How 'The Boss' can explain modern America

Bruce Springsteen has produced the perfect soundtrack to the Obama 2012 campaign.

Banks of televisions greet air passengers entering the USA as they queue for passport control. From the wall above the perspex cocoons housing border agents, the monitors broadcast a visual paean to the country beyond. Clouds gush under the Golden Gate Bridge, the sun rises above the Washington Monument, a kaleidoscope of apple pies, soaring mountains and white picket fences entrances the jetlagged traveller. Cheery denizens of every colour and creed bid him welcome. It is morning in America.

Not far off, perhaps behind the queues, or in the baggage hall beyond, further monitors are tuned to CNN, or Fox News, or CNBC. Here the story is different. From their televisual pulpits, America's influentials betray the country's self-doubts and internal conflicts. Manichean social and political disunity, the rise of China and the ongoing reverberations of the financial crisis trigger angry clashes over the state of the nation. Commentators ask: in an uncertain and changing world, does the USA take care of her own?

Bruce Springsteen deploys the opening track of his new album Wrecking Ball to address this question. The result is a richly reverberant anthem entitled We Take Care Of Our Own, one that speaks to that very American dichotomy flickering across those airport screens. And for non-Americans puzzled at the bombast of the Presidential election, it provides some superb insights into the anger and energy fuelling Barack Obama's re-election campaign.

The song is pure Americana - and pure protest. Drums thump, voices whoop, a siren wails; all is subsumed into an urgent industrial throb. Fiddles and glockenspiel hint at the perky, patriotic optimism of a marching band. Springsteen, however, is has more frets than his trusty Fender. A dispirited itinerant roaming a barren moral landscape, he reports that: "The road of good intentions is dry as a bone."

Most angrily he decries the abandonment he sees around him: "From the shotgun shack to the Superdome / There ain't no help, the cavalry stayed home." He fills the final verse with questions, quasi-Biblical in their synecdoche: where is salvation - "the eyes with the will to see", "the hearts that have not forsaken me", "the work that will set my hands free" - that will rescue the wanderer from his predicament?

But he is not alone. The stamp of feet on the march punctuates his laments; the nation of which he seems to despair is restless. The American ideal remains unfulfilled; the pledge "We take care of our own / Wherever this flag is flown", repeated in each chorus, does not yet hold true. Note the reference to Katrina's victims, crammed into the New Orleans Superdome without succour. Springsteen's patriotism is, however, undiminished: his search for "the promise" continues.

Layered with dark irony, the song manages to be both satirical and earnest. Typically of the heartland genre (especially such previous Springsteen hits as Born in the U.S.A., No Surrender and Working on a Dream) it juxtaposes the unquestioning optimism of a patriotic refrain with the inadequacy of the reality. Indeed, the very words "we take care of our own" simultaneously nod at an inclusive 'national interest' and at fragmented, factional interests.

The genius of We Take Care Of Our Own is in this seamless segue from verses deploring the plight of the forgotten and the destitute to a chorus that both parodies naïve flag-wave-ery and expresses sincere belief in the possibility of renewal. Finishing not at a dead end but at a series of questions, the song exhorts the USA to rise to its own rhetoric. In doing so it joins a long tradition, lyrical and literary, that explores an ambiguity in the country's identity arising, perhaps, from the world's most famous oxymoron: "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union..."

In particular, Springsteen voices that conceptual fusion of work, political action and salvation that typifies a country in which Max Weber's 'Protestant [work] ethic' reigns supreme. In essence, this is a song about striving; with each question, each denunciation of the gap between what is and what should be, Springsteen hails the redemptive toil - "the work that will set my hands free" - required to close that gap. One is reminded of Leonard Cohen's Democracy "It's coming to America first, / the cradle of the best and of the worst. / It's here they got the range / and the machinery for change / and it's here they got the spiritual thirst."

It is no wonder, then, that We Take Care Of Our Own features on the official soundtrack of Barack Obama's re-election bid. The campaign too is all about striving to close the gap; these days few speeches by the President are complete without the phrase: "we have more work to do". It was back in 2008 that the then-Senator Obama stated: "This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected." To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson's quip about the American Revolution, his subsequent election victory "was a beginning, not a consummation" of the next phase of that process.

Four years on, unemployment is falling, but the scars of the financial crisis run deep. The troops have returned from Iraq, but Iran's nuclear programme threatens further conflict. Bin Laden is dead, but the nation now finds its preeminence challenged by a rising Asian superpower. Progress has been made on healthcare, but rising living costs, social immobility and a looming foreclosure crisis all threaten to put the American Dream yet further from the reach of the average American worker.

The song deftly exposes the tension between this tough reality and the shibboleths, those incantations of faith in a national ideal that permeate American life and, especially, the Obama 2012 campaign. But more than that, it encapsulates the energy that this tension generates; the urgency with which activists take to the streets, the zeal with which pundits attack and defend the President on the nightly discussion shows, the evangelical sense of mission that infuses rallies, debates and conventions.

So in preparation for the impending barrage of Obama 2012 news coverage, and the campaign's likely victory in November, the curious observer would be well advised to ponder that dual identity evident to the air traveller within minutes of arriving in the USA: the 'shining city on a hill' is at once an ideal achieved and an aspiration ever to be striven for. My advice: download We Take Care Of Our Own today and let The Boss explain.

Jeremy Cliffe is a Labour activist and was the 2010-11 Michael von Clemm Fellow at Harvard University.

He tweets as @jeremycliffe

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle