An article in the Oct. 17 Style section described Bronwyn Keenan as the founder of Downtown for Democracy. She is one of several people who helped create the group and is a member of its steering committee. The same article mistakenly described Eli Pariser as the founder of MoveOn.org. The Web site was founded by Wes Boyd and Joan Blades. (Published 10/20/04)
Usually when you walk down upper Broadway late on a Saturday night, girls don't come up to you and say, "You wanna have sex?" Not even really drunk ones, stumbling out of the sticky-floored West End bar.
But this girl just said it again. She's not drunk and she's cute in that hot-girl-next-door way, the one who used to tan on the lawn in her bikini and whose boyfriend was never around.
So these two cool nerds from Columbia University take a step back but they hear her out.
"On election night," Julie Binder says. "You wanna get laid on election night?"
"Oh, I've heard of you guys," says Brian Lin, relieved this is not some freaky hooker encounter. "Orgasmo or something, right?"
Actually, Votergasm. A group that wants you to pledge to withhold sex from nonvoters for a week after the election ("Citizen" level), or have sex with a voter ("Patriot"). Make love not war, updated for this giddy, hipster, woke-up-to-politics-yesterday club scene that is the protest left in the 2004 election.
"Is there like a screening process?" Lin asks, because now he wants in. So he follows her into the back room of the bar to the clipboards: ("Pledge-fulfilling sex must be consensual, legal and generous. And safe. And hot.") Behind him wait two guys arguing about Michael Moore and whether "George got his [butt] whupped" at the debate. Def Leppard is on, the beer is free, the beer pong is into its 25th round, and one Columbia frosh is getting some sugar from two seriously hot babes.
For nearly 20 years, Rock the Vote has tried to make politics dope, and the publicists always seem to be working too hard. Now, the moment is here. The cool kids of downtown New York hang "Bush Lies" posters in their loft windows, pin Kerry/Edwards buttons on their Calypso bags. Hipsters who otherwise wouldn't be caught dead in Ohio now trek there weekly to sign up voters, throw "New York-style" parties, and film it all for some future MTV-like version of "Road Trip -- Dayton, Uncut."
Outside New York there is Biking Against Bush and Bowling Against Bush and Karaoke for Kerry. And for the more contemplative set, "Moonlight Yoga for Change." They all want deeply, passionately, earnestly to end the war and get rid of President Bush. But if they don't, they can be sure that they had the best parties.
If you are an actor wanting to get discovered, you sign up with Billionaires for Bush, a satiric street theater protest group. If you are an agent who wants to meet writers, you throw a John Kerry fundraiser or a debate party. If you are a rock group, you try to hook up with MoveOn.org and get on the Vote for Change tour.
Two weeks ago, Rush Limbaugh spent two shows obsessing about what he called the "orgasm voters," and this was awesome, definitely an occasion for a party. When publicist Michelle Collins announces at the bar that Votergasm.org is on a mission to "get young people to vote and have sex," it seems to this college crowd like a perfectly natural combination.
"Vote, [expletive] yeah" yells a guy from one table.
His friend adds: "Sex is awesome."
And then everyone resumes feeling righteous and having a good time. Everyone except Holden Caulfield over there in the corner (real name: Casey Amstacher), a pale kid with shaggy black hair. "I'll have sex when I want to have sex," he says. "But sex is not like a motive for me to vote. It's silly to mix up all this sex and oh, we drink beer and we're cool and we vote for John Kerry stuff. I vote because I'm adamant about voting."
Poor Amstacher. That brand of sobriety is so 1995.
Back then the young conservatives owned cool. There was Laura Ingraham on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in her leopard print miniskirt, the vixen of the counter-counterculture. David Brock with a martini in hand and Ann Coulter in her preteen-size pants were up late every night drinking and smoking and listening to the soundtrack of "Pulp Fiction" and bragging about how much fun they were having. Meanwhile, the left could only stomp in its rope sandals and whine, what about us?
Talk to young lefty activists now and they sound like Ingraham did then, like the fresh-out-of-Stanford, newly minted millionaire Silicon Valley executives did in the '90s: Whatever they're wearing is the thing to be wearing; whatever they're doing on Friday night is the thing to be doing. They're happy, doubt-free, and the world can come to them.
"We have one thing they don't have," says Asad Raza, an NYU grad student and a member of Downtown for Democracy, a political action committee of artists and the tastemakers for the protest crowd. "We have a monopoly on downtown cool and hipsterism, and that's one thing that's not co-optable."
It would be the '60s counterculture all over again, except it's not.
"We don't fetishize being countercultural," says Eli Pariser, the 23-year-old founder of MoveOn. "We believe the values that drive our movement are at the core of mainstream American culture."
Every new group has a publicist and a marketing strategy. They run, in swing states, beautiful ads made by hip designers. Their leaders embrace the advertising industry -- many of them work there. "It's not an anxiety," says Raza. "We want to be co-opted by mainstream media."
Todd Gitlin, author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage," volunteers with young activists at a get-out-the-vote project in Pennsylvania. He considers this new version of the counterculture an improvement on the old.
"They are ferocious and dedicated and they think they're involved in something momentous," says Gitlin. "At the same time they have no illusions that they're on the cusp of a revolution. They don't have any reckless heroes; they don't think salvation is around the next drug bend. They're not transforming anyone's life. They're just defending a way of life they're rather devoted to."
Leon Wieseltier, cultural critic and literary editor of the New Republic, is less impressed. "They have this strange notion that one can be profoundly alienated and be the main event at the same time," he says. "They don't really have the stomach for marginality.
"What they practice is not exactly politics. It's a frenzy of emotion, of self-love, of self-congratulation in which you pay tribute to yourself and all the things you believe and all the people like yourself who believe in all the things that you believe."
Stirring Up the Electorate
One of the biggest debate parties in New York had to be at Crobar, a club that usually has house-music parties with big-name DJs. This night, the Friday night of the second presidential debate, it was holding a party hosted by Air America Radio and the Nation magazine.
The place had all the trappings of the club scene: disco balls, a glowing bar, girls in killer heels and a woman who looked like Uma Thurman supine on a red velvet settee, reading palms.
The whole party focused on a massive screen projecting the debate. This was not Georgetown, and yet the only ones who looked slightly bored were the bartenders.
Up in the balcony, along the stairs, down in the mosh pit, a mixed crowd packed in -- media people, MoveOn members, young kids with piercings and Mohawks, middle-aged couples just out of work. Occasionally the mood turned frat-ish and profane -- "Go to hell," someone would yell, or "Shove it." Whenever the camera cut to Bush making one of those pinched expressions, the crowd went wild.
Kerry would say something like, "The president didn't make the right judgments," and it was as if the DJ had kicked up the dance music, leaving the crowd surging and sexed-up.
"He's lost jobs."
"Yes!" yelled Thomas Rhode, a freelance photographer.
"He didn't fund No Child Left Behind."
"Yes!" he yelled again, and put his hand on his girlfriend Rita Chicone's hip.
"Let me tell you straight up: I've never changed my mind about Iraq," Kerry continued.
Rhode leaned in closer.
"This president rushed to war."
Rhode grabbed her shoulders and kissed her.
"He looks like some B-movie actor," Rhode said about Bush, and then to Chicone: "You look great."
Angry or Boring?
If there are intellectual vanguards for the young left, they are sitting around the Lombard-Freid gallery in Chelsea on a Saturday night, waiting to drive to Dayton, Ohio. There's Raza, the grad student, James Fuentes, who runs the gallery, A'yen Tran, a publicist for a TV show, Robyn Siegel, an artist, and Catherine Despont, a writer.
The mission of D4D (Downtown for Democracy) is to "bring the aesthetics into politics," says Tran, and to bring some of that new aestheticized politics to the heartland. On each trip they go to a college campus, throw one huge "New York-style party" -- meaning open bar, projectors and DJ -- and register voters.
Their bags are packed; the iPods are ready. The last time they had a DJ along, and "I could have driven forever," says Raza.
"This is my third trip and I haven't met anyone I didn't like. People are self-selecting. If you're the kind of person who likes Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, you're more likely to be there."
D4D was started by gallery owner Bronwyn Keenan to take the disconnected voices of artists and turn them into a movement. They started out throwing fundraisers, art auctions and a sort of avant-garde street fair to raise money.
Keenan, a stunning Irish American woman dressed in black velvet, now runs ads in college newspapers in swing states. They are designed by hip designers such as skateboard maven Eric Elms. They also run in design magazines such as Paper and Art Forum, though it's unclear how many undecided voters those publications reach.
Keenan says she couldn't sit back and watch her country be "confiscated" by Bush. But one bonus has been turning natural loners into a real community.
"There's a bit of a trendy factor, and it's very social," she says about D4D parties. "Everyone likes hanging out and we're all there for Kerry and we reconnect with dealers and artists we haven't seen in a while."
Raza says that when he went to his first D4D gathering, he expected khakis and button-down shirts, but that's not what he found. "These people are stylish. Wait, I can hang out with these people, this is fun," he remembers thinking. Within 45 minutes, he was handing out fliers and proselytizing.
For this latest Ohio trip, Raza wears a Gilbert and George shirt, limited-edition political art of the early '80s. "Are you angry or are you boring?" it says. He looks like he hasn't shaved in two days.
George W. Bush has a "brand" and by now D4D has built up a competing one, Raza says. "A lot of people hear the name and they associate it with cool parties and music and art, so we have this in.
"When people come to the party, it means they're interested in what's new and cool and hip and we just go around personifying that."
"Political art" has been somewhat flat since the '80s -- crude stuff involving "nudity and fire and welding," says Tran, that hits you over the head with dogma. But now, "people doing it are just like us; they're our friends. They have a comfort level with politics because politics is cool, politics is fashionable."
Hanging With Moby
The protest left didn't begin this way. The cool frenzy descended on it, taking it by surprise. Pariser, who helped make MoveOn.org the leading edge of Internet activism, is a politically serious kid who likes to tinker with computers. He's still all that, only now he occasionally gets to hang out with Moby or Jack Black or Eddie Vedder.
Pariser is the inverse of hip. He doesn't live in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn or downtown Manhattan, but in a deeply uncool part of midtown in an apartment stuffed with futons. He sports a beard, not two days of fashionable growth. His office is about the size of a closet, his computer rests on a game of Malarky.
How MoveOn got past the velvet rope still mystifies him. "It's like a kid who is not cool in eighth grade and all of a sudden he gets to high school and he's cool," says Pariser. "It wasn't so deliberate. It just kind of happened."
Asked how he feels about being No. 3 in Details magazine's list of the 50 most powerful men, Pariser seems genuinely embarrassed. "I don't know," he says, and puts his head in his hands. "I can't . . . " and quickly moves on to the next subject, which is the "cultural folks" -- his phrase for stars -- and how they can best be used to mobilize the masses.
Late last year, Laura Dawn, MoveOn's cultural outreach director and a singer, came up with a "Project Greenlight" for politics. She started with the idea that celebrities who lend themselves to politics "feel condescended to. They want you to smile and look pretty and go to fundraisers."
So instead she launched "Bush in 30 seconds," a contest inviting anyone to submit a political ad, with celebrities determining the results. Whatever it was -- the age of reality television, celebrity burnout, "Star Search" -- this mix of the famous and the famous manque sparked. Black, Vedder, Russell Simmons, Gus Van Sant, Janeane Garofalo, Moby and Michael Stipe helped judge the contest.
"I met them and it was a weird experience," says Pariser. "My role as leader of MoveOn clashed with my role as a 23-year-old guy, and I sort of flip-flopped back and forth. Half the time I was thinking, 'This is crazy,' and half the time it was humbling. Here I am at the nexis of such powerful people and the MoveOn base."
The ad campaign was a "grand fantastic experience," Dawn says, and it worked. "There were tastemakers out there watching and saying 'Yes! This is exciting.' "
First, actress Julia Stiles called, then others. Dawn was suddenly fielding phone calls and e-mails from agents and rock stars and actors 17 hours a day, wondering how they could get involved. Gone was the stigma that hung over Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks for ragging on Bush. Now, ragging on Bush was a good career move.
Pariser worried that the new galaxy of stars would "usurp" the movement from the members of MoveOn. But eventually he was won over.
"I think they know it's like they're throwing a party and Bruce [Springsteen] is coming," says Pariser. "It's like the ultimate validation."
Monday night was the final leg of the Vote for Change concert tour, right in the center of Washington. Springsteen, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Dave Matthews and Jurassic 5 were all playing. The event is a test of Raza's blitheness about going mainstream, of what happens when downtown hip leaves the art gallery and goes to MCI Center.
From the outside the scene is Woodstock filtered through MTV: A tour bus with a banner advertising "Wake Up Everybody," a benefit recording for getting out the vote, is loaded with TV screens blaring Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, Brandy. The Billionaires for Bush are vamping outside, Vote for Change's "Patriot" T-shirts are on sale inside.
Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, races in with his children. "This is about mobilizing young people," he says. "Twenty-seven million of them didn't vote last time around. We can tell them over and over to vote but when Bruce Springsteen says it, it's a different story."
But Hannah Schley, a freshman at George Washington University, is one of the few people here under 40. She got tickets from her dad, a Democratic activist in California. She was supposed to come with one of the frats on campus, but the boys changed their minds. "They said it was gonna be a bunch of old people and I was like, 'Come on, it will be fun.' "
The place reeks of boomer nostalgia; it's filled with people who missed Woodstock, who were just a little too young the last time music and politics came together in one earth-shattering moment. "My sister went [to Woodstock] and she talked about it all her life," said Cameron Jons, who was 12 at the time. "Now it's my turn."
There's no profane jewelry, no slashed T-shirts and very few midriffs showing. There are plenty of the khakis and button-down shirts Raza was trying to avoid. The crowd here did not discover politics yesterday.
Still, they share common ground with the youth. For this crowd, too, politics has turned into a lifestyle. Only here the correct T-shirt is less important than the correct spirit. And the correct deity is the Almighty Bruce.
"Bruce's message and music is all about what it means to live a fully realized life, work, country, identity, what wakes your soul up," says Melissa Levy. "It all makes sense together, here, now."
Like the young lefties, the goals are urgent but limited. What passes for radical here is Springsteen actually endorsing Kerry and Edwards, instead of just hinting at it.
But after he's done with the political speech, he makes his way back to what could be the new anthem of protest:
"Meet me at Mary's place. We're gonna have a party."
"The values that drive our movement are at the core of mainstream American culture," says Eli Pariser of MoveOn.