Sunday 13 October 2019

Born-to-run Democrats need to learn from The Boss

President Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bruce Springsteen in 2016. Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters
President Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bruce Springsteen in 2016. Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Jonathan D Cohen

More than any single policy position, the unifying theme of Democratic presidential politics over the past 15 years has been Bruce Springsteen.

The rock star, who turned 70 yesterday, has campaigned for every Democratic presidential nominee since 2004, and his music has been the soundtrack of the party's 2020 primary. Democratic candidates from Michael Bennet ('The Rising'), to Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden ('We Take Care of Our Own') to Springsteen's fellow New Jersey man Cory Booker ('Waitin' on a Sunny Day' and 'The Ties That Bind') play Springsteen songs at rallies.

Democrats could choose from a plethora of liberal artists to pump up their crowds, including musicians with larger and younger fan bases who might excite key, hard to engage constituencies.

So why do they keep cranking up the Boss? Because he embodies white working-class Rust Belt voters who, until recently, constituted a core Democratic voting bloc.

However, winning the white working-class vote requires more than songs. It requires running on a platform of worker-focused economic populism which would address the policy concerns embedded in his lyrics.

Raised in Freehold, New Jersey, Springsteen had a decidedly working-class upbringing. His mother worked as a legal secretary, often providing the family's sole source of income as his father - who struggled with mental illness and alcoholism - bounced between blue-collar jobs.

Springsteen never worked in a factory. Instead, he threw himself into music which reflected his background.

Springsteen's breakthrough 1975 album 'Born to Run' is about young people yearning to escape, kids who "work all day to blow 'em away in the night" ('Night'). His next four albums focused on characters who never got out of their factory towns.

On 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' (1978) and 'The River' (1980), his characters found themselves trapped by family responsibility in deadening jobs. Instead of driving off into the sunset, they were left working all day in their father's garage, "driving all night chasing some mirage" and longing for the day they could "blow away the dreams" that break their hearts ('The Promised Land').

On the acoustic 'Nebraska' (1982) and the misunderstood 'Born in the USA' (1984), which launched Springsteen to international superstardom, the singer progressed from examining characters facing personal disappointment to those victimised by an economic system rigged against them.

To Democrats, Springsteen is not just another celebrity endorser. While foreign policy may have politicised him personally, his songs address the economic frustration that helped fuel the exodus of the white working class from the Democratic coalition.

By having Springsteen at campaign events and by playing his music at rallies, Democrats signal their tent is still big enough to include the white working class.

But music - even as powerful and popular as Springsteen's - is no substitute for policy, particularly the pro-worker, economic populism which made the white working class solidly Democratic in the 1930s. To overcome these voters' conservative cultural inclinations, Democrats need proposals to address the effects of deindustrialisation, to stop corporate attacks on unions and to increase wages.

To help bring these voters back into the Democratic fold, candidates should focus less on what Springsteen himself represents and focus instead on the meaning of his music. (© Washington Post)

Irish Independent

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