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Follow Up To Millennials At The Gates

Rather than respond in the comments to a question from JK on my last post, Millennials at the Gates, asking for evidence of the reshaping of American politics, I will respond here.

I understand JK’s hesitation about waiting for the evidence.  After all, I was a full-time academic for many years.  I remember back in 1992 when I was on the Political Science conference circuit talking up Rock the Vote’s voter registration drive.  I kept getting comments like, “We hope we are wrong, but young voter turnout programs never work,” from political scientists.  Well, they were wrong.  Rock the Vote register a million first time voters and for the first time since the 18 year olds got the vote, turnout in the 18-24 group went up.

I also like to remind people that many who waited until the evidence for television’s impact on politics found themselves on the losing end of a TV campaign by their opponent. If we wait for the evidence to arrive, we will always be behind the curve.

So with those caveats in mind, let’s look at what evidence is in.  According to a Rock the Vote study released towards the end of the primaries, youth turnout was up 109%. Additional evidence from the Pew Internet & American Life project, 46% of Americans had used the internet to find information about politics (including 10% who used social media for politics, overall, and half of those under thirty using social media for politics) by June 2008.  Those are outstanding numbers that show 1) the Millennials are voting and 2) Millennials are leading the way using social media for politics.

Winograd and Hais argued that the reshaping of politics will follow from these developments.  As the Millennials begin to force the use of this new communication technology on politics, it will be reshaped. Accordingly, we are still at the beginning of this process and the current election will show us more evidence when the dust settles.

That said, if you look back to the 2006 elections, clearly social media (YouTube) was instrumental in turning the Senate over to the Democrats.  In what I like to call the Burns & Allen Show, YouTube videos helped defeat Senators Conrad Burns and George Allen, giving the Democrats a narrow edge in the Senate.

But beyond the specifics of these two races, YouTube has caused a shift in politics already. We have entered the era of Authentic Politics. With the ubiquity of video capable mobile phones and the ease of uploading video to the web, politicians are now faced with two choices, always be scripted or always speak from the heart, lest they be caught on video making a gaffe.

Those who are always scripted will find that when they gaffe, the voters will be far less forgiving than when those speaking from the heart commit a gaffe.  After all, politicians are human, too.  And those that pretend to be human (i.e. the scripted ones) will find a tougher road recovering from their mistakes.

That is a shift in politics we are already seeing.

As for what will come, that is yet to be written. But if Obama’s hosting of 25,000+ angry voters using MyBarackObama.com to protest his vote on the FISA bill is any example, we are clearly seeing a change in how politics happens. And this change is being driven by Millennials forcing social media onto politics.

On the advocacy front, while the going remains slow, there are clearly efforts to incorporate social media into advocacy campaigns. The age of the distributed campaign (pushing campaigns out into the social web) is steadily encompassing the age of centralized campaigns (those focused on email lists and campaign websites).

So, I would conclude that 1) there already is compelling evidence to support Winograd and Hais’s argument, 2) there is more evidence to come, and 3) those who wait for the evidence will inevitably fall behind in the race.

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