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 realize that he was trying to create a sense of living-room community in a theater on 48th Street. He wanted his audience to hear him singing directly. With no filter. Nothing but air between his mouth and our ears.
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 normalize hate” and “appealing to our darkest angels, calling upon the most divisive, ugliest ghosts of our past.”
I sympathize with this characterization. But rather than fortifying my worry, the show was like a balm. It gave me hope that the current populist moment will pass.
I was reminded that the U.S. has seen hard times before. 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 country rose from the difficulties of the Vietnam era, and it can pull up out of this moment, too.
There’s a sense in which Springsteen himself is evidence that tribalism need not endure. A cultural icon who has commanded the stage for decades speaks to our desire for a community not based on tribe, but instead based on culture and an artistic interpretation of American life.
This particular audience, like every Springsteen audience, had people from all stages and walks of life. My companion, a childhood friend, traveled hours to be there. Those seated near me had similar stories — people going to great lengths and expense for a common experience. After all these decades, the chords of “Born to Run” themselves have become a shared story, a demonstration that community — that “us” — does exist.
The show itself isn’t a concert and it isn’t the story of Springsteen’s life. Instead, through his music and words, he tells the tale of his growing engagement with the country. He starts as a child in Freehold, New Jersey, and tells of his hometown, his mother and father, and his desire for a larger life. In the second act, he discovers the beauty of the American desert, grapples with Vietnam and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and meditates on the possibilities and difficulties of the American dream.
His interest in and struggle with the American narrative is required of all active citizens. His engagement bolsters mine. The more public figures who model this form of active citizenship, the weaker the grip of tribalism will be.
To overcome populism, the U.S. 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.”