Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Q Day 4: Springsteen and the Dems

Cobly asked three great questions about parties, and I wish I could get to them all, but he hooked me for sure with this one:
I know how he would answer this, but is Bruce Springsteen a member of the Democratic Party? I don't mean what his political beliefs are, those are clear. I mean does he fit into the broad definition of political parties, the networks and coalitions of people invested in the party's success even if they don't hold an office or a staffing job?
OK, first of all, there's the question of whether he's a Democrat in the old sense of "party in the electorate." For that, I think what matters is behavior: if one generally votes for Democratic candidates, then for all practical purposes one is a Democrat in this sense. Whether we want to call party identifiers who are just voters "members" of the party is, once you get that far, just a semantic question.

But what I think the question is getting at -- and what I think is more interesting, really, is about what I've taken to calling "party actors." And for that, I think the answer is probably a qualified yes (given that I really don't know what Springsteen actually does in overtly political terms, beyond appearing at big rallies during presidential campaigns).

To back up: American political parties in the active sense, in the sense that they do things and have positions and the like, are composed of party actors who fall into several categories: formal party staff and officials; politicians; activists; campaign and governing staff, including party-aligned consultants; party-aligned interest groups; and the partisan press.

Where does Springsteen fit in? He's obviously not, say, executive director of the New Jersey Democratic Party (a formal party organization). Nor is he a staffer for any Democratic candidate or New Jersey governor, or a legislative assistant for Robert Menendez. So we can think of him as an a particular type of activist.

We might, also, think of his music and whether that qualifies him as...I don't know. Partisan press? Not really. But perhaps, or perhaps we need another category for ideas and symbols at that level...not the policy level, but a more abstract one.

That is: if that's what he's really doing. There's a bit of a factual question here that I don't know about -- does Springsteen get involved in primary elections at all? Does he attempt to influence the party at the issue level, and if so is he actually influential?As an activist, is he in the subgroup that donates substantial chunks of money? Does he personally lobby Democratic politicians on issues he cares about? If so, does he do it in some organized fashion through some extension of the party network, or does he really do it alone, as a celebrity?

But of course we don't need to just ask these questions about one particular celebrity. Once we understand that an informal party network is important, we need to ask it of everyone within that network (indeed, we need to ask it of people within the formal party structure, too; there are cases, perhaps many of them, in which the formal party merely performs some fairly menial duties and all the real action is elsewhere). There's no assumption, at least for me, that either the different components of this expanded party are equally important, or that people within them will have equal influence, or that any of it will stay the same over time.


  1. Obviously, we don't know everything about what Bruce does behind the scenes. We do know that he gives lots of money to food banks, and encourages his fans to do the same. And he plays lots of benefits ... not sure where this fits. Point is, he gives money and/or services in support of specific causes.

    He avoided partisan party proclamations for a long time. When he did finally start speaking out, it was anti-Republican more than it was pro-Democrat. I believe Kerry was the first presidential candidate he openly supported, and he has backed Obama in the last two elections. The most recent election, though, saw Bruce staying out of the action until pretty late in the game, and he made it clear, in a quiet way, that he had been inspired by Obama's victory but disappointed in some parts of his actual work as President.

    I'd say his politics are a blend of standard American populism and individualism. He recognizes the irony of being a populist who is worth $200 million.

  2. Yeah, you correctly identified my question- sorry it was a little garbled, it was early, and I couldn't remember all the proper terminology. But I was trying to figure out if he's a "party actor".

    I can fill in a bit of the factual details (and, in the process, appoint myself the official Plain Blog Springsteen guy). I know Springsteen endorsed Obama in 2008. The primaries were still going on, but it was clear to close observers that Obama would be the nominee (how close of an observer is Springsteen? I don't really know). He has pressed hard on certain issues, especially disaster response, though he has lobbied both parties on those measures. He has donated money, but I don't know how much.

    The big question, to me, is what he's doing with his music. He certainly pushes certain issues in certain songs ("Death To My Hometown" "Devils and Dust" and "Livin' in the Future" are the most explicit, I think), and those issues are Democratic issues (by default). But I wouldn't say he's pushing them in a partisan way, advocating for specific legislation or politicians. The majority of his music isn't even that explicit, though. It certainly speaks to a certain belief in how society ought to be, and that belief probably has a lot more appeal to lefties, but again, it's not a specific partisan message.

    What gives me pause, though, is that Springsteen has become a reliable electoral tool for Democrats. He held rallies in 2004, 2008, and 2012. In 2012, he initially indicated he would NOT hold such rallies, and criticized Obama for some things. But eventually, he hit the road anyway. I think that that indicates a level of...obligation that you don't see in non-actors.

    I think there's something of an analogy to the Rush Limbaughs of the world (though I would obviously argue that Springsteen doesn't have Rush's baggage, and is a more effective communicator). Limbaugh will officially claim he's not a strict Republican, and criticize the Republicans heavily. And yeah, a huge part of his show is nominally non-partisan (criticial of Obama, sure, and laudatory of conservative goals, but sometimes blurring the lines specific parties). But, when election day comes, he ends up advocating for the election of the Republican candidate. Springsteen seems to do the same thing- with quite a bit more grace, to be sure, but still. Broadly supportive of the party's goals, advocating those goals- though not necessarily the party itself- through public statements and creative output, eventually voicing specific support for the party when it gets close to election day. I would consider that a party actor.

    Thanks for answering, JB!

  3. Does one need to seek to act ON the party to be a "party actor?" According to Colby (who, as Plain Blog's Springsteen Guy, we must trust his account!), Springsteen is, up until the rallies, really just a famous PIE (partisan-in-the-electorate, for those who haven't been brainwashed in a PhD program). The rallies DO add an interesting twist, though....and one that I think adds leverage to the theoretical concept.

    Springsteen's rallies were pro-Dem/anti-Rep. I'm assuming they were presidentially focused almost exclusively. However, I'm ALSO assuming that neither in the rallies (nor in whatever else Springsteen has done) that Springsteen wasn't seeking to have an effect on the party per se. Advocating for one party over another in a particular election is certainly political, and it relates to parties, but does it make one a "party actor?"

    I'm not pushing back on JB, Colby, or MPR on this; I'm really looking for some theoretical clarification on the concept of "party actors." American parties are permeable, yes. And a reasonable definition of a party actor would be one that has penetrated that layer and become part of a party. The quesiton is: if a person is silent WITHIN the party, are they a party actor?

  4. For what it's worth, Springsteen donated to Bill Bradley in the 2000 Democratic primaries. You could say that associates him with a certain wing of the Democratic Party, or you could see it as a favorite son New Jersey donation.

  5. Bruce's first overt political move was to appear at the No Nukes concert. He performed at a noteworthy concert for Vietnam Veterans in 1981. He was also part of the Amnesty International world tour in 1988. He played at a benefit for the Christic Institute in 1990. I'm running out of shows/years I can cite off the top of my head :-). He has appeared occasionally in California at rallies for/against particular state propositions. He's done stuff (being vague because I don't know enough) for Asbury Park.

    I'm not sure he sees these issues as specifically related to party politics. As I said earlier, I think he's anti-Republican, because they are on the opposite side on so many issues. Even Chris Christie, who thinks of himself as the world's biggest Bruce fan, was famously ignored by Bruce for a long time, until his recent efforts re: Sandy, when Obama, talking to Christie on Air Force One with Bruce standing next to him, handed Bruce the phone and suggested he say something to the Governor.

  6. By my definitions, developed in practice as much as theory, Springsteen is not a party actor. He is an independent actor who allies himself on occasion with candidates. Does he have anything to do with party apparatus? I doubt it. Can any party do anything for him? Not really.

    Above all--and Colby touches on this--he is an artist, not a propagandist, and so his songs are not written to support the party or its goals. So as a songwriter and performer he is not a party actor. Now when a songwriter denies permission for a candidate from one party to use one of his songs, and gives it to another, then one could argue that this is a political action, though a limited one. He is not writing songs specifically for the party. Springsteen himself made gentle fun of this in the 2012 election, when he said that President Obama called him and asked him to write a theme song, and Springsteen sang some nonsense verses--clearly he wasn't trying to write a political anthem.

    I expect his support gets him an audience with candidates where he can ask questions and express his views. But I doubt he's exchanging info with a party chair on any level.

    The Democratic Party has organizational allies who do become party actors: labor unions were very much party actors in the past I know about, and perhaps now there are others. I imagine however that issues and lobbying groups want to retain the independence to diverge from party policy or the actions of party members in office or candidates. They are often actors in elections, but I wouldn't call them party actors either.

    Who is a Democrat? Somebody who is registered to vote as a Democrat. I don't see the point of expanding the definition, and I do see reasons not to expand it.


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