Sunday, April 24, 2016

Is 2016 the Most Punk Year in U.S. Politics?

          It goes without saying that 2016 is an important year in American politics. And, by this point, it also goes without saying that 2016 may very well be one of the most bizarre years in American politics. Yes, I am referring to the current election season, culminating with the advent of a new president which, given the current field of candidates, may drastically change our lives forever. Whether or not this is for the better or for the worse would depend on which side of the political spectrum you fall on. Unlike previous election years, our options seem to cover a much broader range on the spectrum; to the left, we have a candidate who aims to bring American politics and culture more in line with that of European and Canadian “democratic socialism”, and to the right, we have a candidate that suggests that building walls on our borders will somehow fix America's problems and that, for those problems that a wall can't fix, we do something to remove those that feel like there's a problem (i.e. deporting immigrants, punishing women who get an abortion, sucker-punching those who disagree, etc.). Given this apparent polarization of American politics, there is a sense in which this is the most "punk" year in election history, and, regardless of which side of the ideological spectrum you fall on, the role of punk rock and punk culture this election season is more important than ever.
          One may argue that this is the most "anti-establishment" U.S. presidential election ever, which, in the most basic sense, captures the spirit of the punk movement. Throughout the 20th Century, American politics fluctuated between being slightly left-of-center or slightly right-of-center, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt is usually heralded as the paragon of liberalism while Ronald Reagan is usually idolized as the ideal conservative. Far-left or far-right wing movements were never widely recognized in American politics. In fact, during the 20th Century, proponents of far-left or far-right ideas were usually scrutinized and persecuted (see the McCarthyism paranoia of the 1950s), and there is even evidence suggesting that proponents of these ideas are still being harassed and persecuted in the 21st Century (as May Day protestor Leah Lynn Plante laments:
          Suddenly, however, it would seem as if this election season has evaporated a lot of the remaining doubt and skepticism the American public may have had about far-left or far-right wing ideas. Bernie Sanders, for example, has brought the notion of "democratic socialism" to the mainstream American public, advocating for an amalgam of ideas championed by the likes of former British prime minister Tony Blair and ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, such as a heavy involvement by the federal government in regulating capitalism and universal healthcare coverage. Conversely, Donald Trump has exploded onto the forefront of the Republican Party, a billionaire business tycoon with virtually no political experience, in a party where experience and "traditional" political values are held in high regard, and has seemingly hijacked the spotlight from the conservative establishment. He is an advocate of mass surveillance programs, "closing down parts of the Internet", stopping vaccinations because "they cause autism", and building a wall on the Mexican border to keep "murderers, drugs, and rapists" out, among other things. The popularity of both Sanders and Trump seems to have polarized the American political spectrum this election season, providing an alternative to the slightly left-of-center or slightly right-of-center establishment.
          Such a polarization of the political spectrum has been reflected in the punk scene for a much longer period of time. One can point to the anarcho-punk movement of the late 1970s/early 1980s as an example of the intersection between far-left ideology and punk rock. British band Crass is usually cited as a paradigmatic example, espousing a lifestyle of anarchism, pacifism, and environmentalism outlined in the songs "Bloody Revolutions" and "Big A Little a". Other anarcho-punk bands were quick to follow suit; that same message of pacifism can be found in Antischism's song "Salvation or Annihilation" or Nausea's "Smash Racism". And, of course, left-wing ideology need not be confined to anarchism or pacifism, or even anarcho-punk. California skate punk has often had many anti-authority, anti-establishment, and left-wing views since its inception in the 80s. One simply need look no further than Bad Religion, a band founded on the resistance to the American religious establishment (as suggested by their song "American Jesus"). Bad Religion's albums touch on a broad array of social issues plaguing American culture, from the environmental and cultural impact of unrestrained technological advancement ("Progress" on No Control) to the inherent irrational nature of human "animals" ("New Dark Ages" on New Maps of Hell). And, of course, the California punk scene extends well beyond Bad Religion, and anti-establishment themes can be found in many other songs from many other bands (such as "Skate or Die" from D.I. and "Abolish Government" by T.S.O.L.). Such leftist and anti-establishment themes have even seen some mainstream success with Green Day's 2004 album American Idiot, much to the dismay of punk rock "purists" who maintain that punk rock is something that should inherently be an underground movement. The anti-establishment attitude of punk rock has, at times, been so strong that some bands have even "circled back" and criticized the "punk establishment" itself (Milo Goes to College by the Descendents is a good example of an album that does this).
         To be fair, there are several notable cases of those in the punk movement advocating more right-wing, or even centrist, views. In 2004, The Guardian published an article about those in the punk movement that supported the re-election of George W. Bush (, which includes an interview with former Misfits frontman Michael Graves, where he notes that "in American mainstream culture, the cool thing to do now is to hate the government and speak out against the war". The article also notes that, when the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Johnny Ramone famously announced "God bless President Bush and God bless America", in stark contrast to views of, say, Bad Religion or Green Day above. There are even notable cases where those in the punk movement have advocated ultra-nationalist or neo-Nazi themes. British band Skrewdriver is often credited as being at the forefront of this movement, having been a crucial part of the Rock Against Communism movement in the 1970s, in opposition to bands like Crass and The Clash.
          It should be clear at this point how this particular election season, in many ways, has come to represent the same polarization that we have seen in the punk movement for decades. Crass and Antischism were advocating environmentalism and uniting people well before Bernie Sanders decided to run for president (though, it should be noted that Sanders was advocating these things in U.S. politics well before the punk movement even began). Likewise, those in the punk scene who advocate for ultra-nationalist or anti-communist/anti-socialist views would likely find a candidate like Trump more appealing. And it should be pointed out that, of course, Sanders and Trump are not the only ones running for president. If you think that the most progressive thing would be to have a female president, regardless of what her views on various issues are, then you might find comfort in Hillary Clinton. Likewise, if you are a proponent of a centrist way of thinking, you might even consider voting for John Kasich come November.
          Regardless of where you fall on the ideological spectrum, it would seem as if the behaviors advocated by the punk scene are more important than ever. This election season has been particularly brutal - we have seen Trump rallies erupt into violence, nationwide protests that have closed city streets, and armed civilians, who sometimes refer to themselves as a "militia", showing up at rallies and religious centers to threaten and intimidate immigrants. Many people in the U.S. would not find one or more of these things acceptable in a civilized society. Yet, depending on who gets elected this November, these things may very well become the norm. Accordingly, the most obvious way to voice your resistance to these things would be to make sure you vote this election season. For those of you who want to be a little more “pro-active” in your approach to addressing these issues, you might consider taking a page from Antischism or Nausea and participate in sit-ins and demonstrations. As I hinted at in the first paragraph, since this election is so polarized, the results of it may very well radically change the future of our lives forever.

Originally written for LIKEYOUSAID Magazine 4/11/2016.

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