"We have a killer meme."
Andrew Boyd, founder of Billionaires for Bush, is excited these days. November is a long way off, way too far to call anything related to the presidential election. However, his street theater group is getting a lot of press these days, whether they are mocking Bush fundraisers in Long Island, calling for "four more wars" at the one-year anniversary demonstration against the war in Iraq or thanking the poor working suckers of America on April 15th for "paying our share so we don’t have to."
Andrew is an animated spokesperson for the group—his eyes constantly dart around, and he is full of energy like a mischievous teenager. He and former Billionaire for Bush (or Gore) Ken Jordan recently told me just what makes Billionaires tick, in terms of networked systems, ideas-as-viruses and street theater.
So what is a killer meme? Boyd and Jordan have a hard time putting it exactly into words. Sounding like a medical grant writer, Jordan says it’s "an extremely contagious idea that is impactful." Boyd, for his part, then boldly declares that it’s simply "an idea whose time has come."
Whatever it is, Billionaires has it.
The concept of a meme, a unit of culture that is transmitted much the same way that a virus is, is central to what Billionaires is doing. In this case, Boyd explains, the concept refers to a consciousness of the "systemic economic inequality" in America. But it also suggests the way that Billionaires goes about transmitting this message. "It’s a way to engage in class warfare through the backdoor; the backdoor of humor, the backdoor of irony, of not being trapped into being a sort of victim whiner."
All of this started in the mid-’90s with the "Rich People’s Liberation Front," a group that used costuming similar to Billionaires and gave out silver spoon awards to politicians and corporations. The Front was the idea of Steve Collins, who worked for a non-profit in the same building as United For a Fair Economy (UFE), where Andrew worked as arts and action director. The idea behind the "front" became "public domain" soon after, according to Boyd, and the UFE director at the time, Chuck Collins (no relation to Steve) liked the idea.
Boyd, who had pulled off a variety of similar media stunts, went to work on "Billionaires for Forbes" in 1999, which sabotaged then-Republican Presidential Candidate Steve Forbes’s campaign appearances. Around this time Millionaires for Gore had started, as had a first edition of Billionaires for Bush, which Boyd then brought together under the banner of "Big Money United." "Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)" was officially unveiled at the IMF/ World Bank demonstrations in Washington on April 16, 2000.
Boyd describes Billionaires as "organically arising out of the work that we did with UFE." He also gives credit to "Ladies Against Women" and "Reagan for Shah," two street theater groups put on in the eighties by the Plutonium Players, a group out of UC Berkeley. But both he and Jordan keep coming back to the inspiration of Abbie Hoffman, the ’60s counterculture icon who co-founded the Yippies and was one of the "Chicago Seven," the activists tried for conspiracy after the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention protests. Hoffman, Boyd says, was "the touchstone for turning normal protest on its head and using Dada in this deeply radical political kind of way." Jordan cited Hoffman’s use of "strongly symbolic actions," such as the 1967 stunt where he threw dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and nearly started a riot.
For all of its success as street theater in 2000, many Billionaires were highly dismayed at the results of the election and by the subsequent nightmare of the last four years. Clifford Tazner, the musical director of the group, speaking from his home in the Los Angeles area, cites the war with Afghanistan as the first time that he became convinced that Bush absolutely had to go. He says that in 2000 many "underestimated" what a threat Bush was. "Bush ran on a ‘compassionate conservative’ platform. He didn’t say ‘I’m a fascist, I’m a theocrat, and I’m going to loose Gog and Magog on the world’," Tazner explains. But don’t get that wrong: "We’re still big leftists," Tazner claims. "The content of what we are doing is much more radical than the Democrats or the Kerry campaign."
For his part, Boyd claims he never thought that Bush could win and that he was further shocked by the 2002 congressional elections, after which he became "insanely depressed." In 2003 he did an analysis of Billionaires for Bush or Gore for UFE, and decided to start the project up again, this time as simply Billionaires for Bush. He is unapologetic about the change in ideology, pointing out that it makes collaborations with unions and Moveon.org possible, and that it reaches out to large groups for whom Billionaires was too radical in 2000.
Billionaires’ website is a central part of their operation, containing what Boyd calls "the ideological core of the virus," as well as all the practical information needed to start a chapter in Boise, Idaho or Laredo, Texas. Much has been said about the use of the Internet as a new organizing tool, and Boyd and others are trying to learn from examples such as the Howard Dean campaign, while at the same time watching out for the weaknesses inherent in the medium. "The problem with the Internet is that people are weakly linked," Ken observes. Boyd stresses the need to get people to meet face to face to make a successful networked structure, in this case one whose demographic of participants he describes as "Burning Man meets Moveon.org."
At thirty-eight chapters and counting, including the spin-off group Capitalism Represents Appropriate Policy for Society (CRAP) in England and chapters in Germany and Australia, Billionaires for Bush is definitely growing rapidly. "I don’t think anyone has ever done what we’re doing," says Boyd. "Has anyone ever tried, on such a scale, to use irony so efficiently or to invite so many people into a highly-organized performance matrix?" He cites a "mixture of top-down and flat organization" for the success. "We make no apologies for having leadership," states Boyd. This is necessary, he explains, because "in this insanely large volunteer organization we are trying to do the same things that a regular organization would do."
But there is also the question of what makes otherwise sane people want to go to out in public impersonating the rich. "First off, people love dressing up," says Boyd. "Second, there is class hatred, which, in an inverted way, they can act out," as well as "class envy, because no matter how saintly or lefty you are, everybody, somewhere, say in your left ventricle, wants to be rich." There’s also what Boyd describes as a "sort of left-wing self-hatred that comes from how we are made to feel out of touch with the broader culture." Finally, following in the footsteps of Abbie Hoffman, he cites "the infiltration piece, and the thrill of the prank."
Boyd wants to have 50-100,000 names and "multiple hundreds of chapters" by the time the election rolls around, so that a movement can be created that will live well past this November. This may seem far-fetched, but Boyd points out that Billionaires went from one chapter to the current thirty in the first months of 2004 alone. As for Billionaires’ larger goals, Boyd is realistic about where things currently are. "I don’t believe we’ve been effective yet," he says. "We are, at the moment, a phenomenon, and we want to turn that phenomenon into actual impact on consciousness of swing voters. That’s our goal. We’ve done a pretty good job of becoming a phenomenon. That’s not our end goal—that’s our means."
Much of that work will happen far from New York, which will vote Democratic in this election the way that it did in 2000. Here, the focus is on this summer’s Republican National Convention. In addition to the "Million Billionaire march," a joke on the Nation of Islam’s Million Man March, there will be a variety of events, but Boyd and Billionaires are keeping most of the exact plans vague for now. However, they will say that they plan to be involved in a proposed three mile-long unemployment line as well as a coronation party when W is nominated.
Even Boyd is unsure where all of this is going to lead. Without pollsters or rating systems, he is aware that Billionaires’ effectiveness will be judged by what he calls the "tyranny of the anecdote." But ultimately, the way that Billionaires is doing things may help make the group’s lasting mark. As Boyd says, they are "modeling a different kind of organizing style for the broader constellation of social movements," a model where Dada meets Internet campaign organizing. The rest of us progressives— or those of us still out on the street corner holding signs and chanting shopworn slogans—should take note.
Christian Roselund is a writer based in Brooklyn.