Although for many of us the last four years have brilliantly demonstrated the undemocratic nature of American democracy, it seems that some radicals have missed their cues. Presented with endemic alienation as a result of the failure of American political structures, most strikingly expressed in the 2000 election, many activists have actually chosen to channel residual anger into the very system that generated it. As the facade of capitalist democracy crumbles, the usual suspects are rallying the public–and preparing to charge, full-force, back into the smoldering rubble.
One such vanguard is Punk Voter (www.punkvoter.com), a coalition of over 130 bands and about 30 independent record labels recently formed with the goal of registering and mobilizing “punk rockers” in the 2004 election. Their site introduces readers with a reminder that, “Punk rock has always been on the edge and in the forefront of politics”. And what could be more edgy than the ballot box?
A quick perusal of Punk Voter’s website reveals more than a few ironies. While the layout is typical of the punk subculture–complete with black on red lettering and DIY cut-and-paste imagery–the message is constructed in a clumsy attempt to sound “legitimate”. On one page, the Bush administration’s policies are derided as “chaotic”, a humorous complaint from a group that cites as influences bands like the Sex Pistols (“Don’t know what I want / But I know how to get it / I wanna destroy”). Elsewhere in a guest column, Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy laments that, “if there is a prolonged war as a result of American global aggression, the consequences will come to our nice little suburbs.”
Attempts to reconcile youth rebellion with mainstream politics would be funny if the underlying message wasn’t so dangerous.
Punk Voter’s goal of mobilizing 500,000 youths for the Democratic Party is, at best, a huge misdirection of time and energy or, at worst, a destructive initiative that will serve to strengthen the very political system that punk has made its reputation attacking. Under the pretense of being a force for social change, the punk subculture has signed up to do capitalism’s dirty work by reinforcing the fundamental mythology of representative democracy: The system works–change comes from within.
Indicative of the shift away from punk’s tradition of confrontation with capitalism is the fallout that occurred between radical punk band Propagandhi and Mike Burkett, founder of Punk Voter.
Last March Propagandhi withdrew from Punk Voter’s Rock Against Bush Vol. 1 compilation after Burkett requested that they remove a jab at billionaire George Soros from their song contribution. The liner notes to the song stated, “This message not brought to you by George Soros”. Burkett explained his request in a post on Propagandhi’s website. Although he acknowledged that Soros was involved in selling weapons of war and had “screwed a bunch of countries to make his money”, Burkett also noted that Soros was bankrolling “many great organizations such as Moveon.org and America Coming Together, and these organizations help support us.” Finally he noted that, “MoveOn [helped push] the ‘Uncovered’ DVD and it sold 40,000 more copies because of them”.
Punk Voter didn’t want to step on any toes if doing so would threaten its ability to sell records. So much for punk’s independence.
Many radicals will be reluctantly casting a ballot come <November.Agreed>, might be a good idea to discuss strategic voting coupled with a robust skepticism of political parties . But the message that Punk Voter is bringing to its largely politically inexperienced audience is discouragingly artless. Perhaps most conspicuous is Punk Voter’s adoption of the “2000-proved-that-every-vote-counts” spin that is being pushed by the Democratic Party. This attempt to rewrite presidential history would lead us to believe that Bush won the election based on 537 votes in Florida rather than rampant election fraud, voter disenfranchisement, and a break down of the electoral system–all of which are well documented.
Mike Burkett is the first to admit that political analysis isn’t his strong point. In an interview posted to AlterNet he confesses, “I don’t actually read as much as I should because the more I read the more bummed out I get, when I read political books.” And so it may come as no surprise that Punk Voter is pushing a perspective without a significant critique to differentiate it from the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council.
Young people who browse <punkvoter.com>, seeking some direction or insight from the artists that they look up to, will be treated to inane nationalism (American flag imagery, constant references to “our government”, etc) and a regurgitation of tired liberal themes (Nader was responsible for the Republican victory, etc.). Shocking statements like, “We must remember that today’s politicians are servants to their constituents…” illustrate Punk Voter’s disconnect from the reality of Belt-way politics.
Nowhere is there any discussion of the limitations of representative democracy. Or for that matter, the legal exclusion of 10% of the American electorate (including immigrants, ex-felons, and the homeless), corporate dominance of the political system, the Democratic Party’s history of imperialism and warmongering, the Help America Vote Act and the problematic shift toward paperless ballots, or even Kerry’s own position on domestic and foreign policy issues.
Senator Kerry’s abysmal record has been well covered by a variety of sources, but apparently some people aren’t listening. His foreign policy is virtually identical to that of Bush. He supports first strike and unilateral military action in defense of American “interests” (read: “business interests”) and has openly called for an escalation of the Iraqi occupation. As a senator, he voted for Plan Colombia and NAFTA. On the home front Kerry supported the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, and No Child Left Behind–policies that many of the bands endorsing Punk Voter have vocally rejected!
But Burkett says he thinks Kerry is “all right” because “he’s a snowboarder and used to play in a band.”
Is this what punk is about? If not, it is time that politically conscious music fans hold artists accountable for their duplicitous support of fascism–be it the “conservative” variety espoused by men like Bush or the “liberal” brand of men like Kerry.
Rock Against Bush Vol. 1 sold 20,000 copies in its first week, but one is left wondering what punk icons have really accomplished, self-promotion aside. In a particularly disturbing moment of clarity, Burkett told CNN that, “Bush getting elected was good for punk music. Now people have something to get pissed off about.”
Over 10,000 Iraqi civilians killed, but record sales are up.
SCOTT EVANS is an activist from NYC, currently working in the DC / Baltimore area. I am a founding member of The Committee to Elect No One. He was one of the core organizers of the WEF mobilization in NYC and recently worked as a journalist in Ecuador for the CONAIE (Ecuador’s largest indigenous federation). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org