February 29, 2016

FORKEN | A Political Revolution: No, Not That One

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As primary season swings into Super Tuesday, business mogul Donald Trump appears poised to collect a massive delegate haul, while Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) remains a thorn in the side of Hillary Clinton. Seemingly able to generate headlines at will, the businessman owes his success to the media coverage that has suffocated rivals, leaving a multitude of establishment figures — Governor Scott Walker (R-Ohio), Governor Chris Christie (R-N.J.), Governor Jeb Bush (R-Fla.), Senator Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), etc. — incapable of gaining traction. Though the “political revolution” Bernie Sanders so fondly mentions seems to have stalled for the moment, the formerly independent Senator from Vermont continues to remain viable and push the Clinton campaign past its comfort zone.

How is it possible that two candidates squarely outside the mainstream of presidential politics have been able to continuously thwart detractors and mount a formidable run at the nomination of either party?

Well, simply put: a political revolution. Unfortunately for Senator Sanders, the revolution is not yet one that transfers political capital from entrenched establishment figures to the American people, but rather one that transfers communication mediums from the traditional media gatekeepers major television networks and well-established news publications – to the American people.

Mobile applications — Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. — not only expand access to the electorate, especially to a younger demographic, but they also enable politicians, or reality television stars — to bypass the conventional media in favor of more-sympathetic partisan news outlets or simply in favor of themselves.

Donald Trump has over six million followers on Twitter and is a prolific tweeter, using the medium not only to retweet like-minded supporters, but also to masterfully spin debate performances and attack rivals. Using Twitter, Trump has been able to frame Bush as “low-energy,” Cruz as a “liar,” and Rubio as a “lightweight.” The businessman utilizes the tool so frequently that Politico released a column earlier this month with the headline reading, “Trump Breaks 15-hour Twitter Silence.”

While Trump has Twitter, Bernie Sanders has Facebook; a New York Times headline claims, “Seeking the Presidency, Bernie Sanders Becomes Facebook Royalty Through Quirky Sharing.”

Sanders largely avoids attacking fellow contenders via social media, instead opting for a strategy that involves “…posting images that share a quotation, which he has either written himself or dug up from a historical figure and then superimposed onto a photograph.”

To the Democratic elite, a Sanders nomination is a non-option; among superdelegates — who aren’t bound by state primary/caucus outcomes — Clinton holds a 453-20 advantage. The Sanders campaign has even accused the Democratic National Committee of attempting to sabotage his candidacy. Without social media to galvanize the youth and the far left, it’s likely the Democratic establishment would have succeeded in tabling a Sanders campaign before it got off the ground.

Though social media has existed through previous election cycles, the current campaign represents the first in which an entire generation of voters came of age with the technology. In past elections, establishment politicians and their surrogates could flood traditional news outlets to disparage Trump and his contentious remarks. In a world without social media or other conservative blogs, Trump may have found it difficult, if not altogether impossible, to facilitate his message through unreceptive old-guard media. Now, when Trump wants to respond, Twitter is there to blast his message in his words to his people. When people want to see for themselves what this Trump thing is all about, they don’t have to go to ABC or The Washington Post; they go to his Twitter page.

Clearly, Trump still receives an overwhelming amount of coverage from traditional media sources. However the coverage typically revolves around his own social media posts and/or comments, leaving his message intact and simply amplifying his words to millions more. Perhaps this is why Trump has succeeded where Sanders has failed. Social media gives politicians unprecedented access to young voters, but young people are often fickle and rarely vote. Senator Sanders can attest to that. Trump and Sanders both dominate social media, but Trump is such the enigma that traditional news outlets can’t keep themselves away, thus giving Trump reign of both new and old media and access to both young and older voters. In a Trump-less cycle, maybe Sanders would have been that candidate.

By fully grasping the potential of social media to transfer communication power away from party elites and towards candidates themselves, Trump and Sanders have each succeeded in crafting their own narrative and launching plausible outsider campaigns. Both candidates have exposed major rifts on their respective sides with Sanders pulling Clinton and the Democrats to the left and a potential Trump nomination threatening to alter what it means to be a Republican. Can the parties catch up?

Jake Forken is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. He may be reached at jrf285@cornell.edu. My Forken Opin­ion appears alternate Fridays this semester. 

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