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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution