The Facebook revolution
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HANOVER, N.H. -- Yes, Vanessa, there was a political revolution this month and it didn't affect only the presidency. It also reached into the treasurer's office in Grafton County, a mostly rural rectangle covering 1,747 square miles of mountains, lakes and forests in the north country near the Vermont border.
At the heart of this revolution wasn't only Barack Obama. Don't overlook Vanessa V. Sievers, a 20-year-old Dartmouth College junior from Montana.
She spent about $50 on Facebook, mobilized students at Plymouth State College and Dartmouth, upset an incumbent with decades of political experience -- and, far more dramatically than Mr. Obama, underlined the power of new Internet social-networking techniques to upend old political arrangements.
Ms. Sievers defeated county Treasurer Carol Elliott by 586 votes countywide, but in Hanover, home to Dartmouth, she overwhelmed the incumbent by 2,438 votes -- almost precisely the number of Dartmouth students who voted in the election. The young woman with the web of supporters on the Web even defeated Ms. Elliott in the treasurer's hometown, which is the site of Plymouth State.
The talk around here 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.
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.
Now we're talking big-league politics, as the Obama camp, which harnessed social-networking sites such as Facebook to bring millions of new voters into the political process, demonstrated. It is impossible to ascribe a victory in presidential politics to one force -- though organized labor, women, blacks, Hispanics and others already are trying -- but it is also impossible to ignore this fact: Among voters aged 18 to 29, Mr. Obama defeated Sen. John McCain by the astonishing margin of two-to-one.
That's why Vanessa Sievers, whose resume includes being the co-chair of the college's Bait and Bullet Club and whose political profile includes ardent support for hunting, is more than a student prankster. 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, the incumbent, told John P. Gregg of the Valley News newspaper that the college students who voted for her opponent were "brainwashed."
"She 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."
This is less than a fight at the barricades than an ambush in the woods. It was a stealth tsunami unlike any ever seen in American politics.
"There was one campaign going on in the usual way," said Mr. Winograd, a senior policy adviser to former Vice President Al Gore and executive director of the University of Southern California's Institute for Communication Technology Management. "And there was another campaign going on online that had a completely different dynamic."
Some of the first stirrings of this 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.
Even so, the reaction here in New Hampshire has been volcanic.
"I don't think college students who don't live in the state should vote for county offices," Ms. Elliott told me in a telephone conversation. "It's a state law that they can vote [in these contests] but I think it is wrong."
She's not alone. "Our taxes don't go to public schools, our money doesn't pay for the roads here; we do not truly consider ourselves Grafton County-ites," one of Ms. Sievers' classmates, Zachary Gottlieb, wrote in the college newspaper. "When people ask where you go to school, you say Dartmouth. You never say you're from Hanover, but some far-off place you call 'home.' And by voting for one of our carpet-bagging compatriots, we've done Grafton a great disservice."
But many young people, armed with the vote and their technological tools, are fighting back.
"These students, with their elitist Ivy League educations and their aspirations to become productive members of society, are simply part of the problem," said the political-comedy Internet site 24/6. "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."
The question of whether Ms. Sievers will fulfill her part-time responsibilities to the citizens of Grafton County is for her to prove, and surely there are adults (and students) with serious doubts. But what is not in doubt is how she won the chance to disprove them, and how powerful are the tools that brought her from the Bait and Bullet Club on the Hanover campus to the county complex at North Haverhill some 35 miles away. Grafton County may not have been changed by November's election, but American politics surely has.
First Published November 30, 2008 12:00 am