Culture has always been more powerful than politics. Sometimes culture is a mirror that reflects what is; sometimes it’s a searchlight pointing the way to what will be.
Right now, two of the most enduring and powerful players on our cultural stage—one a singer-songwriter, the other an actor-filmmaker; one a Democrat, the other a Republican—are in remarkable consonance. Bruce Springsteen endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008. Clint Eastwood has spoken favorably of libertarian Republican Ron Paul and has pointedly said of President Obama, “I’m not a fan of what he’s doing.” Springsteen exploded on the scene in the ’70s, singing about “tramps like us” and “the runaway American Dream.” Eastwood preferred making punks’ heads explode, begging them to give him justification to kill them: “Go ahead, make my day.”
Yet Springsteen’s songbook and Eastwood’s script sound a lot alike these days. In their own way, each of them is giving voice to a new mood. In his new single “We Take Care of Our Own,” the Boss is at his blue-collar best, singing about “knockin’ on the door that holds the throne” and of “good intentions gone dry as a bone.” But rather than simply rage or surrender, Springsteen turns to defiant determination. Ripping open the barely scabbed heartbreak of Katrina, where dozens of Americans died, he roars, “We take care of our own/Wherever this flag’s flown.”
Eric Alterman has long been one of America’s most trenchant political commentators. He is also an enormously knowledgeable Springsteen fan. Alterman’s latest book, The Cause (written with Kevin Mattson), combines the two. It is an important analysis of postwar American liberalism, so of course it includes a chapter on Bruce Springsteen—the poet laureate of working-class liberalism. Springsteen’s America, Alterman writes, is “one in which working men and women were imbued with dignity, even heroism, where gays were embraced as brothers and sisters, where blacks and whites worked and played together, and where ‘nobody wins unless everybody wins.’” In his efforts to reignite America’s communitarian spirit, Bruce is Martin Luther King Jr. with a Fender Esquire.
The polar opposite of The Boss is Dirty Harry: one man, alone, standing against corruption, crime, and chaos. The embodiment of rugged individualism, he’s Milton Friedman with a Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum.
Yet Eastwood seems to have arrived at a similar place as Springsteen. Eastwood’s Super Bowl ad for Chrysler sounded like a script from The West Wing—or even (God forbid) an ad for Barack Obama. Ramrod straight, Eastwood strides through the half-light and defiantly snarls that the dimness is a new dawn, not dusk. “People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re gonna do to make a comeback ... The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together. Now the Motor City is fighting again.”
We all pulled together. We take care of our own. Take those threads and you can weave a tapestry of an American comeback. One that wears the scars of the past like medals of valor. One that honors the strength of the individual and celebrates the spirit of unity. Above all, it is a love story, deeply patriotic. Not in the sappy, simple way of middle-school puppy-love patriotism. Rather it is the deep, soul-sharing love of an elderly couple on the front porch. They’ve been through the battles and have emerged, as Hemingway said, stronger at the broken parts.
Barack Obama is no Bruce Springsteen, and Mitt Romney is no Clint Eastwood. But at least our president is telling a story of renewal, revival, and rebirth. Perhaps that’s why Karl Rove pronounced himself “offended” by Eastwood’s ad—its unabashed faith in an America that comes back by coming together is heresy to today’s GOP, whose mantra seems to be “We’re All in This Alone.” Republicans, says Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, “risk looking like they’re rooting for America to lose.”
Yes, both Republicans and Democrats can root for a revival of the Motor City. But do they? Mitt Romney, the son of an auto-company CEO, famously said that GM should have been allowed to go bankrupt. Now that the world is hearing the roar of our engines again, in Eastwood’s words, Romney seems almost disappointed.
Something’s happening here. From the Boss to Dirty Harry, our leading cultural indicators are foretelling a gritty, gutsy, all-American comeback. If the president is lucky, it will accelerate during Springsteen’s upcoming concert tour, build through the Olympics, gain steam during the political conventions, and crescendo in November.