Jeffersonian or Springsteenian Democracy?

That Super Bowl commercial could have been so much worse.

“This is Bruce ‘Born to Run’ Springsteen, and when I’m driving down Thunder Road in my Pink Cadillac listening to some Radio Nowhere looking for a Red Headed Woman, I know these aren’t my Glory Days any more. So it ain’t no sin to be glad for Cialis. Come on up for The Rising!”

Or imagine Springsteen promoting a reverse mortgage, or some prescription drug with an X and Z in its name, ending with Bruce saying “Check with your doctor, and tell ’em the Boss sent ya.”

I can forgive Bruce for recycling footage and the same damn clothes from his Western Stars movie in that Super Bowl commercial. I’ll give him a pass for the faux accent which no one in New Jersey, or maybe anywhere in earth orbit, actually sounds like. I’ll even forgive his semi-annoyed tone (“I’ve told you people all this before but I guess I gotta go over it one more time.”) And no worries about whether Bruce sold out or not. Of course he did. He has always been clear (see his autobiography and Broadway show) that he is mostly an actor playing a character called “Bruce Springsteen.”

What I can’t overlook is Bruce is just wrong. The answer does not lie in Americans reaching the middle, as Bruce sternly instructs in his infomercial, but respecting the end points on either side as valid positions.

Let’s start with the Boss himself. Despite all the guff shoveled around the media about Bruce avoiding politics for so long, that has never been the case. Very early in his career Springsteen appeared at the No Nukes concerts. Not the “let’s have some nuclear power plants but not too many” concert. His opposition to the Vietnam War grew to opposing America’s jingoistic wars broadly. His stance on economic inequality is the cornerstone of his songbook — think Nebraska and Ghosts of Tom Joad. He supported BLM before it had its own initials; remember American Skin (41 Shots) from 2001?

Bruce has also always been about partisan politics, scolding the Reagan administration throughout the entire Born in the USA album, and actively campaigning for four Democratic presidential candidates. He even joked-not joked about moving to Australia if Trump was re-elected.

A guy who calls himself The Boss has never been about seeking the middle, as he says is our goal in his commercial. He has always taken positions, proudly and clearly. And that is more than OK, it is what America should be about.

The Founders made clearer than a ringing Clarence Clemons sax solo vigorous debate was critical to their vision of a democracy. They baked that into the Constitution via the First Amendment, ensuring free speech and the right to assemble. And no middle ground there — it says “Congress shall make no law…” and with narrow exceptions the Supreme Court has kept it that way for a couple of hundred years.

The Founders had no problem with compromise when that seemed the best they could do; in the extreme they even bargained enslaved human beings into being counted as only 3/5 of a white man. But the thrust was never toward a goal of 50–50, a simplistic Springsteenian middle ground instead of the balanced Jeffersonian one. The founding documents gave equal powers to very unequal states. The whole sloppy mess of democracy is full of 2/3 of this and majority that.

There would come very different ideas on once established things like whether women could vote. But after a robust process women got the vote, an extreme position. There was no meeting in the middle, say granting women a partial vote, or only letting them vote in national elections. The key is the mass of Americans accepted the result, and the ladies getting the vote seems to have worked out for us all.

When we try to meet in the middle we usually end up with most people unhappy. In Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court tried to hit some theorectical middle in granting nearly unfettered abortion rights in the first trimester, giving the states more decision making for the second, and leaving third trimester abortions as the very difficult decision they are. The results were that from the instant the opinion was issued one side demanded even freer access to abortion while the other tried to make access difficult at every step. Roe is settled law but not a settled issue.

Contrast that with the decision by the Court to allow same-sex marriage. One side of that debate just plain lost, and the country moved on to the sideshow of arguing about baking cakes for the receptions. Meh.

What is missing today in the majority of our Red-Blue is neither side understands the process. The goal is no longer to debate and resolve and move on. Today there is little respect for the other side and no empathy, just contempt and disgust. Their opinion is not only wrong, it is insane, dangerous, bonkers, a literal threat to our survival as a nation. How many times did we hear about the end of the rule of law, the end of democracy, fascism via racism, and that the Reichstag was burning during the Trump years?

More than anyone’s ideas being wrong, we see him or her as a horrible person just for holding those ideas. The goal today is not to beat the other idea on the playing field. It is to cancel the speaker, deplatform him, hunt him down, demonize him, make it so he can’t find a job, burn his books, smite him with Terms of Service, eliminate his ideas if not the speaker himself. Or maybe impeach him as a private citizen, strip away his right to run for future office, force him out of his own house in Mar-a-Lago, and I don’t know, hear the lamentations of his women. The middle ground is a killing field.

We end up believing that accepting the results of an election is optional if our candidate loses. We take “credible accusation” as a new standard, but only of course when it produces our desired results. Doxxing someone online or assaulting them in a restaurant is justified if he commits thoughtcrime. It has gotten to the point where even journalists have joined the scolds and censors to crusade against the First Amendment today to silence an opposing view without a thought to what will happen tomorrow to their own ideas when the wind shifts.

So Bruce, would you take another crack at this commercial? You can keep the same B-roll images, even that kinda silly cowboy cosplay outfit (would a 20-year-old you have worn that into a seaside Jersey bar?) but let’s rewrite the script:

“We demand diversity now in everything but thought and don’t see the irony. We’re in danger of losing what we strived and fought for, respect for different opinions. Don’t work toward the middle. Who has risked everything for a half-baked compromise? Anyone ever washed a rental car? No, you think hard, and you stake out a position, knowing the other guy is doing the same. Then you talk it out, you argue, you stomp your feet, write Op-Eds, and organize protests. You don’t repress speech you disagree with, you listen to it, then counter its ideas with better ones.

“Then you turn it over to the wise tools the Founders granted us. They differ from issue to issue. So an election, or a Senate vote, or a court decision. And then you accept that outcome with neither celebration nor triumph and you respect those whose ideas didn’t make it. That’s our common ground.

“It’s not about trying to all think the same way. It is about grasping for a higher rung because we don’t. We all live in one country and we all in the end want a life where we can care for family, do honest work, and join in this prayer for our freedom. The messy, awkward, slow way forward is well-marked for us.

“Also, please buy this Jeep. Patty’s on me to put in a new pool at home before spring.”

Author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan and WE MEANT WELL: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts + Minds of the Iraqi People

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