In the waning hours of election night a fan went onto the Huey Lewis and the News message board and posted what could basically be described as abject cheers for Bush. It was distinctive to notice, and I don't think it was just because I was in the doldrums over the apparent outcome. Her posts read as if her favorite team had just won a championship. And therein lies the problem, the problem with political discourse in general and the resulting problem when musicians enter the fray.
Our political culture seems to be very much like a sports culture, one where there are winners and losers. Every year someone wins the Super Bowl. Half the fans get to swell with enormous, pseudo-patriotic pride for being on the side of the victor, and half the fans walk away with nothing. Sure, there's some element of merit involved: the team with the most talent will likely win. But it's just a victory in a sporting match, a match that will be replayed the following year like it has for years and years before. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter who wins the game. The world will be exactly the same no matter how well anyone played. But in politics the same cannot be said: winning an election, particularly for U.S. president, is a much more substantive contest, bestowing the victor with the power, responsibility, and expectation to change the world.
So reacting to an election such as this as though it were a sporting contest completely ignores what's at stake. But that's what many people were doing. Either the winner was from their team - their guy - or it wasn't. Voters were behaving like mere fans, fans by the worst definition (with a superficial, emotionally-driven and irrational attraction to the object of attention, with little bearing on anything of substance), of the candidate as if he were their favorite sports team's star player. Their respective satisfaction in the election's outcome came more from that sense of being connected to the winner and not so much from the issues that were in play. (Nominally I think people did consider the issues, but often from a knee-jerk "Well MY GUY said this..." standpoint and less on the basis of the issues' individual merits.)
This dynamic may be another reason underlying why musician endorsements in politics can be problematic. In a political world where there are two oppositional teams an endorsement of one team's candidate is going to be seen as a slap in the face of the other and its "fans." I'm sure there are musicians for whom their endorsements should be seen that way, as little more than cheerleading for a particular political camp. I'm hardly advocating for more of this, and I certainly wouldn't so lightly suggest that musicians risk alienating their own fans just to perpetuate this kind of superficial entrenchment. On the contrary, in the examples I've referred to, of Johnny Colla and Huey Lewis and even Bruce Springsteen, the endorsements are something else, something much more valuable. More than base political cheerleading, they are rather invitations for serious policy contemplation.
If these endorsements were recognized for what they are, politically-neutral policy arguments, the risks of fan betrayal and alienation would be greatly minimized. It may be hard to see them as neutral because they resulted in a specific endorsement, but because each of the endorsements was accompanied by a thoughtful, rational explanation, I think it's these explanations themselves that are really the focal points. The resulting conclusions about whom to endorse are almost superfluous. I don't think Huey or Johnny recommended Kerry because they really, really like the guy personally. Or because they are such dyed-in-the-wool Democrats for whom party victory was the tantamount goal. I think, based on what they wrote, that they were mostly concerned about areas of public policy for whom the sitting president would not be the best choice. And I think that kind of opinion is perfectly legitimate, egalitarian, and unthreatening to any political camp. More than that, this kind of articulated statement is what our society could use more of. We need more people to talk about the issues underlying the politics without feeling so beholden to particular political camps. We need to get politics out of the realm of the sports idiom and back into the realm of citizenship.
Edited 11/19, 12/3, and 1/22.