Democrats stopped listening to Bruce Springsteen: How the party lost its working-class rust-belt base

Bruce Springsteen encompassed the dreams and fears of the middle class. Why have Dems stopped paying attention?

Published October 6, 2016 7:55AM (EDT)

 (Photo by Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP)
(Photo by Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP)

In 1996, Bruce Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad tour stopped in Youngstown. In the intimate setting of Stambaugh Auditorium, he dedicated his song about this struggling steel town to the community and a displaced steelworker family. The song was based on interviews with Joe Marshall and his son, Joe Jr., quotes in Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass, a  book by journalist Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson.

From the Monongahela Valley
To the Mesabi iron range
To the coal mines of Appalachia
The story’s always the same
700 tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name

We were reminded of this piece of history from (to reference another Springsteen song) our hometown over the weekend, when The New York Times ran a clever bit of political musicology, analyzing the prospects of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in places Springsteen made famous in his ballads of middle-class America.

RELATED: Bruce Springsteen’s “Chapter & Verse”: A close read of the companion album to his memoir “Born to Run”

“Youngstown” didn’t sound like the New Jersey cruising music that many of Springsteen’s fans expected. In the late ’90s, Springsteen presented the song as a lament, its working-class sense of loss embedded in a mournful, almost dirge-like sound. By the time Springsteen recorded a Madison Square Garden concert with the E Street Band five years later, it had become an anthem, simmering with red-hot anger and ending with wild guitar riffs. That’s the version Springsteen played in get-out-the-vote concerts in the early 2000s, as he traveled the US in support of Democratic presidential candidates.

Too bad the candidates — and the media elites — were too busy listening to The Boss to hear the voices of the people he was singing about. They might have picked up earlier on the resentment that accompanied the economic losses of deindustrialization — resentment that has prompted the shift of northeastern Ohio voters away from the Democratic Party, starting about the time Springsteen visited Youngstown in the mid-’90s, soon after NAFTA was implemented.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------ Bruce Springsteen Democrats