Democrats could choose from a plethora of liberal artists to pump up their crowds, including musicians with larger and younger fan bases than Springsteen who might excite key, hard-to-engage constituencies. So why do they keep cranking up the Boss?
Because Springsteen embodies white working-class Rust Belt voters who, until recently, constituted a core Democratic voting bloc.
In Springsteen, Democrats see an archetype of the white working class, one who can help them woo the voters in the Rust Belt and farm states who have turned various shades of Republican red over the past half-century. However, winning the white working-class vote requires more than Springsteen songs. It requires running on a platform of worker-focused economic populism that would address the policy concerns embedded in his lyrics.
Raised in Freehold, N.J., 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 himself never worked in a factory. Instead, he threw himself into music that 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”). The rocker’s 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), Springsteen’s characters found themselves trapped by familial 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 U.S.A.” (1984), which launched Springsteen into international superstardom, the singer progressed from examining characters facing personal disappointment to those victimized by an economic system rigged against them. Through no fault of their own, his characters are laid off from textile mills (“My Hometown”), lumber yards (“Downbound Train”) and oil refineries (“Born in the U.S.A.”) and are unable to find work, often leading to desperate, criminal acts, as on “Johnny 99” and “Atlantic City.” While his characters of the ’70s sought emotional satisfaction, Springsteen’s characters of the ’80s sought survival by any means necessary.
Springsteen’s songs mirrored the experience of many blue-collar workers in the 1970s and 1980s. After steadily increasing for almost three decades, blue-collar wages began to fall in 1973, and inflation began eating a larger share of workers’ paychecks. Meanwhile, rising oil prices sped factory flight, as companies deserted unionized Rust Belt states for the less regulated confines of the South or, increasingly, other countries. Especially in former manufacturing centers, unemployment and despair grew.
These economic changes quickened a long-simmering transformation in the politics of white working-class voters. Since the 1930s, union members in the Rust Belt had been one of the backbones of the Democratic Party’s New Deal Coalition, a broad tent of voters that also included urban African Americans and white Southerners. The coalition gave Democrats majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for all but four years between 1933 and 1981.
The coalition began to fracture in the late 1960s and 1970s. White Rust Belt workers began to shift their political allegiances based on issues such as welfare, busing to desegregate public schools and opposition to the counterculture. The transition was completed when these voters became the “Reagan Democrats” who helped propel Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. Even if many workers felt betrayed by Reagan’s pro-business agenda, cultural issues had turned a solid flank of the Democratic Party into loyal Republicans.
For their part, Democrats largely forfeited these voters in favor of a new constituency: liberal suburban professionals, many of whom paired free-market proclivities with liberal cultural positions. Democratic presidential nominees such as Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton envisioned their core supporters not in unions halls and factories, but in universities and office buildings. Bill Clinton and Obama espoused populist economic messages that helped recapture some of the lost voters, but the geographic and cultural center of the party had definitively shifted.
As the real-life versions of his characters turned into Republicans, Springsteen did not. The singer came to understand that it was not government, but profit-hungry corporations that were responsible for everyday people’s struggles to make a decent living and for the devastation inflicted on communities when good-paying jobs disappeared.
And yet, Springsteen stayed out of the partisan fray. He called Reagan’s victory in 1980 “pretty frightening” and shrugged off an attempt by Reagan to co-opt his music in 1984. As he told Rolling Stone in 1987: “I never considered myself a particularly political person. I wasn’t when I was younger, and I don’t think I really am now.”
That changed in 2004, thanks to the second Iraq War. Long wracked with guilt about purposefully failing his draft examination during the Vietnam War, Springsteen could not stomach another unjustified foreign intervention. In 2004, he headlined the Vote for Change tour to raise money for Democratic electoral efforts. For each presidential election cycle since, he has hit the campaign trail to rouse Democratic rally audiences.
To Democrats, Springsteen is not just another celebrity endorser. While foreign policy may have politicized him personally, his songs from the past 40 years address the economic frustration that helped fuel the exodus of the white working class from the Democratic coalition. By having Springsteen at their campaign events and by playing his music at their rallies, Democrats signal that their tent is still big enough to include the white working class.
But music — even music as powerful and as popular as Springsteen’s — cannot serve as a substitute for policy, particularly the pro-worker, economic populism that 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 deindustrialization, to stop corporate attacks on labor unions and to increase workers’ 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. If they want to win the Rust Belt, Democrats’ message should reflect Springsteen’s one-line introduction to “Born to Run” on his 1984 tour, a simple idea that encapsulates the economic ideals at the heart of his politics: “Nobody wins, unless everybody wins.”