News: Changing the Game

New political activism poised to be decisive next time

Dec 29, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Sam Robinson

A pre-election sign above the Seventh Street exit of Interstate 75 reminded voters of what's at stake

Politics became cool again in 2004. George W. Bush might have secured a second term as president Nov. 2, but barely so; and only after surmounting a huge grassroots coalition motivated by nothing more charismatic than the prospect of electing anybody but him.

While most observers have focused on the growing strength of the conservative religious bloc, one of the most promising phenomena of the campaign was the explosion of political activity among people who usually stay away from the polls altogether.

This year's campaign took a form bearing little resemblance to politics as usual, with creativity and a sense of urgency outshining the staid mutterings of candidates and their handlers.

Musicians rallied to the cause, aligning themselves with the new independent political organizations that did much to motivate young voters. MoveOn sponsored the Vote for Change Tour, starring Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Keb' Mo'. The Rock Against Bush Tour featured Anti-Flag, Midtown and the Nightwatchmen (see "Burning Bush," issue of Sept. 29-Oct. 5).

When Dave Mathews performed Aug. 5 at Riverbend Music Center, he brought along HeadCount, a nonprofit all-volunteer group that worked to register 100,000 voters at his concerts across the country.

Filmmaker Michael Moore threw new underwear to a crowd at the University of Cincinnati, where he appeared Oct. 27 with the band R.E.M. to encourage students to vote. Moore drew a crowd of 2,000 — not bad for somebody who makes a living on documentaries.

But then his latest work, Fahrenheit 9/11, captured the sense of urgency that underlay much of the nouveau activism. The U.S. conquest of Iraq, lingering questions about the legitimacy of Bush's first term and the specter of greatly expanded police powers in the federal government's anti-terror initiative combined to give politics in 2004 a primacy in popular culture that it hadn't had since the 1970s.

Artists for Change took over Fountain Square for a 24-hour protest against apathy. Sponsored by Cincinnati Experimental Arts, the event featured Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, a new work by acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner. The play portrays First Lady Laura Bush reading to a group of dead Iraqi children.

So charged were political passions — even in certain local races, such as the campaign for Hamilton County Prosecutor — that Michael Goldman, president of the Charter Committee, declared, "People should rise up." That's the most radical language to come from the Charter Committee since it ousted Boss Cox from power most of a century ago.

The League of Pissed Off Voters not only put rage to work in pursuit of political change, but then stayed involved after the election, co-sponsoring hearings that led to a lawsuit alleging vote fraud in Ohio (see "We're Pissed Off and We Vote," issue of June 2-8).

Not all political expression was laden with such ominous import. Trash TV host Jerry Springer, for example, patronized an April 23 bake sale at UC that raised funds for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, brought the "Pants on Fire" Mobile to Clifton. The prop was a 12-foot high statue of Bush accompanied by the lyrics, "Liar, liar! Pants on Fire / His nose is longer than a telephone wire."

The Wednesday Group — a shadowy local organization fronted by someone calling herself or himself "Commander Charlie" — raised money for its in-your-face politicking by sponsoring "Beers Against Bush" at Rosie's Tavern in Covington. The Wednesday Group plastered downtown Cincinnati and Interstate 75 overpasses with signs saying, "W is for War Crimes."

Some of the most effective populist campaigning in 2004 was the work of individuals, rather than groups or organizations. Protesters on Fountain Square may now hold political signs mounted on sticks, thanks to a lawsuit against the city by Jim Albers. Cited March 20 during a rally against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Albers says police enforced the law only against protesters. He sued to have the city ordinance overturned.

The months of organizing, canvassing neighborhoods, fund-raising and registering voters paid off Nov. 2, when nearly 120 million people cast ballots — nearly 60 percent of those eligible across the country. Turnout in Ohio surged to almost 72 percent of registered voters, according to Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

If the ad hoc committees and offbeat coalitions that rallied, albeit unsuccessfully, to defeat Bush this year can remain active for the next four years, they could prove the religious right's victory in 2004 to be a passing fluke.

The next four years are sure to see a continuation of divisions over such issues as war and equal rights for gays and lesbians. Chances are good that the political activism engendered by opposition to the Bush administration will be even more significant a force in 2008. ©