As Brazil prepares to choose a new leader, disruptive marketing by campaign consultant Ravi Singh has drawn the ire of voters in Latin America much as it did a decade ago when Bill Clinton's top gun James Carville rode into the box canyon of Mexican politics, advising losing PRI presidential candidate, Francisco Labastida.
The idea that Singh could energize the flagging campaign of Brazil's neoconservative presidential candidate, Jose Serra, gained momentum recently following his role in the presidential campaign of Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's defense minister. Santos, who welcomed Bogota's big military aid package from Washington, is a free marketer and a strong supporter of the US base deal developed by the Dubya Bush administration that's turning the Amazon into the new Rio Grande. After, a first round vote -- marred by fraud-- Singh's mastery of social media banalized the democratic process in Colombia with a barrage of addictive online games, coopting young, FARC neutral Green Party voters and helping Santos win a landslide victory.
Social Democrats hoped that Singh's use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would also be difference makers in Brazil and give Serra new credibility with the electorate. But Colombia's political culture doesn't skew with Brazil, and Singh's methods are steeped in American retail politics where fundraising is job #1, K Street is pay street, and voting is something people do if they're bussed to the polls or if it isn't raining outside, one reason good Republicans pray for rain on election day. Ironically, Singh, whose online references say he grew up in Chicago, also claim he got his start in US presidential politics as an adviser in the 2000 presidential campaign of George Bush, managed by Karl Rove.
Brazil's democracy, meanwhile, features mandatory voting, a sixty day campaign period, and strict regulation of advertising and tactics. Since an electoral college is not part of the political landscape, presidential elections are decided by popular vote. The social media tactics used by Singh, like those that generated millions per day for Barack Obama, hit the wall in Brazil, where tough laws limit campaign contributions and the game of retail politics is still won by candidates who press the flesh at the Ford plant in Bahia, not on Facebook.
In spite of a corruption scandal that discredited bureaucrats close to the Workers Party candidate, Dilma Rousseff, Singh was not able to reverse the downward trend in Serra's approval rating.
His campaign called for change now and featured storytelling by individuals in Brazil's economically disadvantaged northeastern region, which might get high marks at social media pantheons like Harvard's Berkman Center. But it was off-message because the fifty million working Brazilians who vote and have become web-savvy computer users thanks to Lula's stimulus programs and a net creditor economy think the nation is on the right track.
According to the influential Folha de Sao Paulo, Singh was viewed by some campaign insiders as a truculent personality parachuting into a society where harmony and team play are important values. His contract was not renewed. Others, according to Brazilian media, considered him a spam artist.
With the United States struggling to lower expectations that might save its aging middle class, the question of how much influence political operators who trade on purported White House connections, as Singh did, should have on the internal politics of Brazil and other Latin nations needs to be addressed as governments realign and build a regional economic union. To make this happen Latin America needs to mediate the interests of globalism and its efforts to dissemble the democratic social contract. Latin America needs strong leaders, not Singh's frivolous Facebook and Twitter content if it is going to build the middle class of the future.
Author's correction: this article has been updated to note that Ravi Singh was not a consultant to the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. A recent article in an online political zine revealed that Singh, wittingly or unwittingly, allowed himself to be misrepresnted to foreign media in Brazil, Poland and elsewhere as an Obama campaign consultant.