It didn’t take long for The New York Times to move beyond conventional election analysis into the murky waters of the trend piece. But here it is, leading the first Sunday Styles section of the post-November 4th world: Generation O. “More 18-29-year-olds went to the polls this year than in any election since 1972…These younger voters…may forever be known as Generation O,” posits Damian Cave. Never mind that percentage-wise the youth turnout was not quite as a robust as had been predicted (and only a smidgen higher, at 52%, than in 2004 when John Kerry galvanized the young imagination).
The Styles section has long prided itself on coining (or popularizing already antiquated) inane catchphrases—think metrosexual, drunkorexia, bromance, the man date. But its breathless coverage of this generational love affair ignores an ironic twist in the 2008 race: the internet, that great agent of the young, was just as important to John McCain’s stodgy campaign as it was to Obama’s slick machine. Only whereas the president elect harnessed the internet’s elusive power, McCain sat by as it led to his undoing.
Grassroots was to the Obama campaign what maverick was to the McCain/Palin candidacy. The first-term Illinois senator was not supposed to win. He was up against the indomitable Clinton establishment and its reservoir of experience and deep pockets. But Obama and his people were clued in to the power of the internet in a way that stubbornly eluded older politicians. There were fundraising websites. Facebook groups. Emails and text messages seemingly from the candidate himself (convincing no more a discerning political pupil than Scarlet Johansson of a personal correspondence).
Obama built an online community that realized the internet’s best potential. He created a savvy, coherent forum that met practical goals (spread the word; raise money, even incrementally) but also realized the loftier ambition of empowering (and flattering) his devotees. Hope and change are intangible. But the internet and its infinite tentacles made them seem within reach.
John McCain did not steer the internet his way and the result was the inverse of Obama’s: a burlesque of disgruntled supporters tragically out of synch with their candidate. An elderly woman at a town hall meeting told McCain she could not trust Obama. Her reason, after a moment’ hesitation: “he’s an Arab.” When McCain mentioned his opponent’s name in speeches he was routinely meet with jeers of “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” A sheriff introducing Sarah Palin at a rally made sure to address the Democratic nominee by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama. You can guess where he placed the emphasis. An Obama volunteer asked a crowd of Pennsylvania Republicans why his friend, under Palin’s policy, should have to pay for a rape kit. “She should pay double,” bellowed a man in the crowd.
McCain hardly enabled this pettiness. He quickly removed the microphone from the elderly lady and clarified that Obama was “a good man. A family man.” (He did not clarify that Obama is a Christian, a seemingly gratuitous revision in light of earlier campaign controversies.) He winced at the caterwauling. But the damage was done. The internet is often lauded for its immediacy, but rarely for its permanence. Witnesses posted clips of these unfortunate incidents on the web, bloggers had a field day and millions of people sent them to the inboxes of family and friends. A picture emerged of a listless candidate surrounded by a lynch mob.
The 2008 election was a modern one, but it exposed some dissonant, primitive truths about the internet. The web creates communities, but also encourages cliques. It enables universalism, but also preposterous niches. Facebook might unite you with a fellow stamp enthusiast, but the time spent ogling each other’s collections via online photo albums can potentially take you away from your family or that next door neighbor you’ve never met. And as McCain ruefully learned this year, the internet provides unparalleled access to information, but also occasional unwanted exposure to the noxious and loathsome (incessant penis enlargement spam being the proverbial, disconcertingly small tip of the iceberg). It wasn’t just the internet that did McCain in, but the subset of ignorant, bigoted McCain supporters that found their way on to the screen and at once appalled and appealed to the admittedly baser instincts of smug liberals and undecided voters alike. To borrow some internet lingo, the internet plagued the McCain campaign with a bad case of TMI.