In the decades since Nirvana ended, bassist Krist Novoselic has become an outspoken voice for political reform. His latest venture is collaborating with two former Congressmen — a Democrat and a Republican — on a new campaign dubbed 3 American Questions. Its goal is to compel political candidates, from potential members of Congress to would-be presidents, to address major issues that stretch across party lines: the national debt, climate change and U.S. citizens' faith in the elected government.
Novoselic got involved when retired Congressman Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington State and a friend of the bassist's, reached out to him. The politician had served alongside a Republican from South Carolina, Bob Inglis, who had voted on a bill that would address global warming and, Novoselic says, was subsequently voted out. "That was, like, heresy," the Nirvana member asserts on a late March morning from his home in southwest Washington. Baird and Inglis came up with the questions and presented them to Novoselic.
The bassist is the chair of an organization called FairVote, which seeks to promote fairness in U.S. democracy, and over the past six years he's been taking Washington State University's online courses in social science. He'll get his bachelor's degree in May.
With a polarizing election season underway, and seats in the House and Senate becoming available later this year, Novoselic tells Rolling Stone he was eager to help the campaign. "You look at your Facebook timeline, and it's just GIFs saying, 'Look at this atrocity of political corruption,'" he says. "We want to go beyond grandstanding and pandering, and ask these three questions: What are you going to do about climate change? What are you going to do about political reform? What are you going to do about the debt?"
Most liberals aren't focusing on the national debt as an issue, and many Republicans deny that climate change is real and want the government to disappear altogether. Are you trying to piss people off with these questions?
These ideologies are always clashing, but the 3 American Questions campaign is bipartisan and that's what I like about it. It's about asking people, "What can you do?" Instead of jumping on some bandwagon. They're meant just to be proactive.
3 American Questions is the opposite of running covert attack ads on any individual candidate. It's about transparency. It will provide information. Where do candidates stand on climate change? Where do they stand on the debt? Where do they stand on political reform? Hopefully, they'll reply, and we can put together an objective analysis of where they stand and leave it up to voters. If they don't really answer the question, don't vote for them.
How would you answer the climate-change question yourself?
I just do the basic things, like just consolidate trips, and saying, "Let's just not go anywhere." I could see nature clear-cut, looking out my window here. We cook from scratch. We don't eat a lot of prepared, processed food, so there's way less packaging. You can only do the best you can do, as long as you're not crusading. It's a big, big challenge.
What do you say to people who don't believe global warming is real?
Well, I mean, you just have to look at the science. People write about it in peer-review journals in the academic world and put their reputations on it. Their professional careers are based on studying the scene. They aggregate the facts, and say, "Hey, I guess we have an El Niño here on the West Coast, so we're just getting tons of rain. Look at the data — the climate's warming."
"There are people running for president who don't believe in global warming."
Some people refuse to believe that, though.
And they're not going to. There are people running for president who don't believe it. All you can do is try and reach the one person who has one vote. What is your person for Congress doing? The U.S. House has built this wall around itself, and it's just really hard to get these changes through. Then you have lawmakers who are pandering to people because they're afraid they're going to lose their seat. Look at Bob Inglis: He voted his conscience, and it cost him his seat. That's a cautionary tale to his former colleagues. The election system gives incentives to people who pander to these extremists. We could fix some of that with primary election reform.
One of the other 3 American Questions addresses people's confidence in the government. You've long been outspoken about the state of the Electoral College, dating back to before the 2000 presidential election where Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush became president because of the electoral vote.
Oh, God, it was bad. I also work with an organization called FairVote, which aims for reforms for proportional representation. We want a non-partisan primary. So 3 American Questions is about urging people to just look into these things. It can be frustrating. There are all these safe seats for the U.S. House, and gerrymandering is really holding us back. How do we fix that? Do we need more truly independent commissions?
I can go even deeper and say that here in Washington State we have a bipartisan commission. It needs to be audited. There needs to be some kind of oversight over that commission, because when things are bipartisan it sounds cool, but a lot of the time it could also be collusion. Our point is to say, "Hey, let's look at the way the situation is right now."
What have you made of the presidential campaign so far? What do you think of Trump?
Well, he denies that the climate changed. Trump speaks to how visceral our elections are, and how polarized the country is. You have Trump on one side, and then you have Bernie Sanders on the other, and they're basically storming the establishment. And for better or for worse, what Trump is saying is resonating with a lot of people.
Have you spoken to Trump supporters?
One of my neighbors is a Trump supporter, and he was telling me one of the reasons he supported him was that because Trump doesn't take money from corporations. And then I spoke to another neighbor, who's supporting Sanders, and he told me the reasons why he was supporting Sanders, and one was that he doesn't take money from corporations. That's interesting. Maybe things aren't so polarized. OK, so what is it about the corporations, and what is it about campaign finance that appeals to conservatives and liberals? With 3 American Questions, the idea is to get past the sound bites.
But this election is all about sound bites.
Yeah. And voters are either working or they've got their families, and it's hard to look into things. We're trying to help.
"I'm just looking for a presidential candidate who's perfect."
Which presidential candidate do you like?
[Sighs.] I just keep going back and forth. I'm just looking for somebody who's perfect. I go third party then I go major party then I go back, but then it's like, God, they're still doing these nominations. It's still so early. We'll see what happens. It's been a wild ride.
Have you been watching the debates?
No, I haven't watched any of the debates. I really don't have time to watch these spectacles. I get so deep into policy myself that I don't. And then another thing is if you go on Facebook, I have these Facebook friends who keep running anti-Trump ads, these memes and it's just like, how much do you need to convince me not to vote for Donald Trump? Every day there's some kind of new meme. I don't know. I read briefs and papers on campaign finance reform. I guess that's what I'm interested in right now. Everybody wants to repeal Citizens United — they want to have some other campaign financing — so I'm like, "Well, what is this?"
You can't be an expert at everything. So when I spoke with Brian Baird about this campaign, it just seemed compelling to me to just have this resource. I'm not studying climate change right now or the debt. The debt is really complicated, and the numbers are so huge it's intimidating. When's the last time you looked at $18 trillion? You see all these zeros, and it's all just a blur. Right?
Yeah, and your heart sinks.
Yeah, like, "Oh, my God." Then you start looking at the facts, and it's like, "How much is the debt payment on this thing gonna be? How are we gonna pay it off?" When you bring it up, you get a thousand-yard stare from people, because it's not a sexy issue. With 3 American Questions, I can look for my representative in the U.S. House and see where they stand and their opponent stands. If you want to dig a little deeper into these three issues, it could really be a resource for you. And if you want to get back on these bandwagons or your memes or whatever, go for it.
Do you ever find any of this demoralizing?
If politics ever gets dehumanizing for me, I'll just get out. I don't really need that, you know? There's a lot of Nirvana fans. They're liberal or conservative or if they don't care about politics. So if it gets dehumanizing ... I get wonky [laughs]. But I step back.