Writer and professor John Fea recently wrote a thoughtful piece for RealClearPolitics cautioning Rick Perry against using Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a campaign song. Fea recalls the issues that Ronald Reagan faced after using the song during his 1984 re-election bid. The Reagan campaign was wrong and its critics were right; the song isn’t about hope, and the frustration it depicts was ill-suited for “Morning in America.” But in the context of America today, “Born in the USA’s” critique of America fits much better on the Right than the Left.
Springsteen’s politics are well-established; he’s quite liberal and a fixture on Democratic presidential campaigns. As Fea writes, Springsteen engaged directly with Reagan’s use of his song by dedicating a performance of the bleak “Johnny 99” to Reagan in the run-up to the 1984 election.
The meaning of a work of art, however, is not necessarily limited to the political views of its creator. Dan McLaughlin has written extensively on Springsteen’s philosophical overlap with conservatism. His piece is the most thorough and careful analysis of the connections between the two. McLaughlin argues that while Springsteen is quite clearly a man of the Left, he engages with themes in his writing that the Right take seriously, like faith and responsibility for one’s own actions.
McLaughlin offers an extended riff on “Born in the USA.”
… Personally, I blame Bruce in part for the common misperception of that song; if he didn’t want it to be heard as a hymn to underappreciated patriots, he should have thought twice about releasing a video full of warm, fuzzy Americana where he played in front of the flag; about putting Old Glory on the cover of the record, and as the backdrop to the stage show, and as the backdrop to the tour posters, all at a time when the “USA! USA!” chant was at its highest ebb. But stripping away the iconography, the song itself simply tells the hard story of a guy who got shipped off to fight in Vietnam and couldn’t catch a break ever since; while it’s clearly an anti-war song (the best Bruce can come up with to describe the war’s purpose is “go and kill the yellow man,”) it’s really neither a pro- nor anti-American song, just a human story of a group (Vietnam vets) that had gotten a raw deal. And more importantly, the song symbolized the point in our history when the activist Left’s hostility to the war and the men who fought it was giving way to a broad, bipartisan consensus that the veterans of that war needed to be treated better (the early to mid-80s were the same years that saw the erection of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the election of pro- and anti-war Vietnam vets like John McCain and John Kerry to Congress).
McLaughlin correctly rejects interpretations of the song that see it as a stirring liberal call to arms. To see “Born in the USA” that way, one must see conservatism only in caricature: a philosophy espoused by a bunch of rich white folks entirely focused on protecting the gains of the well-off, and entirely oblivious to the struggles of ordinary people. But this neglects the actual motivations of conservatives, who are concerned with addressing the interests of society as a whole while recognizing that society is a complex organism that can react to change negatively.
As the opposition party in an era of reform conservatism, Republicans can engage with the themes of “Born in the USA” in 2015. The song is a blistering criticism of four parts of American society that Republicans can critique fluently: a poorly led war, the treatment of veterans, inequality of opportunity, and a weak job market. These are best examined in pairs.
Veterans and the War
A couple of verses offer an indictment of the Vietnam War, from the perspective of a disgruntled veteran:
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
In 2015, the Republican Party does not need to defend the Vietnam War. A substantial chunk of Republican support for the Vietnam War is perhaps a reflexive cultural rejection of the “New Left” that emerged in the 1960s and has come to dominate the Democratic Party. But it’s easy to reject the Vietnam War on conservative terms: it was a war without a clear aim managed by individuals who were intensely arrogant and full of hubris about their own intelligence and capabilities. (That larger critique, incidentally, can be brought back against elements of President Obama’s foreign policy: Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya come to mind. Those, though, are not themes of the song.)
One line in the song laments the ineffectuality of the Department of Veterans Affairs:
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said ‘Son, don’t you understand’
Perhaps on some level, criticizing the VA is a bit of a cheap shot; the department is facing an incredibly difficult job, and getting things done in the federal bureaucracy is essentially a nightmare. But President Obama promised to make the VA more efficient, and the department still has failed to meet the needs of veterans, to put it mildly. Federal incompetence and ineptitude should be a major issue for the Right. But the focus of that should not be abstract; it should be with an eye towards the individuals and communities that suffer because of the government’s failures, just like Springsteen’s protagonist. This is absolutely a bread-and-butter issue for Republicans.
Moreover, many veterans of that war suffered from gross mistreatment from parts of the population when they returned from Vietnam. (Springsteen himself took up the veterans’ cause, going back as far as 1978, when he read Ron Kovic’s “Born on the Fourth of July.”) The treatment of veterans is a bipartisan cause, certainly, but conservatives can take special pride in the respect they show the military. If anything, the choleric reaction of some on the Left to the release and success of “American Sniper” reignites the issue of the treatment of veterans.
Inequality of Opportunity and the Job Market
Springsteen kicks off the song by introducing his luckless narrator.
Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up
When I listen to “Born in the USA,” I hear a song with a Midwestern, Rust-Belt protagonist. (Obviously, Springsteen is from New Jersey, but I think his protagonist is something like Joe Roberts’ foil, “Frankie,” in “Highway Patrolman,” which is set in Perrineville, Ohio.) We know Republicans are targeting this voter in 2016; they picked Cleveland for their convention. The only city that would make that clearer would be Detroit.
If the narrator takes his “first kick” when he “hits the ground,” he is lamenting more than unequal outcomes. He’s not seeing equal opportunities. Certainly, both Democrats and Republicans talk about inequality of opportunity, but the Right very forcefully makes the distinction between inequality of opportunity and inequality of outcome. Democrats sometimes offer rhetorical sops about the distinction—and compellingly argue about the continuing effects of long-standing prejudices—but the party’s relentless, almost monomaniacal focus on income inequality reflects the party’s deep concern with outcomes.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has an established tradition of emphasizing opportunity, going all the way back to the party’s founders. Abraham Lincoln, for example, articulated his vision of opportunity in the context of his opposition to slavery. His remarks are still apropos:
When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life. I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son! I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition—when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! [emphasis added] That is the true system.
If there is a consistent theme underlying the Republican economic philosophy going back throughout the party’s history, it is the right of a man (and now, person) to have the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his labors. While the policy issues and challenges to opportunity have changed over time, the core value has remained intact, with Republicans like Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower—two presidents with very different policy programs—making the related case.
Presently, we are seeing a return to the rhetoric of opportunity. Among current Republican politicians, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie have explicitly visited the issue over the last few years. There are some slightly different choices of emphasis among the various Republicans: for example, in their speeches. Rubio focuses on the ineffectuality of the federal government in administering anti-poverty program, while Ryan emphasizes the perniciousness of the class-warfare mentality. The themes, though, are related: today’s Republicans believe that all people in society should have equal opportunity, and that an overbearing federal government—even one that is well-intentioned—tends to limit opportunity. With the Right renewing its focus on inequality of opportunity, we see Springsteen’s protagonist as a target for that campaign.
There are only a couple of lyrics in the song that hint at the job market. Contextually, Springsteen wrote the song in 1982, so he’s writing about the ongoing recession then.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says, ‘Son if it was up to me’
There is a certain neatness for Republicans that Springsteen chose “refinery” as the place of work that can’t hire his protagonist. Republicans really have no issue with people working in fossil-fuel extraction, and while we’ve seen an oil boom under President Obama, it has very much been in spite of his policy preferences. (Note that this is an area where the federal government is explicitly limiting opportunities to work.) We should expect that climate change and emissions will be a substantial part of the 2016 Democratic primary campaign.
Broadly speaking in 2015, it is very easy to see this line as the protagonist lamenting the regulations that prevent businesses from hiring him. As always, Republicans will need to make the case that regulations prevent hiring. Again, individual businesses that can’t afford to employ people—and individual workers that can’t get jobs—need to be the focus of that message.
The last verse of the song is one of resignation.
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go
But considering what the protagonist has said already, his despair is more than a little justified. He lacked opportunities. He fought in a terribly managed and arguably unnecessary war. He was (presumably) spit on as a veteran. Who wouldn’t feel resigned to their fate?
We’re still early in the presidential campaign cycle, so it’s hard to determine the type of campaign Perry would run. An aggressively states’ rights-centered campaign might not be the most compatible with this message. Moreover, it is likely the Boss will demand that Perry stop using his song, if Perry’s campaign goes anywhere. But if he doesn’t, Perry (or another Republican) can go ahead and use it. It’s a great song for a Republican running for president in 2016: its issues can be Republican issues, too.