Bruce Springsteen and the Politics of Meaning in America
How progressives can learn from The Boss
Posted Sep 12, 2012
Others have written about the complicated ways that Bruce Springsteen weaves together the personal and the political and how this interweaving has developed over time. I’ll mention some of these themes but won’t spend a lot of time exploring or illustrating them:
1) First and foremost, the healing and transcendent power of love and community. This is, perhaps, one of the most central concerns of his life. His songs are full of it. The ecstatic sense of abandon, fusion and joy at his concerts feature it. Wrecking Ball is a good example of this.
2) Mutual recognition and embrace of the Other: Springsteen’s songs are full of images of people making the choice to—in the end—see their commonality rather than their difference. The Ghost of Tom Joad is full of stories like this.
3) Confronting the survivor guilt facing his generation as they became parents and achieved economic security and success. Perhaps the best line in all of Springsteen’s music about this is from Lucky Town where he complains that “it’s a sad funny ending, when you find yourself pretending, a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.”
4) The insistent search for meaning and purpose in the face of alienation, loneliness, and the mundane repetitive rhythms of everyday life, whether that be through leaving home, rock-and-roll, love, or the redemptive courage shown in a song like “Into the Fire” in The Rising.
5) Outrage at the breakdown of our society’s social safety net and promise of collective responsibility along with a call to not only restore it but relentlessly offering up example after example of small acts in which this is manifested.
Each of these themes could be elaborated in great detail. I'm not going to focus here, however.
[SIDE NOTE: I wish I could say that these themes were what first drew me to Springsteen, but I can’t. I first heard him when he was with Steel Mill. He played at my senior prom, after which I was mostly looking forward to getting high and playing around with my girlfriend!]
There is an old adage is that there are two sources of political power: organized money and organized people. The Right has almost unlimited oceans of money and organization. The Progressive Movement needs to organize people in numbers far far greater than we’ve done to date.
I’m going to argue this: That in order to organize and engage the masses of people we need, progressives have to expand their notions of what makes people tick, of what they need, of what they value and long for----from a simplistic liberal emphasis on economic justice and equity to a broader view of human needs that include needs for recognition, meaning, connectedness, and agency.
Bruce Springsteen’s music and his performances do just that. They suggest the possibility of a relationship with oneself, with others, and with the social world that elicit and cherish just these kinds of values and needs in his audience.
So, even though Springsteen can often sound like he’s offering a traditional liberal critique of class and the maldistribution of income and wealth, I think he’s doing much more. I think he’s one of few musicians today articulating a politics of meaning which I will argue is the only approach that progressives can take in our current climate that has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.
And it’s an approach missing everywhere in our movement.
So, what is this predicament and why can’t old style liberal democratic politics compete any more?
I wear two hats. I’m a psychoanalyst with over 30 years clinical experience. But for the last 10 years I’ve been part of an interdisciplinary group called the Institute for Change. We already do or soon will work with some of the most powerful leaders and organizations in the progressive movement today, including labor unions, progressive fundraising groups and infrastructure groups that provide much of the “intelligence,” data, and strategy that contribute to shaping our movement's direction.
The progressive movement, including the Democratic Party is on the run everywhere. Unleashed by the Citizens United Court decision, an unlimited tsunami of money is flooding political contests at every level, not just the national election.
In addition, the current Great Recession, and the unchecked greed that both caused and resulted from it, have revealed, not just created, fractures and weaknesses and suffering that have been going on for a long time now.
My view is that the non-economic suffering, now extreme, has been every bit as profound as the economic suffering, except that so much of the non-economic suffering exacerbates the feelings of self-blame, cynicism, anxiety, and resignation that makes it even harder for progressives to engage people.
The loss of a job or insecurities about such a loss reverberate through marriages and families. The suffering is not just material, but psychological and relational. Such losses and threats create high levels of anxiety and stress, depression and self-doubt. People blame themselves. This is what Springsteen sings about so often. They lose their tempers more often, retreat from social contact, suffer from increasing amounts of insomnia, drug and alcohol use and abuse. Their health deteriorates. And for every person directly affected, there are many others in relationship to this person affected as well.
Relationships are strained as homes go under water. This is the first time in history that parents can’t expect that their kids will do better than them. Optimism and joy become harder to come by. Think about the unintended neglect caused by mothers having to shorten maternity leaves or parents leaving their kids to hold down 2 or 3 jobs. And, in fact, studies show that young people are increasingly distrustful of others, depressed, and “lost.”
We still live within the myth that this is a meritocracy, that one’s mobility and success is a sign of one’s value and ability. During economic slowdowns, people’s sense of agency becomes shot through with depressive resignation, a combination of self-blame and helplessness that is toxic. And who writes about this better than Bruce?
In other words, the suffering in America today is not simply material or economic. It involves the frustration of other needs as well, including needs for meaning, for recognition, for connectedness or community, and for agency. These other needs are every bit as important and their frustration causes every bit as much suffering.
When recessions like this one stimulate and accentuate these forms of suffering, there are few institutions on the Left that are available or capable of addressing them. Unions are shrinking or on the run. The Church has increasingly exited public life, except for conservative ones.
And liberals are still fixated on the mistaken notion that economic welfare alone as the only dimension of human life that can motivate people to connect with a movement.
We—progressives—talk about the availability of jobs, not community, not the quality of work, the mind-numbing alienation that such jobs are often infected by. One of the best lines at the Democratic Convention was when Joe Biden said that “a job is about more than a paycheck; it’s about dignity.” Springsteen is constantly talking about the distance between the crushing blow of losing a job or its degradation and the ideal.
We talk about access to quality health care, but don’t really emphasize problems that affect people who DO have health insurance, things like wait times, and inaccessible doctors and, most of all, the almost complete breakdown of the doctor-patient relationship.
There’s a void in our politics that can’t be filled by the outrage of people pissed off at banks and a lack of fairness. In 2000, the sociologist Robert Putnam wrote a book called “Bowling Alone” in which he demonstrated the degree to which community has broken down in America, fraternal, collective, community based organizations that used to provide social support.
Working with Labor Unions, I’ve seen over and over again, that the assumption of their leaders and staff is always that the only thing their members care about is protection and money and, thus, their interactions with members are usually limited to solving problems and negotiating contracts rather than what community organizers have known for years---that people hunger for relationships, for recognition, opportunities to learn and make a contribution.
This is something that the leaders of the civil rights movement understood, but that we’ve forgotten.
I’d argue that, whether or not he is always conscious of it, Bruce Springsteen has not forgotten.
During the 1992 campaign, soon after her father died, Hillary Clinton gave a speech in which she said something like this: “The ‘market’ knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. We need a politics of meaning in America.”
She was a reader of Tikkun Magazine whose editor, Rabbi Michael Lerner, had been arguing for years that the Left, progressives, and liberals had let the Right represent itself as the ones who stood for community, for religion, for family, for the values of work and safety.
As opposed to our movement which talks almost exclusively about rights and money and the safety net and jobs.
Springsteen talks about mainstream liberal issues, too. These traditional liberal democratic themes are ubiquitous in his music. But I’d argue that it’s because he also address these other, non-economic needs, that his appeal is not limited to liberals or the Left. He’s not, for example, in this one sense, like my second favorite singer/songwriter—Steve Earle.
Springsteen speaks—in his music and in his concerts in particular—to the usually unarticulated needs for meaning, connectedness, and mutual recognition that we all have, but that—in our culture—rarely are allowed to take center stage. For progressives, this is especially important, because the almost universal response to his songs, the way that both the content and the form of their presentation “calls” us to a higher purpose, connects us to each other, and offers us a place in a bigger story, is powerful evidence that these needs ought to ALSO be central in our political work.
That is, if we want to connect to people, engage masses of people in our movement, then we better figure out a way of speaking to people at all of the multiple levels that Springsteen does.
That’s why conservatives can like Springsteen—at least his concerts—I think. That’s why David Brooks can follow him around Europe, even though he then writes a nonsense column to explain Springsteen’s appeal. It’s because Brooks, himself, like many Americans, never has much of an experience of being part of something bigger than himself. There’s nothing ordinarily for him to “get on-board.”
Springsteen intentionally creates an ecstatic community in his concerts, and it’s a loving one. It speaks to the hunger we have to such an experience.
His songs are often about recognition, about being part of something bigger than the self, and about having the power to make choices, even if these choices go against conventional norms.
I don’t believe that a singer or songwriter can change someone’s mind about fundamental ideological choices. I do, however, think that he or she can capture the leading edge of emerging shifts in consciousness and that his or her popularity can help us understand feelings and longings that are typically not expressed or satisfied in everyday life.
And in Bruce Springsteen’s case, I think that his phenomenal popularity results from the ways he touches our unmet needs for community, meaning and purpose, and recognition.
I would call this a Politics of Meaning and I think it is the only approach progressives can take to our present predicament that has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.