Who Let the Punks Out?
I've always railed against the whole oligarchy," said Al Jourgensen. This is expected. Jourgensen, aka Buck Satan from the bands Ministry, Lard and the Revolting Cocks, has been scaring suburban parents for years with mechanical noises and angry lyrics. Recently enlisted by the voter education group Punkvoter, he railed very effectively against Urban Outfitters for selling an apparently antivoting T-shirt that read "Voting Is for Old People." The shirt also pissed off both the director and student chairman of the Harvard Institute for Politics and several members of Congress, who complained that it promoted apathy to a demographic group that tends to avoid the voting booth. Ultimately, Urban Outfitters gave in and recalled the shirt. But Jourgensen was still mad about one other looming political matter: the President.
"The one thing Bush does best is piss people off," griped Jourgensen on the phone from rural Texas, where he had just finished recording a new Ministry album. The Administration's foreign policy has been enough to make this industrial-strength rocker set aside, for now, some of his rage against the whole oligarchy to focus his ire on one primary target. "Democrats and Republicans," he admitted, "I think, basically, there's not much difference." But the truth is, there is little Jourgensen wouldn't do to get Bush out of office. He might even give John Kerry a good scream at the next Ministry concert.
"Absolutely!" he said, not railing at all. "I'll do whatever it takes. If Kerry wants us, we're there."
Voters, especially those under 30, who are upset with Bush, the war, the economy, healthcare, drug laws, the environment and the status quo of big-money politics do not have an obvious spokesperson in the upcoming election. Howard Dean was supposed to be the bold voice of the young and the angry. Dennis Kucinich snagged a few of the hard-core anti-warriors, until the dream seemed too impossible. Ralph Nader is still in the debate for some of the disaffected but has lost voters who believe that this is a high-stakes election.
And that leaves Kerry. Wealthy and senatorial, John F. Kerry is an unlikely candidate for anarchists and industrial rockers. More significant, perhaps, a recent Harvard poll suggests that the senator has so far not matched Bush himself in his ability to rally youth against the current Administration. Kerry now holds a ten-point lead over Bush on college campuses, but 37 percent of those surveyed said they did not know enough about the Democrat to form an opinion of him, or did not recognize his name. The study indicates that frustration with the President has drawn people to support Kerry by default, as the anti-Bush.
But is rage enough to turn out young anti-Bush voters in November? How about rage, a voter registration table and a good mosh pit? These are some of the unusual election-year questions facing organizers out to tap a strong dissatisfaction with the status quo and channel it toward a level of youth participation in battleground states that could swing a tight election. This spring, with an eye on mobilizing angry punks, Punkvoter commissioned Jello Biafra, NOFX, Alkaline Trio and Authority Zero to play to sold-out crowds of 1,000 to 5,000 in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Arizona in the first part of their Rock Against Bush tour, and recently released the first volume of a compilation album, featuring an impressive roster of old-school and pop punks, which sold more than 35,000 copies in two weeks. Instead of targeting young voters en masse, as a presidential campaign might, Punkvoter employs hard-edged, partisan tactics to mobilize its core audience.
Punkvoter is just one of many start-ups working to engage angry young voters in swing states, though it's among the more outspoken and far-reaching. Complicated FEC rules make explicitly anti-Bush voter organizing a tricky business; the Oregon Bus Project, which handled voter registration for the Oregon stops in the Rock Against Bush tour, is an example of a progressive, youth-led group that appeals to pissed-off voters without ever expressing the goal of "getting Bush out of office." Instead, they stick to issue-based voter education and registration.
Left-leaning youth-based organizations like this one nationwide include Project Democracy (a youth-led project of the League of Conservation Voters), the South Asian American Voting Youth and a number of organizations chronicled in a new book by the League of Pissed Off Voters. The league (attached to the website Indyvoter.org), one of the first groups to try to establish a voting bloc specifically on the basis of being young and angry, writes about youth-driven electoral politics in its new book, How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office: The Anti-politics, Un-boring Guide to Power. Don't be fooled by the hard-ass title: Many of the local campaigns and initiatives chronicled in the book are characterized by compromise and a willingness to accept incremental change. The introduction presents an argument for voting Democratic, even though "the Democrats are not our friends." And the stories in the book might be called heart-warming -- not something you could bring to the mosh pit.
The Pissed Off Voters' solution to this dissonance is to propose their own DIY, punk-rock idea for the November election: local voter guides, printed up by web-connected swing-state league members on their own dime and xeroxed for coffee shop, nightclub, health center and street-corner distribution. Indyvoter also plans a website for young activists along the lines of Friendster (an interactive networking site that has brought in 1.5 million registered users, most of them young).
Armed with an understanding of their own communities, anti-Bush youth are in a unique position to do the kind of one-on-one persuading that is most effective in turning out the young vote. Just ask Malia Lazu, a charismatic 26-year-old member of the League of Pissed Off Voters and co-author of its debut book. Lazu describes herself as black Puerto Rican Italian--and, more to the point, she proclaims, "I'm the diva of democracy with my push-up bra and my fabulous boots!" Unwilling to champion most politicians, Lazu has mastered a free-style approach to personality politics in order to turn out voters. How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office records her success as a college student who founded and directed the voter-organizing project Boston Vote among traditionally nonvoting neighborhoods. The only one of twelve activist co-authors with any experience in electoral politics, Lazu created a voting model on a substantial foundation -- building a coalition of community-based organizations, teaching voters where, how and why to vote -- plus a whole lot of hip-hop style. Last year, the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts recognized her work in dramatically increasing turnout in Boston's communities of color. Now she's an organizer for the Cities for Peace program at the Institute for Policy Studies, and has worked with Harry Belafonte on voter organizing in impoverished neighborhoods in cities like Cincinnati.
With inspirational stories like Lazu's, How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office (the title prompted an angry letter from the publisher of Michael Moore's Stupid White Men) tries to chip away at another nonvoting culture: the protest crowd. Co-editors Adrienne Brown and William Wimsatt (who has something of a cult following from earlier books Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons) hawked the book to its target audience as they marched through New York's antiwar protest this past March and gave away copies to people from swing states. By their account, they found more than 1,000 takers -- some of them fans of Wimsatt's from his other books (in six weeks, roughly 2,500 copies of the book were sold through traditional distribution methods). For Wimsatt, and undoubtedly many of the kids who have shown up for antiwar, antitrade and anti-Patriot Act rallies in the past few years, voting never seemed particularly important. ("I don't vote," said one marcher named Dread, who nonetheless asked for a free copy. "I don't see a good reason.") Wimsatt has a history of grand gestures; he started a rich-kid philanthropic organization and wrote hip-hop books, including one that Tupac Shakur called "the best book I read in prison." Now, like other rebels who have examined their complicity in allowing George W. Bush to be elected in the first place, Wimsatt has had a change of heart about electoral politics. After Florida 2000, he became a believer. "We want you to call your friends in swing states!" he preached to the crowd.
As Lazu tells pissed-off nonvoters, "If you want to be an anarchist, that's fine, but then we'll all still be here. Could you just not be an anarchist on voting day?"
This is a message that Kerry can't deliver. Nonvoters are not a target of major campaigns, and anarchists, punks and hip-hop divas may be even further down the list of "good voters" than young people in general. As a presidential candidate whom many primary voters chose, after all, for his electability, Kerry won't be chasing down hot DJs for a "Drop Bush, Get Bombed" party (as one youth-led PAC in Philadelphia did) or sporting a "Vote, F*cker" T-shirt (Oregon Bus Project's answer to the Urban Outfitters shirt). The targeted efforts of the young and pissed-off may benefit Kerry, but their medium and message distinguish them from the work of his camp, and even from mainstream 527s. A very individualized approach makes them a new and unpredictable factor in the upcoming election. Will edgy slogans turn off as many people as they seduce? Or are they a necessary antidote to Kerry's stiff pronouncements? Will use of the Internet in coalition-building this year create no more than the illusion of youth-led resistance? Or will the chance for personal involvement mobilize a generation of independent voters? In short, will the f*ckers vote, and for whom? No polls have yet answered these questions.
Not everybody is convinced that an anti-Bush message is enough to draw in disaffected citizens. Marshall Ganz, an adviser to the Dean campaign and a Harvard lecturer in public policy, believes that without a strong leader like Dean, who drew young activists and organizers into his campaign, young voters will be more likely to drop out. "A constructive alternative is very important," says Ganz. "It's not enough to just get rid of Bush. To really tap into the potential there, people also have to think they have someone and something to vote for."
A number of Dean supporters -- brought into the campaign by his willingness to denounce an unjust war, a stand-still economy and Third World health coverage -- will second that. Some have dropped out or headed home to beg their old jobs back. Others are somewhat reluctantly going to work for Kerry. "I'm not crazy about the guy," admitted one. "But I need a job."
Still, punks and pissed-off voters have some company in Deaniacs who are committed to constructing political alternatives at home, with the Internet's help. Grassroots offshoots join Dean's new organization, Democracy for America, in an attempt to keep the passion alive, supporting local progressive causes and candidates. Twelve people have announced Dean-inspired runs for office on a Democratic Wings group listing; others haven't posted their names, but credit the Vermont governor with their political ambition. Nathan Nickens, 21, is one of them. The college student, a Generation Dean organizer, made the journey from northwestern Ohio to see Dean speak in New York in March. Nickens plans to run on a platform of education, healthcare and fiscal responsibility as the Democratic nominee challenging a Republican incumbent for his Ohio State Senate district. ("I'll just start giving Dean stump speeches and not screaming," he quipped.)
Meanwhile, Punkvoter works the punks, who were never shy about anger -- or, for that matter, screaming. The next phase of their tour will hit Eastern battleground states as well as blitzing through New York for fundraising. Small audiences and an intact (no, not dead) punk community give a personalized edge to this music-driven push. An anti-authoritarian message is well suited to the long-held punk aversion to leadership, yet Punkvoter's Rock Against Bush tour directs all that rage against a particular authority, instead of just The Man. This pragmatic focus has roots in the political punk tradition maintained over the years by bands like Fugazi, but fury at the Bush Administration has given it new steam. Consider the following idealistic -- not nihilistic -- statement by Punkvoter founder Fat Mike in the liner notes of the first volume of the Rock Against Bush compilation album, after a whole lot of ranting about the President: "The good news is, we actually have the power to change America's -- and the world's -- future," writes the NOFX rocker, sounding like Howard Dean. "But only if we get our shit together and get involved in the political process."
When punks with the street cred of Fat Mike and Jello Biafra say it's time to get our shit together, other punks listen. But if Punkvoter is big on the "why" of voting, it's not so hot on the "how" -- the logistics of getting newly mobilized dissenters to follow through in the voting booth. Punkvoter doesn't register voters on its high-traffic website, and it relies on other groups like Music for America to do voter registration at its shows. Similarly, the League of Pissed Off Voters offers scant practical guidance. Even its book, a how-to, doesn't explain the particulars of starting a city council campaign, forming a political action committee or registering absentee voters.
Neither do voter-education engines like Rock the Vote (RTV) and Declare Yourself, but these bigger groups do register significant numbers of voters with their blanket approach to youth organizing (whether these people will actually vote is harder to gauge). RTV reports that it has registered roughly 200,000 voters since January with its nonpartisan efforts, relying heavily on mass media, MTV-style glitz and Internet voter registration to achieve its goals. Despite street teams and voter registration tables, personal contact is not where the bulk of RTV's resources are directed. Targeting smaller audiences and making spitting-distance appeals to them, as Punkvoter and the League of Pissed Off Voters do, has obvious limitations, but it also has some distinct advantages. Directly asking young people to vote is the single most effective proven way to get them to do it, according to CIRCLE, a think tank that specializes in youth civic engagement research. "Public service announcements don't work," adds Thomas Patterson, a Harvard lecturer for the Kennedy School of Government who has also studied the voting patterns of younger adults as part of the Vanishing Voter Project. "By and large...generalized television appeals don't work. What does affect voter turnout is personal contact."
The Bush campaign will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to win this year's election, and it has amassed legions of volunteers of all ages (more than 350,000 of them) to take Bush's campaign door to door. And Nader continues to poll relatively strongly with young people. Surveys of young people conducted this year suggest an amplified interest in this presidential election. Sixty-two percent of those polled by Harvard said they would "definitely" vote in November. Judging from past elections, it's safe to say that this number will definitely not be reached. But a perception that stakes are high in this election is nonetheless likely to stimulate youth turnout in November. Young people have the potential to swing the election one way or the other.
Like the Bush campaign, the Kerry campaign and a host of left-leaning 527s have been trying this season, with mixed results, to recruit new voters. But critics note that the present political system, entrenched in mass marketing, continues to sideline the concerns of whole groups, like low-income and younger adults, who are less likely to vote, further perpetuating that reality. As a result of this cycle of mutual disinterest, young people tend to have a weaker party identification than their elders do. At the very least, Punkvoter and its allies present an alternate mode of political organizing -- one that may succeed in reaching nonvoters where the traditional approach fails. But if the Democratic Party does get the young, pissed-off vote, it should be prepared to work much harder for long-term loyalty. Anger at Bush may only get Kerry as far as Election Day. "On the first Tuesday of the month, we may be voting for you," warns Lazu. "But on the second Tuesday, it's your ass."
Kristin V. Jones, a freelance writer living in Washington, DC, was a fall 2003-spring 2004 Nation intern.