Who Let the Punks Out?
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."