By: Marco Iovino
Political platforms among Western democracies are rapidly changing with the influx of youth voters and the mobilization of the vote with new technology. In France’s 2017 presidential race, the most left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon made a formidable bid in the first round with his newly formed political party ‘La France insoumise,’ acquiring approximately 20 percent of the popular vote thanks to formidable support from the French youth.
Elsewhere, the action has happened internally in older, more traditional parties due to insurgencies of more politically polarized candidates and their followers, campaigning with anti-establishment rhetoric and anti-globalist sentiment. This can be seen in the U.S. with Donald Trump and the Republican Party, Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party, and in the U.K. with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
There is much overlap to be discussed but for the sake of brevity and the purpose of this article, it will focus on Corbyn and Sanders. It is important to note that while they may represent the most substantial left-wing movement in their respective countries, they would not fall at the same point on a political spectrum. Both parties campaign against corporate greed, bailouts for financial corporations, for a redistribution of income and acceptance of diversity. But while Sanders focuses on introducing a single-payer healthcare system, Corbyn emphasizes re-nationalizing the railways and postal service. The latter is decidedly more left wing on an absolute scale and yet there are strong overlaps among their support bases.
So what unites these two older than average, male politicians? Perhaps ironically, it is the youth that support them. Young people have stormed into the political system in a rate that is unprecedented in recent years and they have overwhelmingly provided support to both Corbyn and Sanders. Up and down the two countries, young people can be seen wearing Corbyn and Sanders inspired t-shirts and remixing their imagery into artwork and memes online.
What makes their message resound with the youth? Younger people face difficulties on all fronts: shortages in affordable housing, debt from university tuition, underemployment, and pervading societal pessimism following the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. However, as opposed to the centrist’s message to tweak the status quo and the right’s longing to return to values of the past, the left of Corbyn and Sanders provides optimism for the future and gives young people a place in it. An effective example: both nations house some of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world, but equally both have some of the most costly tuition fees as price tags. The response of Corbyn and Sanders? To eliminate tuition fees.
But it is not only the message and demographic that are at play here. There is also the method of campaigning. The two campaigns had remarkable similarities in their format: both candidates consistently pulled large crowds in far greater numbers than their rivals through grassroots donations and volunteering movements. The similarities culminated when the two campaigns overlapped —literally— with senior Sanders campaigners coming in to offer a hand to the Labour campaign and Sanders himself publicly declaring his support for Corbyn. Both campaigns were effective in developing political forums across social media such as Facebook public pages and private groups, Twitter and Reddit to strategize and create a cohesive, ordered plan.
During Sanders’ campaign, his team launched tools to coordinate ‘phonebanking’—a centralized system of calling registered voters and gathering information in order to guide an effective canvassing process. This was based on a prototype set out by Barack Obama in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns but operated on a far larger scale. The system was segmented into several ordered phases: registering to vote, convincing registered voters to vote for Sanders, and ‘getting out the vote’ on election day. An unofficial website BerniePB.com set up by his tech-savvy supporters allowed for calls to be easily routed online, tallied and visualized. A similar system was set up to gather the same information via text and Facebook messages, ideal for making contact at an even higher rate and for those with social anxiety. A spin-off, titled ‘Facebanking’ was set up by using a centralized Facebook Events pages on the day of each state’s primary. Activists could use a tool in their web browser that would invite all of their friends and friends of friends (living in the relevant state) to the page, giving them a notification reminder of the primary a few days before, and on the day of the event.
Similar methods were utilized in the Corbyn campaign by the organization Momentum. They set up websites ElectionDayPledge.co.uk, a declaration to take the election day off work or school in order to ‘get out the vote,’ and MyNearestMarginal.com, which allowed users to find their nearest marginal seat and connect them with canvassing groups in that constituency. They also used a technique dubbed as a ‘WhatsApp cascade,’ which would allow users to send a message written by Momentum to a select list from their contacts encouraging them to vote, informing them of the location of their closest polling station and providing a link to continue the cascade to their own contacts.
Through the connectivity of the web, progressive activism can be mobilized from the comfort of the home. This is not because young people cannot be bothered to get out of bed; it allows people to have effects in more marginal election races that they may not physically be able to travel to due to financial reasons, school or work.
In the most recent case of the UK election, the internet has created entirely new channels to cultivate an audience and communicate with it. This online platform allows Corbyn to effectively subvert the traditional channels of print media and television, which were primarily stacked against him and instead open up an entirely new, unfettered access to young people and other audiences.
There are many parallels to be drawn with these two politicians—the support they have assembled and the means by which they campaign. These results have shown that young people are willing to enter the democratic process if they feel that someone is representing their interests in a form that excites them. The viability of grassroots volunteering and fundraising has been proven. Sanders was able to out-raise Hillary Clinton, who relied primarily on large donors for several months of the campaign. Corbyn conveyed his message without the help from (or in spite of) many of the major newspapers. Elsewhere, other left wing parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain will be eager to try to replicate these models, adjust them to their nation’s audience and improve on them.
It is possible that Corbyn and Sanders will try to collaborate and unify their campaign platforms further. They may not have won their respective races and whether young people will continue to be engaged is of course yet to be seen, but technology shall surely play a pivotal role as well as the youth that use it. Parties across the world and political lines would be wise to take note.
Marco Iovino is an Executive Office Intern at the EastWest Institute in New York. He is currently in the middle of completing his bachelor’s degree at Pomona College in California but he calls London his home and tries to go back often. He can be reached at marco.iovino (at) pomona (dot) edu.