Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Dave Matthews and others this weekend embarked on a Vote for Change tour, a 10-day series of shows featuring multiple concerts in multiple venues in the same state on the same night.
For the first time, Springsteen is encouraging members of his vast audience to cast their votes for a particular candidate (in this case, John Kerry) on Nov. 2. The tour is emblematic of what may turn out to be the lasting legacy of the 2004 campaign: the year American activists returned to participatory democracy.
For many voters, and particularly the young, there has been a fundamental distinction between "activism" and "politics."
Activism is being demonstrated by what may be one of the most engaged generations ever. Volunteerism by college students is at an all-time high. Young citizens, with the help of the Internet's ability to inform and network, are full participants in controversies surrounding environmental policies, global trade, media consolidation and other international, national and local issues.
Politics, on the other hand, is viewed by many as a spectator sport — and a distasteful one. For many, political campaigns mean sitting at home passively while being manipulated by attack ads and half-truths. Dominated by big money, critical issues are ignored. Not surprisingly, politics has been viewed with skepticism by many, especially the young.
This year, however, is different. In fact, President Bush may turn out to be the great uniter after all.
Remember Dean's efforts?
From the early Meetup.com days of the Howard Dean campaign to new approaches for raising huge sums of money via small donor networks on the Internet to a blogosphere representing a welcome redefinition of the Fourth Estate, activism and politics have become one. Look at what is happening in the music community.
During the past year, grassroots groups such as the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, PunkVoter and Music for America have emerged to facilitate political dialogue between music creators and their audience.
The Vote for Change tour completes this transition. These artists represent a cross-section of the best popular music that our culture has to offer. Many write passionately in their songs about their vision for a better world. These musicians are taking a leap of faith beyond activism and embracing electoral politics.
What's at stake for them? Is it too much to suggest that they are endangering their careers? The Dixie Chicks were temporarily banned from Cumulus Radio's country music playlists after Natalie Maines made a remark critical of the president during a concert in London. The "shut-up-and-sing" crowd suggests that in a 50-50 political world, these artists, due to backlash, could lose a sizeable part of their fan base.
I have a different perspective.
The 50-50 split is not between Democrats and Republicans, but those who vote and those who don't. That's right: nearly 50% of eligible voters chose not to vote in 2000. The underlying challenge of our democracy is to change this non-participation and to ensure that the core values of citizenship and active participation in the electoral process overshadow the domination of big money and corporate power.
Why shouldn't these artists speak out? If artists don't use their skills to build the kind of country they believe in, we are all poorer for it. They shouldn't be marginalized or demonized; they should be celebrated for being engaged. And if Bush's campaign strategist, Karl Rove, can organize a "Vote for Status Quo" tour, those artists should be praised, too.
While corporate America throws dollars after votes, my guess is the inspiration generated by these entertainers will spark a turnout of music fans who will be voting to take their country back on Nov. 2.
Bill Bradley is a former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate.