What Bruce Springsteen Can Teach Us About Identity Politics


Lasse Thomassen, a lecturer in politics and international affairs at the University of London, has a great piece at Open Democracy on Bruce Springsteen’s unique version of “identity politics.”  He writes, “In the US and the UK, the left could learn something from Bruce Springsteen: to articulate a different narrative about collective identities–about how people ‘lost control’–it must talk in a common language.”

Here is a taste:

Springsteen is often taken as a voice for blue-collar America, and he has been happy to assume that mantle. He has come to speak for this identity: blue-collar, small-town, white (although race and racism also feature in his songs), heterosexual and male (albeit a volatile masculinity). This is his constituency, but the gap between dream and reality that he identifies for his constituency is shared by 99% of Americans.

Having said that, taking Springsteen as the voice of a particular constituency – white, male, blue-collar workers – is politically significant. These are precisely the blue-collar Democrats that Reagan turned into Reagan Democrats, and whom Bill Clinton connected so well with. They are the Democrats that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had difficulties connecting with, because of their race and gender respectively. And they are a constituency who saw their concerns echoed by Donald Trump.

I think we can learn something important from this. After the 2016 presidential election, Hilary Clinton’s campaign was criticised for doing identity politics: instead of appealing to the (white) majority, it appealed to a coalition of (non-white) minorities. It is not a true characterisation of her campaign: she spoke a lot about ‘blue-collar’ issues; others spoke a lot about her gender. However, this critique of the Clinton campaign itself relies on a form of identity politics: it starts from an assumption that the default identity of America is white and male.

Indeed, Trump was, and is, heavily engaged in identity politics: the inverse of his racist and sexist language is the celebration of white male America. An America that was, so he alleges, great – before non-whites and women took over the country. In this way, Trump links the reassertion of a particular (white, male) identity to sovereignty: the sovereignty of the American nation and the sovereignty of the individuals who identify with Trump’s version of the nation. Trump’s promise is that ordinary folks can take back control if only the (white, male) identity of the nation is re-established.

Just because Donald Trump makes good use of identity politics does not mean we should simply reject it. Instead it is a matter of how we do it. Identity politics has a bad name today: either it is the politics of those other, exotic minorities, or it is the politics of right-wing populists like Donald Trump. But it’s always something others do, and something that we – rational, liberal leftists – are above.

Can we articulate identities in a different way?. Bruce Springsteen offers one model for doing so. He has been able to articulate a vision of America – but it could also be France or the United Kingdom – that offers both a critique of things as they are, and hope that they could be different. And because of the ambiguity of his vision of America, it is a vision that is less easily blocked in than, for instance, the apparently more definite categories of ‘left’, ‘white’ or ‘male’. He is happy to wrap himself in the American flag, but he re-appropriates it, wrestling it away from right-wing nationalists such as Reagan and Trump. He tries to wrestle away the experiences of his constituency from the ways in which they have been articulated by Republicans and centrist Democrats.

Read the entire piece here.