What’s that sound? #PlagueSongs, no. 24

This one’s for U.S. Election Day 2020, in which we address two key questions. Will the U.S. continue down the path of autocracy? Or will it commit to the work of rebuilding democracy?

When 21-year-old Stephen Stills wrote (and his band, the Buffalo Springfield recorded) “For What It’s Worth” in 1966, America was in tumult. But it had just a year earlier passed the Voting Rights Act, expanding the franchise and making the United States a better democracy.

In 1967, the song was both a top-ten hit for the Buffalo Springfield and a #66 hit for the Staple Singers. I expect their cover version strengthened the song’s association with the civil rights movement and with parallel efforts to improve democracy.

Since the Roberts Supreme Court (in Shelby County v. Holder, 2013) gutted the Voting Rights Act, U.S. democracy has been in rapid decline, as Republicans attack the right to vote. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her prescient dissent to Shelby, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Indeed, the demolition of the Voting Rights Act leads us directly to our present moment, in which the Democratic Party works to get out the vote, but the Republican Party seeks only to consolidate its power by any means it can: suppressing the vote, refusing to count votes that have already been cast, seizing control of the judiciary, and not always bothering anymore to swathe its power-grab in semi-plausible lies.

cartoon by Ann Telnaes, 26 Oct. 2020.

So, we face an election that the Republican Party is working to rig in its favor, and that the Democratic Party is fighting to win by traditional means. The Republican Party’s cheating should disqualify them and their candidates from ever seeking office again. If a team cheats in sports, that team is disqualified. However, if a candidate cheats (as Trump did in 2016 and is doing now), are we supposed to simply respect the theft? No. The 2016 presidential “election” was illegitimate, and the Republicans are working even harder to make the 2020 election illegitimate.

cartoon by Ann Telnaes, 2 Oct. 2020.

If your only path to “winning” is theft, you should be barred from the competition. Period.

So. Should the Democrats prevail, we will have to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and expand the Supreme Court to preserve that and to counter Republican court-packing.

As I write these words, we do not yet know who will prevail. Hence my choice of this particular song, which begins by setting the scene: “There’s something happening here. / What it is ain’t exactly clear. / There’s a man with a gun over there, / Telling me I got to beware.”

“For What It’s Worth” has re-emerged this year — notably in a cover by Billy Potter (with Stills on guitar), recorded for the Democratic National Convention.

The gunshots in the production evoke the anti-Black terrorism perpetrated by US police. Porter’s call for change (near the end) and the video’s imagery directly invoke the movement for Black Lives. That’s one reason that the Porter-Stills version leads my election 2020 playlist, “This Mix Kills Fascists.”

Here is the best-case scenario. If the Biden-Harris ticket manages to overcome Republican cheating and Russian interference to gain a clear electoral victory, Trump is unlikely to accept defeat gracefully — if at all. He will exhort his followers to violence. They will kill people. That said, a large enough electoral victory should forestall the judicial coup Trump and his party have been working towards. And I think that, in such a situation, the US Military would back Joe Biden. If Trump refuses to step down, the military will escort him from the premises.

Here is the worst-cast scenario. The combination of voter suppression, voter intimidation, sabotage of the US Postal Service, and foreign interference in voter tallies tips the official count to Trump. He and the Republicans claim their stolen “victory” as legitimate. Should that occur, we will all need to take to the streets and protest until the Autocrat steps down. And we will do so knowing that he will send his unmarked secret police to brutalize us.

Of course, given that Captain Covid is unlikely to concede, we may need to take to the streets, irrespective of the official count.

In an attempt at a hopeful coda, I’ll conclude with a 1978 episode of The Muppet Show, in which woodland creatures perform “For What It’s Worth” — the original first verse, plus two new verses — as an anti-hunting anthem.

Spoiler alert: in the Muppets’ universe, the friendly animals prevail. The old men with guns do not.


Have you ever wanted to perform a song? Sure you have. If you’re looking for pandemic-related ideas (which is how this #PlagueSongs series of my began), the playlist below will give you many places to start.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.