
money in campaigns for the very first time without passing any new laws.
Politicians who love market-based solutions should love this -- except it
threatens their incumbency. A word of caution: If we're not careful, we may
actually elect people who are beholden to us, the voters.
Allison Fine, a senior fellow at Demos, is author of "Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age" (Jossey-Bass, 2006).
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle