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Bruce Springsteen and the Politics of Meaning in America

How progressives can learn from The Boss.

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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.

Michael Bader is a clinical psychologist and special advisor with the Institute4change. He has over 30 years of clinical experience and has written extensively on issues at the intersection of psychology and politics.