Bruce Springsteen, son of a bus driver and secretary, breakaway rockstar of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and childhood hero of middle-aged dads everywhere, is unequivocally my favorite musician.
Springsteen grew up lower middle class in Asbury Park, N.J., and was only able to begin performing when his mom took out a loan to buy his first guitar. Springsteen didn’t have many breakaway hits in his early years; it wasn’t until his third album, Born to Run, that he was able to achieve lasting success.
Springsteen’s working-class roots remained present in his music, even after he achieved considerable success. His song “Born in the USA” chronicles America’s mistreatment of Vietnam War veterans. “Meeting Across the River” describes a kid caught up in the mob. “American Skin (41 Shots)” tells the story of a man shot by police in New York City.
Springsteen gained notoriety because so many working-class Americans identified with the messages in his music. To be successful in the midterms, Democrats will need to do the same on the campaign trail.
Up until the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturned federal protections for abortion, Democrats had consistently trailed behind Republicans on the generic ballot, a poll of which party respondents would vote for as a whole. After the decision, however, Democrats have climbed in the polls. And while the outrage generated has given Democrats a chance, the group most enthusiastic about voting remains Republican men. Democrats will need more than just outrage to solidify a third blue wave. They need a campaign strategy that reincorporates working-class voters into the folds of their coalition. The music of Bruce Springsteen provides three methods to accomplish that.
First, Democrats can learn from Springsteen’s ability to appeal simultaneously to both moderates and progressives with authenticity. When Springsteen released “Streets of Philadelphia,” a song about the AIDS epidemic, in 1993, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,”, then seen as a step in favor of gay rights, was just beginning to take effect and support for gay rights overall was still controversial. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a law in which “homosexuals serving in the military were not allowed to talk about their sexual orientation or engage in sexual activity, and commanding officers were not allowed to question service members about their sexual orientation.” Despite tackling such a contentious topic, Springsteen remained just as popular among moderate working-class listeners as he did in the ’70s and ’80s.
Springsteen was able to strike this balance because, though he had taken an unpopular position, he had a long record of support for blue-collar efforts. John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for Senate from Pennsylvania, has managed to do the same thing.
Fetterman, the six-foot-eight, tattooed, cargo short-sporting Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania who supported Bernie Sanders in 2016, has somehow managed to unite both progressive Democrats and former Trump voters under his net of supporters, primarily by painting his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, as an out-of-touch outsider.
Fetterman leads Oz by more than three and a half points, largely because Fetterman uses every messaging mistake Oz makes as a chance to showcase his own authenticity. Fetterman has done this by taking advantage of Oz’s phoniness. His campaign pounced when Oz claimed to own only two houses (he has ten) and responded swiftly when the Oz campaign made fun of Fetterman for having a stroke, using the opportunity to talk about the health care struggles many other Americans face.
Fetterman has used Oz’s gaffes to enhance his own credibility with voters, while speaking on the issues that Pennsylvania voters are passionate about. Just as Springsteen did in “Streets of Philadelphia,” Fetterman proves it’s possible to take controversial opinions without alienating moderate bases if the candidate is authentic in their beliefs.
This isn’t to say that every Democrat needs to sport Fetterman’s fashionably-questionable cargo shorts to win elections. Democrats can also be successful by following Springsteen’s second lesson: focusing on jobs and manufacturing.
In his song “Youngstown,” Springsteen chronicles the bleak, industrial history of the eponymous Ohio rust belt city. From Youngstown’s origins of building cannonballs for Union armies to its near collapse amid the loss of blue-collar jobs, Springsteen describes the despair many of the town’s inhabitants have fallen into. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, is following that songbook by focusing on the loss of manufacturing jobs in the same area.
Ryan has achieved success by moving the debate squarely on the job opportunities progressive policy can bring back to the towns and cities that Springsteen sings of. Ryan’s campaign has been singularly focused on how green energy investments can bring manufacturing jobs back to Ohio, most recently touting a $20 billion investment to build a semiconductor factory in the state. He’s also taken a unique stance against strict abortion laws by arguing they prohibit economic growth. Ryan’s focus on helping the working class and improving manufacturing is what has changed the Ohio senate race from a likely Republican victory to a close toss-up.
The final lesson to be learned from Springsteen is to avoid despair and maintain hope. In this, we can look at Springsteen’s cheesiest yet most successful hit, “Dancing in the Dark.” Included in his Born in the USA album, “Dancing in the Dark” isn’t as complex when compared to other more serious songs in the album. It’s stupidly simple, yet just as stupidly catchy, and that’s what makes it brilliant. The levity and hope this song provides ties the album together and is one of the main contributors to the album’s success.
The upcoming elections are critically important to the nation’s future, and the outcome will have rippling effects in the years to come. But motivating voters to turn out will only work if Democrats have optimism and hope.
There are plenty of reasons for Democrats to worry over midterms this fall, but there’s also plenty of cause for optimism. In New York’s 19th Congressional District, a district former President Donald Trump won in 2016, Democrat Pat Ryan narrowly defeated his Republican opponent by two points in a special election in August, primarily by focusing on abortion.
Democrat Mary Peltola defeated former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in August for Alaska’s only House seat, marking the first time the U.S. has had a fully indigenous representative in Congress. Most significantly, in Kansas, a state Trump won by nearly 15 points in 2020, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have outlawed abortion failed, with 59% voting against the proposal. Historical midterm trends still predict a Republican victory this November, but these special election successes are concrete signs that Democrats are gaining ground. It’s still too early to start celebrating but some cautious optimism is appropriate.
The nominees for this election cycle have been chosen, and the outrage generated by Dobbs has reopened doors previously closed. If Democrats want to win in November, they’ll need to listen to some classic rock and exhibit these values. They need to be authentic and optimistic. They need to be candidates who are, as the Boss would put it, born to run.
John Kapcar is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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