Category Archives: pittsburgh post-gazette

Facebook changing the political dynamic?

apathyisboringFacebook won its first election last month?

Vanessa Sievers, a 20-year old Dartmouth undergraduate from Montana, claims that $50 and all her Facebook connections catapulted her to victory in the race for Treasurer in mostly rural Grafton County, NH. Some call it less of a fight in the jungle than an ambush in the forest. The incumbent Treasurer misjudged how Facebook, in the wake of low voter turnout for such a race, could upend the result.

Sievers used her $51 to purchase a Facebook ad to mobilize students at Plymouth State College and Dartmouth University, narrowly upsetting an incumbent Treasurer (Carol Elliott) with decades of political experience. Sievers bested Elliott by 586 votes across the county, and in Hanover Sievers won by 2,438 votes (almost exactly the number of Dartmouth students who voted there).

Ironically, the fix to this problem is more people caring and voting.  In communities where voting in local races has dropped precipitously, it leaves candidates far more exposes to a smaller number of votes influencing the election.  College student votes normally could not have turned this election unless lots of adults didn’t vote.  But in an era where in many communities the League of Woman Voters is not as active as it once was, it may be that Facebook candidacies have an easier way of reaching potential voters than ones using older technologies (coffees at neighbors’ houses or standing on street corners).

“The talk around here [Grafton County] is how the young woman — a ‘teenybopper,’ in the words of Ms. Elliott, who was not amused at her fate or at the furies unleashed on Facebook — hijacked a centuries-old process to inherit a part-time job that pays only $6,408 annually but has serious, adult responsibilities, like investing around $17 million when property-tax revenues pour in and sometimes borrowing millions during the course of a year.

Vanessa Sievers, Grafton County Treasurer-elect

Vanessa Sievers, Grafton County Treasurer-elect

Indeed, Dartmouth College folklore, a rich vein even in non-election years, includes lurid and almost surely apocryphal tales of students storming into local politics, taking over the process and producing such landmark legislation as the mandate to pave a road from Hanover directly to South Hadley and Northampton, Mass., the homes, respectively, of Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges. These were tales of Dartmouth boys being boys and of (cooped-up) boys chasing girls.

…[Sievers’] resume includes being the co- chair of the college’s Bait and Bullet Club and…[her] political profile includes ardent support for hunting…. A member of the Democratic National Committee Youth Council, she is a symbol — and so is the reaction of some of her opponents to her election. Ms. Elliott…told John P. Gregg of the Valley News newspaper that the college students who voted for her opponent were ‘brainwashed.’

“She [Sievers] used technology that caught older people by surprise,” said Michael Hais, a retired vice president of the Frank N. Magid Associates communications research firm and the co-author, with Morley Winograd, of Millennial Makeover, a book outlining the political potential of Ms. Sievers and her Millennial generation. “This symbolizes a generational conflict that may not be as shrill as the one in the 1960s but may be just as important….”

Some of the first stirrings of this [the new dynamics of an Internet-based campaign[ became apparent two years ago when Andrew Edwards and Jeffrey Fontas, both 19 at the time, mounted campaigns for the New Hampshire Legislature from Nashua, in the southern part of the state. This year more advanced versions of the strategy were unveiled in the national presidential campaign, here in Grafton County in the county treasurer race and now in Israel, where the campaign of Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister has virtually replicated the look of Mr. Obama’s Web site and is seeking to harness the power of social-network communications.

Eliot has fired back; she now asserts that students who live in another state shouldn’t be able to vote in county contests, since they don’t have enough connection with ensuring that local government works. The political-comedy Internet site 24/6, noted: “At a time when the country is in crisis and the world is mere weeks away from a sweeping revolution in American politics, the last thing we need is young people ‘getting involved’ and bringing ‘fresh ideas’ to the table.”

See “The Facebook revolution: Online social networking didn’t just bring young people into politics, it brought them into power“(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11/30/08), from whom these quotes are taken.  NYT article on Sievers’ election here.

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Robert and Lara Putnam on America’s growing class gap

Robert D. Putnam and daughter Lara Putnam (historian at Pitt) comment on the kerfuffle regarding Barack Obama’s inartful description of poor whites being bitter and clinging to religion in response to their bleak economic circumstances.

They note that, while much of the debate has focused on small town vs. big city respondents, the issues really relate to class gaps within the white community not city v. rural.

They asserts that the “growing disparity in formative experiences portends a more caste-like America, in which children’s life chances are increasingly dictated by their parents’ social class. The playing field is tilted more and more against the have-nots.”

As the Putnams note: “The real question is not ginned-up outrage over Barack Obama’s choice of words to describe the very real hardships facing many Americans in towns and cities of all sizes. The real question is whether his optimistic insistence that “Yes We Can” will resonate in those still-struggling Pennsylvania cities and towns that suffered a body blow with the loss of steel mills and factories a generation ago. Mr. Obama’s work as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago was predicated on the belief that even in communities beset by disinvestment, job loss and chronic frustration, self-confidence can be restored, collective bonds can be rebuilt and political efficacy regained.” They indicate that we’ll know soon enough if this message of hope resonates among white working class residents in these devastated PA communities.

The Op-Ed, which appeared Sunday (4/20/08) in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, called “The Growing Class Gap” can be found here.