YouTube Election

For all his oratorical wizardry, the most poignant moment of Barack Obama's campaign for the American presidency came with the flick of imaginary dirt a couple of weeks ago. During a speech in Raleigh, N.C., Obama responded to the previous evening's attacks on his character, his experience and his friends during a debate with Hillary Clinton by saying, "Sometimes you just gotta..." and brushing metaphorical dirt from the shoulder of his suit. It was powerful theatre. The crowd went wild.-Jian Ghomeshi

Will elections of the future be fought with pop culture? Could Obama be the first YouTube president?

The "dirt off your shoulder" moment has become an online hit in this, the first YouTube election. But it was barely noted in mainstream media. Maybe the editors at major newspapers and execs at CNN and Fox News missed the reference. In contrast, Obama's move was not lost on younger voters, contemporary music fans, African-Americans, pop culturists and the packed arena in Raleigh. In fact, the nod to hip-hop artist Jay-Z's song from The Black Album was Obama reminding erstwhile political outcasts, in code, that he really is a different kind of candidate.

The generational divide in the current American political race should not be underestimated. As Obama struggles to keep his once-impenetrable dream of winning the nomination alive going into tomorrow's primaries in Indiana and North Carolina there is a lot at stake in the engagement of a new class of interested citizens in the States and beyond.

The never-ending Democratic primaries have been a treat for political junkies -- do you even remember a time before the Barack-Hillary sweepstakes? Had the skateboard been invented yet? -- but the sheer length of the exercise has affected the focus of attention. The protracted campaign has seen inspiration and ideas give way to pettiness and the perfunctory. It would be tragic if Obama's appeal to a new generation wanting change, a much celebrated reality at the beginning of the year, were to be lost in all this.

A poll released last week by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research revealed results in North Carolina that mirror a pattern happening across America throughout the primaries. A staggering 63% of voters under 35 declared their support for Obama. Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton had an edge in the poll with the over-50 crowd. It has become commonplace for Obama to draw record-breaking audiences of voters at every stop that represent a new strand of citizens who have traditionally given the process a pass.

During the Canadian federal election of 2004 I hosted a documentary for CBC News-world called Screw the Vote. I travelled across the country for six weeks asking voters under 35 why they hadn't been participating in recent elections. I learned the difference between disinterest and disengagement. Contrary to popular stereotypes, younger generations were neither apathetic or inactive, they just didn't believe that the current crop of politicians speak to or for them. They were disengaged. So why bother?

Barack Obama has accomplished something that some of us have never witnessed in a Western politician running for major office (I'm a bit young to have experienced Trudeaumania). Through his age, hope, progressive ideas, style and anti-war record he has galvanized a younger and diverse generation of voters in the U.S. and beyond. Whatever your politics, his inspiration to the Jay-Z generation is unarguable. If Obama loses the nomination in the coming days or weeks, the loss won't be tragic for him. But it might be for those millions of newcomers inspired to give organized politics and participation a try.

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