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

Photo: Getty Images
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Caroline Lucas: The Prime Minister's narrow focus risks our security

Military force may sometimes be necessary. But resorting to bombs and bullets comes at a high price to those caught up in conflicts abroad and, all too often, to the future security of people across the world.

The protection of national security is the first duty of any government. In the dangerous world in which we live -where threats range from terrorist attacks, to public health emergencies and extreme weather events – we all want to feel safe in the knowledge that the government is acting in our best interests.

David Cameron’s speech yesterday marked a change in tone in this government’s defence policies. The MOD is emerging from the imposition of austerity long before other departments as ministers plan to spend £178bn on buying and maintaining military hardware over the next decade.

There is no easy solution to the threats facing Britain, or the conflicts raging across the world, but the tone of Cameron’s announcement – and his commitment to hiking up spending on defence hardware- suggests that his government is focussing far more on the military solutions to these serious challenges, rather than preventing them occurring in the first place.

Perhaps Cameron could have started his review by examining how Britain’s arms trade plays a role in conflict across the world. British military industries annually produce over $45 billion (about £30 billion) worth of arms. We sell weapons and other restricted technologies to repressive regimes across the world, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Kazakhstan and China. Furthermore Britain has sent 200 personnel in Loan Service teams in seven countries: Brunei, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – helping to train and educate the armed forces of those countries.  Any true review of our security should certainly have looked closely at the effects of our arms industry- and the assistance we’re giving to powers in some of the most unstable regions on earth.

At the heart of the defence review is a commitment to what Cameron calls Britain’s “ultimate insurance policy as a nation’ – the so-called “independent nuclear deterrent”. The fact remains that our nuclear arsenal is neither “independent” – it relies on technology and leased missiles from the USA, nor is it a deterrent. As a group of senior military officers, including General Lord Ramsbotham and the former head of the armed forces Field Marshal Lord Bramall wrote in a letter to the Times “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism.”

The cold truth is that France’s nuclear weapons didn’t protect Parisians against Isis terrorists, and our own nuclear weapons cannot be claimed to make us safer than Germany, Spain or Italy. The unending commitment to these weapons, despite the spiralling costs involved and the flimsy evidence in their favour, seems to be closer linked to international grandstanding than it does our national security. Likewise the Government’s further investment in drones, should be looked at closely, with former defence chiefs in the USA having spoken against these deadly pilotless aircraft and describing their use as a “failed strategy” which has further radicalised populations in the Middle East. A serious review of our defence strategy should have looked at the possibility of alternatives to nuclear proliferation and closely investigated the effectiveness of drones.

Similarly the conclusions of the review seem lacking when it came to considering diplomacy as a solution to international conflict. The Foreign Office, a tiny department in terms of cost, is squeezed between Defence and the (thankfully protected) Department for International Development. The FCO has already seen its budget squeezed since 2010, and is set for more cuts in tomorrow’s spending review. Officials in the department are warning that further cuts could imperil the UK’s diplomatic capacity. It seems somewhat perverse that that Government is ramping up spending on our military – while cutting back on the department which aims to protect national security by stopping disputes descending into war. 

In the government’s SDSR document they categories overseas and domestic threats into three tiers. It’s striking that alongside “terrorism” and “international military conflict” in Tier One is the increasing risk of “major natural hazards”, with severe flooding given as an example. To counteract this threat the government has pledged to increase climate finance to developing countries by at least 50 per cent, rising to £5.8 billion over five years. The recognition of the need for that investment is positive but– like the continual stream of ministerial warm words on climate change – their bold statements are being undermined by their action at home.

This government has cut support for solar and wind, pushed ahead with fracking and pledged to spend vast sums on an outdated and outrageously expensive nuclear power station owned in part by the Chinese state. A real grasp of national security must mean taking the action needed on the looming threat of energy insecurity and climate change, as well as the menace of terrorism on our streets.

Military force may sometimes be necessary. But resorting to bombs and bullets comes at a high price to those caught up in conflicts abroad and, all too often, to the future security of people across the world. It’s crucial we do not allow the barbarous acts carried out on the streets of Paris, in the skies above Egypt, the beaches of Tunisia or the hotels of Mali to cloud our judgement about what makes us safer and more secure in the long term.  And we must ensure that any discussion of defence priorities is broadened to pay far more attention to the causes of war, conflict and insecurity. Security must always be our first priority, but using military action to achieve that safety must, ultimately, always be a last resort.  

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.