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Bai analyzes Internet’s effect on national politics

Published: Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Updated: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 07:10

Bai Speaking 1

Rebekah Sokol / Tufts Daily

Matt Bai (LA ’90) hinged his speech on the assumption that Barack Obama will win the election.

Bai Speaking 2

Rebekah Sokol / Tufts Daily

Journalist Matt Bai discussed technology and its effect on political campaigns.

Matt Bai (LA '90), a political writer for the New York Times Magazine, spoke to students yesterday about the transformative power of the Internet in national elections and the shifting political landscape.

Bai focused his speech on the implications of a possible Obama victory and the unprecedented technological factors underlying this year's race.

To begin his Pearson Hall talk, Bai warned against falling back on outdated historical parallels to bygone presidential elections. "Tempted as we may be to draw historical comparisons, you can't simply look back to 1932 to find answers," Bai said, referring to Franklin Roosevelt's first victory, which came in the midst of national economic turmoil comparable to today's.

"People inevitably begin to see this election in the same transformative way," Bai said, noting that Roosevelt "realigned American politics and gave us what we think of as modern American government."

Bai treated the upcoming presidential election as something of a foregone conclusion, saying that "people effectively voted" and citing the seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls that Obama has built since the financial crisis set in.

He spoke of this election's potential to profoundly alter the political landscape, saying that a collision of social, political and economic factors has led to "a moment of truly tectonic shift in American politics."

Polling for congressional elections suggests that Democrats stand to gain substantially in both chambers this election.

Bai emphasized the role the Internet has played during this cycle, dovetailing it with the theme of his recent book, "The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics."

The Internet has shown its clout in giving Obama a massive fundraising edge. In September alone, Obama raised approximately $150 million.

"So far, the Internet politics [have] been absolutely revolutionary," he said. Bai said the prevalence of the Internet has also helped to diffuse criticisms about Obama's lack of experience by fostering a culture of "be your own expert." People now diagnose themselves on medical Web sites and check their bank account balances online, Bai noted.

"We don't really value institutional expertise in the way we used to," he said, adding that Obama "subjugates institutional expertise to this idea of judgment.

"It's hard to separate Obama out from the larger cultural trend that is driven by the Internet," Bai said. "The truth is the Internet has culturally changed the way we live our lives in lots of ways."

In reference to concerns about Obama's ability to win over constituencies such as white, middle-class voters, Bai asked if "issues trump demographics" in a general election.

Bai described how former President Lyndon Johnson's support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 left deep divisions in the national political scene. The move exacerbated existing economic and social anxieties that ran notably through the middle class.

Obama has attempted to counteract these traditional divides, Bai said, noting that if Obama wins many traditionally "red districts," he has "the opportunity to redraw the political map in a very transformative way."

The Democratic candidate "has spent more time, money, effort than any presidential candidate since at least 1992 … trying to turn this around" by campaigning in Republican strongholds such as rural Appalachia, Bai said.

He then turned to a discussion of the role racism has played in the campaign. Bai noted that "race is not new" as a factor in presidential politics, pointing to the infamous 1988 attack ad linking then-Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis to the release of felon Willie Horton, a black man.

"There's been a general consensus among Democrats for most of this campaign that if not for race, Obama would be doing better," even though he is nonetheless outperforming 2004 presidential hopeful John Kerry (D-Mass.) among white voters in the polls, Bai said.

Noting that polls are inadequate because they tend to ask questions that do not get to the heart of people's motivations, Bai said that just because Obama's race plays a role does not mean it will be decisive.

"The question isn't, ‘Is race a factor?' but ‘Is it a determinative factor?'" Bai said. He pointed out that former President John Kennedy won despite concerns about his Roman Catholic faith.

Additionally, Obama's race may prove to be something of a boon if he outperforms his predecessors in both African-American turnout and percentage of African-American votes, as he is likely to do.

Bai also spoke about how the leadership mantle is being passed from the Baby Boomer generation to Generation X, with which Obama is "culturally aligned."

With harsh words for the "abysmal failure" of a set of Baby Boomer politicians that he said have failed to grasp fundamental social and technological trends, Bai suggested that Obama's representation of a new generation of politics may play the role that some voters imputed to race.

"It's difficult to extricate race from generation because generational change always makes older people uncomfortable," Bai said.

He closed with a call to action aimed at "looking at a flexible governing system and adapting it to the challenges of the moment.

"It's a dissolving, outdated social contract, soaring entitlement spending, a world where nuclear weapons will almost certainly fall into the hands of terrorists in the next decade and of course climate change," Bai said to describe some of the challenges the next administration will face.

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