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Citizens United: An Unprecedented Opportunity to Test Political Ideas

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Though much has been said about the Tea Party, it has yet to be recognized for what it was -- irrefutable proof that ideas, not parties, win elections. In short, Citizens United sparked a political environment that resembles a startup company. And we haven't seen anything yet.

Despite underwhelming performance once elected, the Tea Party of 2010 marketed itself on the grand premise that government size could be greatly restrained - a popular sentiment, but one not shared by the Republican Party establishment. Though intertwined with less popular culture war ideals, the small government push carried the election and delivered Tea Party affiliated candidates many governorships and a majority of seats in the US House of Representatives. Had the Tea Party delivered on their smaller government startup concept with legislation capable of withstanding public scrutiny, they would have enjoyed great success in 2012. This will be the ultimate test of political startups, transitioning from lean political ideas to legislative successes as an established political brand.

For quite some time, I was convinced that the Tea Party was merely the Republican Party wearing funny hats. However, the 2012 election demonstrated that the Tea Party was actually a brilliant prototype for start-up style government (still wearing funny hats). Similar to a startup, they presented a new idea the established brands (Republicans and Democrats) were unable or unwilling to attempt. They even knocked out establishment candidates with these ideas as they found a public that truly embraced the concept. The Tea Party's political model was so successful that the Republican Party performed the equivalent of a political merger. Like the market, a popular idea does not guarantee long term success. In practice the process required to enact the ideas proved unpopular and the Tea Party is dead unless it can evolve a new plan that attracts the attention of donors and candidates.

2012 showed that 2010 was no fluke. Elections in the Citizens United age are won by ideas. By all metrics, Mitt Romney's campaign, Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich should have been right. The Democrats should have lost, big. Instead, because they ran on popular ideas - government should provide safety nets and the burden of government funding should be realigned - they kept the Presidency and gained seats in the US Senate. Only a heroic gerrymandering effort prevented Republicans from losing many seats in the House, and potentially their majority.

None of this is meant to praise or demean either party. In two national elections, ideas won. It is merely a side effect of the old political system that ideas are currently locked to parties. This outdated relic of a pre-Citizens United past will go the way of the Whig Party when Super PACs realize that a startup political environment creates unprecedented opportunities to test ideas in the marketplace of public opinion.

The two major parties have deeply burrowed themselves into American politics and have worked hard to keep third parties from competing successfully. Thus, this war of ideas will not occur as third parties, but like the Tea Party, they will occur in the primaries. The key difference in future elections is that ideas will be presented simultaneously in both Democratic and Republican primaries.

In this new model, Americans who support an idea will donate to a super PAC that is dedicated to this idea. The Super PAC act as a political Venture Capitalist and provides seed money to regular people who are willing to make a big deal out of this idea when they run for office, but can't afford to run on their own (Super PACs can't coordinate, but they can give money to candidates). For example, instead of spending $8.7 million advertising the financial and personal liberty benefits of legalizing marijuana, a super PAC can find competent people who support legalization and donate $10k to non-establishment candidates in each US House race ($10k X 870 = $8.7M if a candidate is supported in each D & R primary for each seat).

Because this model is about pushing ideas, party affiliation is unimportant so long as the candidate will publically test the idea in their district. $10k is enough of a seed to allow a competent candidate to collect enough signatures to get on the primary ballot for each major political party. From there, it will be up to the candidate and the idea to try and catch fire with the electorate and get the political equivalent of a series A from their constituents.

Once on the primary ballot, candidates will be able to participate in debates, do interviews and talk about the issue in detail. Doing this on both sides of the aisle ensures the issue cannot be ignored easily. In this way, the electorate can decide if they support the issue, not a party. For this reason, I predict 2014 will be the first year that big ideas are forced by super PACs onto both political parties equally.

Though Citizens United guarantees that unprecedented money will be dumped into political races, 2012 proved that money alone won't guarantee victory over popular ideas. Therefore, if this deluge of money is most effective when testing and refining ideas in the harsh marketplace of public elections, Citizens United may prove invaluable in breaking the two party monopoly on ideas and giving Americans greater representation every two years.