Bruce Springsteen wrote the essential song of the 2012 campaign before he or anyone else knew what the year’s political landscape would look like, or the extent to which it would be influenced by shocking violence at a movie theater in Colorado and a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy or Mitt Romney’s dismissal of 47 percent of Americans as dependent class unworthy of his concern.
But Springsteen recognized something in the America discourse, a longing for a touchstone theme. “I’ve been lookin’ for the map that leads me home…” he wrote.
That search led him back to the most basic of American premises, the most patriotic of American premises: “We take care of our own.”
But Springsteen did not dare suggest that it would simply happen. In fact, he warned that it was a promise often left unfulfilled:
From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home
here ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown…
Springsteen “got it,” perhaps even before he knew he “got it,” that the 2012 election would answer core questions: “Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me? Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?”
And he answered for progressive America:
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own
We take care of our own…
Those words were destined to become the soundtrack for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.
That destiny was confirmed when Americans heard Mitt Romney tell his big-dollar donors:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it… My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Then Romney picked as his running mate Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who had for years sought to turn Americans against one another — as “takers versus “makers.” Romney might preach a crudely divisive politics, but Ryan practiced it, and promised to codify it in a roadmap to an American future where America would not take care of its own.
Romney and Ryan made the 2012 election a test of whether America would be a “We Take Care of Our” country or a nasty and brutish place where any hope for prosperity who rely on the generous good spirits of millionaires and billionaires who, like Romney, had offshored their money to Swiss banks and Cayman Island hideaways.
After taking care of his own by leading a fundraiser that collected $23 million to aid the people of New Jersey, New York and other states devastated by Hurricane Sandy, Springsteen hit the road Monday with President Obama, on a remarkable final journey across the political promised lands of Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa.
“For the last 30 years I’ve been writing in my music about the distance between the American dream and American reality,” the singer told the crowds in Madison, Columbus and Des Moines. “I’ve seen it from inside and outside: as a blue-collar kid from a working class home in New Jersey – where my parents struggled, often unsuccessfully – to make ends meet… to my adult life, visiting the 9th Ward in New Orleans after Katrina, or meeting folks from food pantries from all around the United States, who work daily to help our struggling citizens through the hard times we’ve been suffering.”
Then Springsteen spoke of the referendum: “The American Dream and an American Reality: Our vote tomorrow is the one undeniable way we get to determine the distance in that equation. Tomorrow, we get a personal hand in shaping the kind of America we want our kids to grow up in.”
On the night before the day, on a street in the middle of America, Springsteen expressed his deepest fears about the direction of the republic, and his highest hope.
“I am troubled by thirty years of an increasing disparity in wealth between our best off citizens and everyday Americans,” he said. “That is a disparity that threatens to divide us into two distinct and separate nations. We have to be better than that.
Then, with a hug from Springsteen, the president of the United States took the stage, each stage, on the last day of his last campaign and spoke of being “focused on one of the worst storms of our lifetimes.”
“Whenever I talk to folks in the region,” he said, “I tell them the same thing that I say whenever a tragedy besets the American family, and that is, the American people come together and make a commitment that we will walk with these folks whose lives have been upended every step on the hard road ahead and the hard road to recovery. We’ll carry on. No matter how bad the storm is, we will be there, together. No matter how bad the storm is, we recover together.”
No one missed the metaphor. He was not speaking just of one storm, not just a physical threats. He was speaking of the economic and social storms that whip a land where crude politicians imagine citizens as "makers" and takers. He was speaking of disparities that threaten to divide us into two distinct and separate nations. And, yes, he was saying we have to be better than that.
As the long campaign gave way to Walt Whitman's day of quadrennial choosing, it was Barack Obama, not Bruce Springsteen, who sang the last line of “We Take Care of Our Own.”
“We’re all in this together,” the president said. “We rise or fall as one nation and as one people.”
Obama is already doing well among early voters. Check out George Zornick's coverage here.