barack obama and the revolt of the nerds

‘I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.

‘I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

I thought of those famous words of Thomas Jefferson last Tuesday as I watched the returns on the US presidential election.

I was watching a rebellion — a rebellion against the established methods and contents of American politics.

A country abidingly troubled with racial division and distrust has chosen a man with dark brown skin and an Islamic name to be the chief executive of its republic.

The American electorate has quite literally changed the complexion of executive power in their country.

But Obama’s victory was not only about a rebellion against longstanding divisions about race; it was also a rebellion against the old way of doing politics — a rebellion we could stand a little of in Canada, too.

There are any number of explanations for McCain’s defeat (indeed, he had so many strikes against him it is remarkable he did anything like as well as he did), but perhaps the most lasting, significant reason is that he was the victim of a lack of technological savvy in his campaign — technology he needed both to bring in his money and get out his message.

Elections are all about communication, and communication has two modules: the message and the medium.

Obama had the drop on McCain on both counts: He had a consistent, credible message, and he exploited the right kinds of media in the right kind of way to get that message out.

McCain, on the other hand, kept sending out mixed messages, and his use of the media was old-fashioned and ill-informed.

Where the McCain campaign relied on the old tools of dumbed-down attack ads on TV and sound-byte-laden, content-less political speeches, the Obama campaign (though it made use of TV ads too, of course) widened its scope to include more interactive, youth-friendly media, like social networks on the internet, and SMS messages on cellphone.

And it was the young voters who put Obama over the top.

Fully 18 per cent of the people who voted on Tuesday were under 29, and 66 per cent of them favoured Obama over McCain.

An estimated 24 million people under the age of 29 voted in this election, so that means 15.12 million of them voted for Obama.

Obama beat McCain in the popular vote by 7.6 million votes.

If a more techno- and youth-savvy McCain campaign had managed to cut Obama’s youth advantage in half, he would have picked up 7.56 million votes — close enough to 7.6 million to make for a draw, though he still may have lost the Electoral College vote.

An old campaigner with old ideas, McCain just plain missed the youth rebellion that was going on right under his nose.

This youth rebellion was not of the old “tune in, turn on, drop out” ‘60s variety: It was an active, politically engaged rebuttal of McCain’s old message and old-style medium.

Something like 19 per cent more young people voted in this election than in the 2004 election.

In fact, the American electorate in general appears to have shown up in record numbers — fully 64 per cent of them.

That upturn in interest in democracy is quite probably also due, in part, to changes in communications technology.

With e-mail, chat messaging, cellphone messaging and the like, it is easier for organizers to get the vote out.

And this brings me to the other thing I started thinking about as I watched the election returns: How we Canadians have lost our bragging rights about how much more functional our democracy is, compared with the USA.

We have just gone through an election that was unnecessary, inconclusive, unimaginative and uninspiring.

The Canadian people responded to this needless and embarrassing dwarf-wrestling contest by staying away in droves — and setting a historic low of 59.1 per cent voter turn out.

Furthermore, Canada’s young voters have an established tradition of passing on the polls — in the2006 election, only something like 30 per cent of eligible voters under 29 actually bothered to vote.

It is too easy to get sniffy about “irresponsible modern youth” in this country.

The fact is, young people don’t show up to vote because our politicians don’t have a message for them, and don’t understand the media the young people are tuned in to.

The last Canadian election, in fact, was shamefully destitute of either message or communications savvy.

The Liberal Party had an unintelligible environment plan delivered by a terrible communicator; the Conservative Party had no message at all, and stilted “look I wear sweaters just like Mr. Rogers” TV spots that were cloying and patently insincere; the NDP spent so much time harping on their “kitchen table” democracy you ended up wanting to rip the leg off the table and brain them with it.

Our political system looks like it needs a little bit of a rebellion, ala Barak Obama, next time around.

Power to the iPoders! Let the nerds be heard!

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.