There’s a moment in his Broadway show when Bruce Springsteen steps away from the microphone in the middle of a song. He continues to play his guitar, continues to sing, and walks to the edge of the stage. What’s he doing? It took a moment for me to realise that he was trying to create a sense of living-room community in a theatre on 48th Street. He wanted his audience to hear him singing directly. With no filter. Nothing but air between his mouth and our ears.
The notion of community permeates the show. At the beginning, Springsteen describes his “magic trick” as his ability to demonstrate that “us” actually exists. The specific “us” — the specific community — to which he is referring is not entirely clear. But for the artist who describes his life’s work as “judging the distance between American reality and the American dream,” my mind immediately turns to the US as a national community.
The bonds that hold the American community together are not a shared religion or a shared ethnicity. They aren’t even a shared life experience — lives are different across a continental nation and, increasingly, across a widening income distribution.
Instead, the US has been a community because of a shared national understanding. It’s a creedal nation, the core tenets of which include a belief in the equal dignity of all people. Populism is damaging the core of the American identity. It seeks to build walls to keep out immigrants, not motivated by reasonable immigration policy, but instead by animus and anxiety. It attacks the idea of religious liberty through hostility toward Muslims. It attacks institutions, including the free press (and, implicitly, the First Amendment). Rather than bind Americans together, its leaders cultivate angry tribalism and white grievance.
Springsteen spoke to this in his show. “I’ve seen things over the past year on American streets that I thought were resigned to other, uglier times — things I never thought I’d ever see again in my lifetime,” he said. “Folks trying to normalise hate” and “appealing to our darkest angels, calling upon the most divisive, ugliest ghosts of our past.”
Springsteen avoided serving in the Vietnam War when he failed his draft physical. He tells a powerful story of visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington and finding the names of his friends on it. He wonders about the person who took his place. Did he live?
The more public figures who model this form of active citizenship, the weaker the grip of tribalism will be.
To overcome populism, the US needs to recover its national story, providing a compelling counter to the zero-sum narrative of tribal conflict put forward by the populist right. A songwriter won’t be enough, of course. But a cadre of national leaders and public figures reinforcing America’s core narrative could do the trick.
Springsteen and his audience give me hope that tribalism will pass — that the story can be recovered and celebrated. Or, in his words, that “the country we carry in our hearts is waiting.”