torsdag den 1. december 2016

Springsteen and the election

On November 8 the Democrats lost the White House because they lost the battle for the working class to a billionaire. This humiliating defeat could have been avoided if they had listened to a completely different billionaire: Bruce Springsteen. Through four decades, Springsteen has - more or less directly - supported the Democrats, but the two politicians who have had understanding for and benefitted from the insight that – among other places – can be found in Springsteen, have both been Republicans: Reagan in 1984 and Trump in 2016.
It has been argued that the Democrats lost the battle for the White House because Hillary Clinton was everything that the voters could not stand. It seems to be an unfortunate analysis. Hillary actually got far more votes than Trump. The figure is approaching a plus for Hillary of 2 million. Trump is The Minority President. It seems closer to the truth to argue that Hillary Clinton simply missed a segment of the American population in her campaign. If Hillary had won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, she would have won the election. Pennsylvania was lost by about 70,000 votes out of 6 million. Wisconsin was lost by only 30,000 votes out of about 3 million. Had she also taken Ohio, victory would have been compelling. Pew Research has made a thorough analysis of the figures behind the choice:

"In the 2016 election, a wide gap in presidential preferences emerged between those with and without a college degree. College graduates backed Clinton by a 9-point margin (52%-43%), while those without a college degree backed Trump 52%-44%. This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980. […] Among whites, Trump won an overwhelming share of those without a college degree [...] " (my italics)
(Pew Research, 2016)

The conclusion is crystal clear: If Hillary had had just a little more insight and interest in rust-and coalbelt white voters with low level of education and low job security, she had today been The President Elect. And that's exactly the segment that Springsteen has analyzed and strewn through his music and poetry.

Springsteen's analysis can be traced far back in the production. At least back to the album The River from 1980. On “Independence Day”, we are witnessing a scene in a kitchen in a working class family in New Jersey. It is, ironically, Independence day, the United States ' major national holiday, but also a day where his son here in the kitchen declares himself independent of his parents’ lifestyle and at the same time seeking to make his father independent of his illusions: "it's just different people coming down here now/and they see things in different ways/And soon everything we've known will just be swept away/So , say goodbye, it's Independence Day ". The son is probably right, but what he doesn’t see is that it is an independence and a change his father basically doesn't want, but rather fears with an intensity reminiscent of the one experienced in Europe when refugees from Syria suddenly were wandering on the highways. What is happening to the world? What is happening to my world? One wonders if Hillary Clinton and other established politicians in the Western world truly understand the fear. Springsteen did. Trump does.

On The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) the tone is far more raw, and the irony is given notable emphasis on the title track:

Men walking ' long the railroad tracks
Going someplace, there's no going back
Highway patrol choppers coming up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretching ' round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleeping in the cars in the southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest

"The New World Order" is precisely what the father from the kitchen in New Jersey does not want, and at the same time, it was in 1995 what everyone from the elite — including former President Bill Clinton – talked about and wanted it. We spoke with Fukuyama of the end of history and a development towards peace, stability, and liberal democracy throughout the world. But here Springsteen rhymes "world order" with "shelter line stretching round the corner". No one knows where you are going. Just "someplace". On the other hand, they are fully aware that "there's no going back". And finally the hopelessness is summed up in the asyndetic anaphora: "No home, no job, no peace, no rest." For how long can the sentiment thrive side-by-side with confidence in Washington and established politicians?

On the same album we find the song "Youngstown", and here we are in the middle of the rust belt where Hillary lost the election campaign:

Here in north east Ohio
Back in eighteen-o-three
James and Dan Heaton
Found the ore that was linin' yellow creek
They built a blast furnace
Here along the shore
And they made the cannon balls
That helped the union win the war
Here in Youngstown

The historical consciousness and pride are palpable. We are in 1803 way back in time, immediately after the war of independence and the establishment of the new Constitution. "Here" is repeated three times as an insistence on place and local identity being important, and this importance is merged directly with national history and identity when it is stated that "they made the cannon balls/That helped the union win the war/Here in Youngstown". A distinctive feature of the political elite's new world order has been to insist that places and their history have no meaning in themselves.
Awareness of and pride in history are coupled with frustration when the song's narrator remembers his father:

Well my daddy come on the 0hio works
When he come home from world war two
Now the yard's just scrap and rubble
He said, "Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do"

In the current political situation, the anger is alsodirected at "them big boys”. Paradoxical, perhaps, but who can really with hand on heart say that Trump more closely represents "Them big boys" than Hillary Clinton does? Voters in the rust belt have seen her as the elite representative and thus as a representative of the destruction of values and communities like "Youngstown". The song's ending gives us an interesting image:

When I die I don't want no part of heaven
In would not do heaven's work well
In pray the devil comes and takes me
Two stand in the fiery furnaces of hell

can't ignore  the notion that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats generally have offered precisely "part of heaven." With Clinton, we find the value-based, minority-oriented, liberal policy that resonates so well along America's coasts and among the well-educated (and among very many Europeans). If one realizes that Trump offered a job at "the fiery furnaces of hell", one sees an important part of his success. Trump Digs Coal, as it was boldly punned in the coal and rust belt. And coal was, indeed, black gold for the man from Trump Tower. When the labour movement arose in Europe and shaped a society where there was respect and security for the working people, they offered part of heaven, but there was an energy and determination which can be found at hell's Fiery Furnaces. From this energy, the earth  shall rise on new foundations. Through this determination nought can be made all. But is it visible through misty hipster glasses across the rim of a Cafe Latte?

After the financial crisis, which was the final nail in the coffin for many American communities, Springsteen released the album Wrecking Ball. In the song "Jack of All Trades" we meet the irrepressible and competent worker who seeks to encourage his wife:

I'll hammer the nails, and I'll set the stone
I'll harvest your crops when they're ripe and grown
I'll pull that engine apart and patch here up 'til she's running right
I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be alright

Through the whole song one feels the fragile surface of optimism, and occasionally it is pierced by realism:
The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin
It's all happened before and it'll happen again
It'll happen again, they'll bet your life

The realism is thrillingly cynical when we rather than the expected "you can bet your life" get "they'll bet your life". A wife's life is in the hands of the elite, and they gamble it on Wall Street and in Washington. Eventually the desperation breaks through:

So you use what you've got, and you learn to make do
You take the old, you make it new
If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight
I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be alright

The words "bastards" and "shoot'em on sight" come unexpectedly and shockingly from this grounded and fundamentally decent narrator. Here we see the anger, and we hear it in Toni Morello’s heartbreaking guitar solo.
On the title track, we meet a man raised with and by the steel industry: "I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago." With the demolition of Giants Stadium as real and symbolic backdrop, the song shows a strong and completely hopeless defiance. All is lost, and only in the hopeless spite does the narrator find a dignity which gives a small spark to life:

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away two rust
And all our youth and beauty, has been given to the dust
[…] Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you've got
Bring on your wrecking ball

One loses to a wrecking ball. But maybe one can send a wrecking ball back toward Washington?

Populism haunts Europe and the United States like a modern specter, and the traditional right wing seems to have attached itself to it in a common interest in kicking down in society. At the same time a leftist populism exists where the left gather to kick upwards in society; up against the elite. Interestingly, the Centre or centre-left do not succeed in exploiting or correcting populism. Perhaps they should try to listen to songwriters and authors like Springsteen. Perhaps we should try to find and exploit the energy obtained at "the fiery furnaces of hell".

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