Posted by: Jeff | September 13, 2010

Do Liberals and Conservatives View the Past Differently? Comparing Springsteen fans to Country fans

During a car ride with my lovely girlfriend this weekend, we got to discussing, as we do, music.  Specifically, we were listening to Bruce Springsteen – one of my favorite song-writers – in an effort to win her over to The Boss.  As we talked about the themes of his writing (blue-collar, American values, remembrance of the past), she remarked that many of these same themes are recurring lyrical topics in Country music as well.

I don’t listen to much Country, so I may be entering somewhat unknown territory here, but it seems to me that this is pretty accurate.  Springsteen mines many of the same American values that Country musicians do – melancholic renderings of the past long gone; a longing for a simpler, less complicated life; intense pride at being a working American.

This prompted a broader discussion about American values and representation through music.   I pointed to Springsteen as being the mouthpiece for American cultural norms, and Kate disagreed – for millions in the South, as an example, Country is more representative of life and values than The Boss.  Now, let’s put aside for a moment the fact that I can’t fathom this (huge Springsteen fan alert) – why would this be true?  They tread the same lyrical content, both capitalize on folksy populism, and seem to write for the down-trodden American worker and not the cultural elites.  Even Springsteen seems to acknowledge the topical connection between his music and country: his own track “The River” is openly influenced by Hank Williams’ “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”.

Yet, liberal cultural elites seem to love Springsteen, too, and they don’t seem to like Country all that much.  I thought for a moment that this could simply be a product of Springsteen’s well-known political leaning, and his activism for progressive and liberal political causes.  But this perhaps begs an even more interesting question – if Springsteen and Country musicians write songs about the same topics, idealize the past in the same way, and boast of an intense pride for town and country, why are their fanbases – and typical political ideologies – so divergent?

Well, a first stab at the answer could be that their view the past very, very differently.  Whereas Country’s remembrances of the past often come packaged in ruminations about the ‘good old days’, Springsteen seems to remember that past as a time in which you might imagine the future being a better place.  The past in a typical Bruce song isn’t necessarily rosier – it’s really just more of the same.  And that’s the melancholy part – all of those hopes and dreams for a world better than his parents’ is gone and washed away.  This lyrical divergence can be seen in “The River”:

I come from down in the valley,
Where mister when you’re young —
They bring you up to do, like your daddy done


Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
I got a job working construction, for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work, on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important —
Well mister, they vanished right into the air

The world Bruce writes about is one where dreams never manifest; for Country, it’s a world in which dreams have been perverted by modernity and politicians bent on transforming an idealized society.

I think this may speak to a greater divide between liberals and conservatives.  Where we all find agreement is that the world we live in today is not the world we necessarily want.  We all look back to the past with longing – Conservatives because they genuinely believe life under Reagan was better than life under Obama; Liberals because they genuinely believe that the world they envisioned creating under Reagan is better than the world they got.  Whose world view is more accurate?  I guess that all depends on what you thought of Reagan.

This conversation culminated as we drove past the 9/12 Tea Party rally taking place on the National Mall.  Today on FrumForum, a discussion arose about the nature of the Tea Party movement’s idealization of the past, and I think it is fitting.  Remarking on the oddity of Tea Partiers dressing in colonial attire and pretending to be signers of the Declaration of Independence, they write:

At the end of the day, this is just how people express their political frustration and anger at government in the 21st century, by evoking the lost era of perfection that they believe existed in the 18th century.

Conservatives look back at the way the Founding Fathers lived, and wish we could go back.  Liberals look back at the world the Founding Fathers envisioned, and wish we would have created it.

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