Wright leads panel on 2008 election

by Katie Gonzalez | 11/11/08 4:58am

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College President James Wright leads a panel of six alumni in a discussion of the climate surrounding the 2008 U.S. presidential elections.
by Sophie Novack / The Dartmouth

The panelists were divided on the issues that President-elect Barack Obama will face as president -- some cited the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the management of supporters' expectations -- but all agreed on the significance of the election.

"This election is historic obviously because of the racial barrier that has been broken," Reverend Leah Daughtry '84, the Democratic National Committee chief of staff, said. "But it's also historic in the impact it had on the psyche of young people."

With approximately 180 students, faculty and local residents in attendance, the impact of the youth vote was a topic of interest for both the panel and the audience.

"For those who felt like they had a ceiling on their head, they now have a new sense of life," Daughtry said. "There is a sense of hope and possibility among our younger generation that we haven't heard in past elections."

The participation of the younger demographic could indicate a rising trend for the future of the American political system, according to David Shribman '76, Pulitzer Prize winner, executive editor at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette and trustee emeritus of the College.

"Young people who vote in their first election tend to stick with the party they voted for," Shribman said. "Two-thirds of young people voted Democratic. That may say something about the future."

A special emphasis was also placed on the role the media may have played in the outcome of the election.

Jacques Steinberg '88, media reporter for The New York Times and former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth, drew on Tina Fey's impersonation of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, and the millions of hits to the YouTube clip, as he discussed how the media could have affected young voters.

"Maybe it encouraged you to look at the real interview [with CBS evening news anchor Katie Couric]," Steinberg said. "Then students can decide for themselves which is scarier -- truth or fiction. It was easier than ever to educate yourself as a young voter."

All panelists agreed that technology was an integral part of Obama's victory. Obama's campaign amassed an electronic database of over 10 million people, more than all of the cable news viewers combined, according to Shribman.

"The availability of an enormous amount of information, the availability of blogs that acted as an echo chamber, proves we're moving into a new era," James Kloppenberg '73, professor of American history at Harvard University, said.

New technology also led to an increased sense of political efficacy for some voters because they were able to donate small amounts of money online, according to Annette Gordon-Reed '81, a history professor at Rutgers University, professor at New York Law School and a National Book Award finalist.

The new uses of technology seen in the 2008 election were met with some trepidation and uncertainty from several panelists, though.

"As we finish this post-election glow, what happens?" Wright, the panel moderator, said. "It's a complicated world out there with a complicated agenda."

A common concern among several panelists was how partisan divisions will play out after the election.

"It is remarkable that there is such partisanship in this election," said former U.S. Rep. Rob Portman '78, R-Ohio, who also served as cabinet member to the current presidential administration, said. "It's more a change of working across party lines than changing Washington that we need to focus on."

In acknowledging this divide in the U.S. and on campus, the symposium served as a medium to bridge the gap between the two political parties, Portman added.

"Different opinions were discussed here in a civil way," he said. "It's important to come together and talk after a hard-fought election."

Portman served as the United States Trade Representative under George W. Bush and was later appointed the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Organizers hoped the symposium would offer an analysis of the "symbolic, political and constitutional" elements of the election, according to government professor Linda Fowler, who delivered opening remarks.

"This is after all a learning community," Wright said. "Students got very involved in this campaign. Students and non-students should think about the election and contextualize it and think about the history of politics."

The symposium was co-sponsored by the Office of the President and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy.

"I just wanted to take advantage of an educational opportunity outside of class," Yoon-Ho Jung '12 said. "As an international student, I wanted to see how Americans viewed their presidential election."