Op-Ed: The Democrats need a candidate who speaks to Springsteen voters

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 15, 2016 - Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band perform during, “The River
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band perform at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in Los Angeles on March 15, 2016.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

With Sherrod Brown out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, a crucial question arises: Who will be the Bruce Springsteen candidate?

Who is the one that can win back Trump voters and Clinton-sitter-outers who feel forgotten by the Democrats? They’re the guys who worked the assembly line for decades but now get minimum wage at Walmart; the women feeding their families cold cuts for dinner and trying to make ends meet by selling vitamins from home; the manufacturing employees filled with xenophobic rage because the companies that used to employ them have moved their operations abroad.

Part of the reason Hillary Clinton lost working-class Democrats in 2016 was that she was seen as a representative of the very class of folk who profit from the troubles of American workers. Donald Trump’s braggadocio that he “alone” could reverse the trends that had harmed them was music to their ears.

With Sherrod Brown out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, a crucial question arises: Who will be the Bruce Springsteen candidate?

Ever since Ronald Reagan misunderstood the lyrics to “Born in the USA,” candidates have sought to claim Springsteen’s aura as their own because of his rapport with a certain type of American voter. He has campaigned for Democrats in the past and shown particular affection for Brown, to whom he gave a shout-out while campaigning for Obama in 2012. The senator won Ohio in 2018 after Trump took it by eight points two years earlier. And while he was flirting with a presidential run, he traveled the country speaking about “The Dignity of Work.”

With Brown out of the race, some Democrat needs to find a way to speak this language if the party has a prayer in 2020.

The candidates should start by thinking about Bruce. He is literally everything Donald Trump is not. He is self-made. He is honest. He is famously hard-working. He does not rip people off. And though he is rich, he understands and empathizes with those left behind by the global economy. This has been the primary theme of his art since 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

Springsteen has written more songs about the dignity of work than can be listed on this page, and the candidates might want to spend an afternoon listening to them. He’s written about the terror displaced workers feel when they see their children living in cars (“Seeds”). He’s written about the economic collapse of the New Jersey town where he grew up (“My Hometown”). And his fans trust and forgive him, even when they disagree with him. I was at Madison Square Garden once when the cops in front of me booed the opening of a song about a young man killed by police. (“41 Shots.”) But they cheered the next one.


More than 20 million working-class voters identify as neither Democrats nor Republicans. Democrats need to reach a majority of them if they are to win crucial states Clinton lost. The trick is, they need to do this at the same time they excite the base of women, minorities and young people to turn out in numbers sufficient to put them over the top in urban areas. Here, too, Springsteen has much to teach.

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Springsteen shows are multigenerational. I took my Kanye- and Jay-Z-loving daughter to see Bruce at the Meadowlands the week she left for college for the first time in 2016, just as I had seen him the week I left for college for the first time 38 years earlier. There were 60,000 of us — a bigger number than Trump’s margins in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — and the crowd was younger than she was, older than I was, and everything in between. OK, it was not “the promised land.” But we were an America that celebrated our differences, our immigrant past, and our belief that we could one day be better than we were. We sang and danced, but we also believed.

Bruce will turn 70 this year and yes, he is a white heterosexual male of the kind decidedly out of fashion with Democratic activists. But I’ll bet the female and non-Caucasian candidates in the race would love to have his support. The Democrat who earns Springsteen voters will have to speak honestly and sympathetically about the problems that ail the white working-class voters who pulled the lever for Trump at the same time they are able to excite the members of the base who identify with Black Lives Matter, Democratic Socialists of America, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, Greenpeace, etc.

Springsteen does that. And so, perhaps, can an honest politician who tosses the playbook of the past, ignores the polls and the consultants, and speaks honestly and authentically about the challenges we face as a nation without whitewashing our past. He or she won’t be able to solve all the political pathologies that led to the Trump presidency, much less the ones he has caused or exacerbated while in office. But they can certainly blow away the lies that have left so many millions of Americans lost and brokenhearted. And then we can all get back to work; those of us who were lucky enough to be born in the USA and those who were born to run here.

Springsteen biographer Eric Alterman is also the Nation’s media columnist and a professor of English at Brooklyn College.

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