Arcade Fire's Will Butler on Voting & Civic Participation

In Boston for a performance with Arcade Fire, the Montréal-based rock band he helped found, the Ash Center sat down Will Butler, a 2017 graduate of Harvard Kennedy School’s mid-career MPA program for a conversation on the intersection of public policy, the arts, and his efforts to strengthen a culture of public engagement and participation in government and elections.  

Q: What have you been doing while on tour to start a conversation about voting and civic participation?

I did this series called Disco Town Halls after our shows. I started doing after-parties where if you wanted to come to talk about something important, you could join me at this bar. The conversation had a very local orientation. The dream lineup would always be to hear a local activist group and a local politician speak. Both to show the tension between politics and activism, but also particularly with the politicians, just to provide a vision that government could actually be competent and functioning and working to protect people that need protection.

For example, we played in Tampa and we did an after party with a bunch of organizers that were working to change the Florida constitution, which right now says if you're convicted of a felony, you lose the right to vote. You can get it back, but it's really complicated. Activists are working to change that, so that most people will get their right to vote back after they've completed their sentence. My parents live in Maine, where you can vote from jail, which makes sense to me. But even just restoring the right to vote to certain people is a pretty good start. So we had organizers there with a local city councilman just trying to show that both the federal and state government as well as the local city government has a really massive impact on people's lives. I'm just trying to remind people that policy really matters, and that policy can make people live or die for really stupid reasons.


"Our communities matter, and how we run our communities matter"

Twitter IconClick to Tweet


Q: As an artist, what drew you to study public policy?

I have always been an artist that's very involved with my community. And our band has always been very much engaged with community. On our first record, literally four of the songs had "neighborhood" in the title. And it's about neighborhoods and families. The art has always emerged from that. That's one aspect of why I think political engagement matters. Our communities matter, and how we run our communities matter. In America, government plays a big role in how we run our communities. We have this "of the people by the people, for the people" ideal.

Q: How can cultural figures, artists like yourself work to engage citizens to get more involved in civic issues, elections, and voting?

It's very important that all the types of people in America meet in a common civic sphere, both to kind of hash out what we think is right, and also to just be in proximity to each other to see how other people exist. I'm an artist, and I think the arts can play a role. The arts can be morally and politically neutral and help draw people into a common space. I think an open and robust public sphere starts to break down some of those walls.

Q: Can you tell us your thoughts on why students should get involved in local elections?

I think it's easy as a student to not feel rooted in a place. I think if you're not rooted in a place it's hard to care how a policy affects a place. It's so easy to feel like, "I'm just a rambling drifter, and I'm gonna ride off into the sunset." One of the ways to actually root yourself in a community is to vote, to say, "This is my address. This is the place where I identify as being and I'm going to tie myself" -- even if it's just for a year.

I think that by even just the act of grounding yourself by registering to vote, you put a little skin in the game. Then the policies that you're theoretically thinking about in class matter a lot more. It becomes less like playing with theoretical humans and a lot more how will this affect my neighbors? How will this affect me? How will this affect the people that I care about?

Q: For HKS students, is there a special obligation to participate? 

I think if you are a Kennedy School student and you care about policy you have a moral obligation to register and to then vote. I think if we care about community, if we think about the rules that govern that community, you should be registering and voting.