Jonathan Alter speaks his political mind to Elon University

By Laura Smith

October 1, 2008


Jonathan Alter speaks to Elon University faculty and students

Jonathan Alter speaks to Elon University faculty and students

Newsweek senior editor and columnist Jonathan Alter was focused on one thing when he spoke to Elon University faculty, students and local residents on Monday night: politics.

“I want to give you a bit of a status report of where we are now on this campaign,” he said.

Alter’s lecture took place in McCrary Theater following a question-and-answer session held earlier that day. 

It was clear from the beginning who Alter favors to win this election.

 “I think there was something extraordinary going on this year in the relationship between one candidate, Obama, and younger voters,” Alter said.

“In 2007, he was routinely drawing ten times as many people to early campaign events as candidates normally did.”

Alter went on to discuss several different aspects of the current race for presidency.

Citizen Participation Now Involved

“The people in general were allowed into the picture this year,” Alter said. “They took the process into their own hands in ways that are very healthy.”

Alter relayed to the audience how impressed he was at the amount of average Americans getting involved in the election this year.

“Yes, the big contributors still have a lot of influence, but they don’t have anywhere near the influence they used to,” he said.

Alter also discussed the impact of technology and participatory involvement.

In reference to the power of YouTube, which had not been invented yet during the 2004 election, Alter said, “For the first time, you have voters who no longer bound to a clock in terms of their access to important videos…That’s very empowering.”

Other technological aspects Alter mentioned were the ability to create one’s own video regarding the candidates as well as social networking sites, such as Facebook.

“The spine of the campaign used to be evening news programs… just three networks: ABC, NBC, CBS. If it wasn’t on one of these evening news broadcasts, it didn’t happen in American politics.”

He described social networking as “changing the intensity and degree and form of political participation in a very positive way.”

 “This is all very positive for democracy,” he said.

 Alter has his concerns however.

 “Politically, these are the good years, “ he said. “The problem is that the process can still get hijacked too easily.”

“One of the things that is really at issue is whether we will have a process that focuses on the fundamentals. That really brings us to our current situation,” he said regarding the financial crisis.

Financial Crisis Proves to Be a Major Concern

“The president of the United States is not just a lame duck politically, he’s a dead duck,” Alter said.

Because President Bush could not persuade Congress to accept the bailout bill proposed, Alter felt the president was somewhat responsible.

“He has not political clout of any kind anymore,” he said

“His political support has collapsed entirely. Not just with the public, but with the congress he dominated for six years…This is an extraordinary fall from grace for him.”

Alter did not just have problems with President Bush’s actions however.

“The second loser would have to be John McCain,” he said in reference to a lack of voting on the plan from the Republican Party.

Alter described McCain’s tactic as “ a very poor sales job in presenting this to a skeptical public.”

“I do think they will be able to put it back together, but the political consequences are going to I believe shadow this campaign for at least the next two or three week, “ Alter said.

“This crisis will be seen as more relevant than pretty much anything else that has happened so far this year in determining who the next president is.”

Candidate Comparison is a Major Factor

Alter seemed to sympathize with the audience regarding the confusion of everything going on it the country at the moment.

“This is a lot for the American People to digest,” he said.  

Alter has an idea of what needs to happen in the upcoming months however.

 “Already in the last couple of weeks, you’ve see considerable movement in the polls toward Obama, “ he said. “He’s already successfully become a candidate of change.”

“So the burden is on McCain to change the dynamic and some how figure some way to move the election in a different direction.”

“Recently I think that he’s gone back on a lot of the principle positions that he took in an earlier period in the interest of political convenience,” Alter added. “So I feel in many ways I regret some of the nice things I wrote about him over the years because I think I misjudged him and his political character.”

Running Mates Need to Be Considered as Well

Alter did not just give his opinions on the presidential candidates though. He made sure to shed some light on the nominees for Vice President as well.

He displayed negative feelings toward Sarah Palin.

 “The combination of this economic crisis and the increasing focus on Palin might be an unfortunate one for the McCain campaign not because she lacks experience… it’s a lack of knowledge.”

 “One of the challenges for Sarah Palin is to show she’s not George Bush,” he said. “She’s going to have show that she has a sophisticated understanding of a series of complex issues.”

Alter said he felt differently about Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden.

“He clearly has a detailed knowledge of the issues, Alter said. “So he’s going to need to show that knowledge and show that he is better prepared.”

Voter Demographic May Affect Results

Alter explained to the audience how the different demographics of voters might affect the election results.

For older voters who did not grow up in a society where African-Americans held positions of high power, Alter said race could be a factor for Obama’s campaign.

 “The last thing he should do is come across as an angry black man,” he said.

McCain also posed a problem to Alter in reference to older voters.

“His challenge is to not come across as a grumpy old man,”

As for younger voters, Alter seemed excited to see the younger participation.

“After 9/11 and Katrina, I think there was an increasing understanding on the part of younger people,” he said.

The political future holds many questions in the mind of Jonathan Alter.

“In terms of where this is gonna go, I cant say for sure,” he said. “At this point I would put $5 on Barack Obama, but I wouldn’t put $10 on him.

Alter is optimistic in the American public however.

Quoting former president, Bill Clinton, he said, “If you give them enough information, the America people always get it right.”

“I don’t agree with that word always, “ Alter said.

“But I think he’s right that the American people usually get it right and that we are full of common sense and a basic sense of fairness and that as Americans access a vitally important choice for their future…they will make a reason and intelligent choice.”


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