Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

In 1985, Rock & Rap Confidential produced the short film I’ll Vote On. It documented the efforts of the FBI and local authorities in rural Alabama to jail civil rights leaders for getting out the vote. Most charges (for “vote fraud”) were ultimately dropped. But the 2000 Presidential election, marked by the deliberate disenfranchisement of thousands of registered Florida voters, confirmed that the right to vote in America still cannot be taken for granted.

Today, spurred by the disaster that is the Bush administration, a growing number of musicians are working to get their fans to register to vote. They range from–started by Fat Mike of NOFX–to the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which kicked off a nationwide drive to register 4 million voters in 2004 with a star-studded event (P. Diddy, Beyonce, LL Cool J) in Houston during Super Bowl week.

As a tactic, this is fine to the degree that it brings more people into one aspect of the political process, creating a potential common activity for punks and professionals, b-boys and bohemians, headbangers and health care professionals. The problem is that registering to vote is being put forward by musicians as a strategy, as an action that can, by itself, somehow impact our rapidly disintegrating society.

The first fact to be faced is that the majority of Americans who are registered do not vote. As Tom Morello put it after the 2000 election, “If there were a candidate who was running, say, for a six-hour work day at full pay, you might get more people going to the polls.”

Since we lack candidates running on anything remotely like such a platform, we wind up with the strategy put forward by John Mellencamp for 2004: “I’ll support whoever the Democrats put forward.” Ditto for Lou Reed: “We must all unite and work for whomever opposes Bush, regardless of whatever differences we may have. Our motto: Anything but Bush.”

Not long after I’ll Vote On was released, RRC brought Albert Turner and Wendell Paris, the Alabama civil rights leaders featured in the film, to New York to attend the New Music Seminar and talk with some of the musicians who were part of the “Sun City” anti-apartheid project. Both Turner and Paris repeatedly stressed that while voting was very important, their goal was to lift the entire South up out of poverty and that elections were only one of many tools in that process. Indeed, the civil rights movement was a national tidal wave defined by sit-ins and freedom schools more than by elections.

Can we imagine something similar in scope to the civil rights movement in 2004 and beyond? Instead of a motto of “Anyone but Bush” imagine if we had a motto of “Universal Health Care.” Imagine if that motto led us to expend our political energy to link up every fight against a hospital closing, every strike over health care benefits, every one of the thousand-plus benefits musicians in America do each week for other musicians in health crisis, every one of the growing number of volunteer clinics which attempt to keep us alive. Imagine that as these links began to be made, the millions of uninsured or underinsured individual Americans began to be drawn in. Imagine that this is something America is ready for because, in fact, it is: Every poll shows at least 70% of us believe quality health care should be our right whether we can pay for it or not.

Imagine that we transform the effort to register voters from passive to active and make the fight for universal health care a part of the voter registration efforts musicians are devoting their time to. Imagine the Democratic candidates being challenged to commit to restoring universal health care to the Democratic Party platform. Imagine that the day after the November elections, no matter who wins, we aren’t once again left wondering “Now what?” Imagine that we’re part of a movement that’s actually stronger after the election. Imagine being independent of the whims of corporate candidates.

Imagine not being reduced to meekly waiting for 2008.

Dave Marsh and Lee Ballinger edit Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters.From the February Rock & Rap Confidential, For a free copy of the issue, email your postal address to: RRC, Box 341305, LA CA 90034. Or email: