The Only Middle Worth Finding Means Picking a Side
Ask yourself, are we a Jeffersonian or a Springsteenian democracy?
I can forgive Bruce for recycling footage and clothes from his Western Stars movie in that Super Bowl commercial (pulled by Jeep in the wake of a DUI). I’ll give him a pass for the faux accent which no one in New Jersey, or maybe anywhere on earth, actually sounds like. And no worries about whether Bruce sold out or not. Of course he did. He has always made 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 that 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.
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 into 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 plenty partisan in his politics. He scolded the Reagan administration throughout the entire Born in the USA album. He actively campaigned for four Democratic presidential candidates. He even not-really-joking joked about moving to Australia if Trump was re-elected.
The Boss has never been about seeking the middle, as he says is our goal in the Jeep commercial. He has always picked a side, proudly and clearly. And that is more than okay; it is what America should be about.
The Founders made clearer than a Clarence Clemons sax solo the fact that 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 there’s 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 compromised when that seemed the best they could do. But the thrust was never toward a goal of 50-50, some simplistic Springsteenian middle ground rather than the balanced Jeffersonian one. The founding documents gave equal powers to very unequal states. The whole sloppy mess of democracy is full of two-thirds of this and majority that. The largest founding compromise eventually resulted in the Civil War.
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 theoretical middle in granting nearly unfettered access to abortion in the first trimester, while giving states more room to restrict it in the second and third. The result has been that, from the instant the opinion was issued, one side has demanded even freer access to abortion while the other has resisted at every step. Roe is considered settled law but it is not a settled issue.
Contrast that with the decision by the Supreme Court to allow same-sex marriage. The Court didn’t try to hit some sort of middle. One side of that debate just plain lost, and the country moved on to arguing about baking cakes for the receptions.
Today, in the majority of our red v. blue fights, neither side understands the process. The goal is no longer to debate and resolve and then to move on. Now 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, 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, that the Reichstag was burning during the Trump years?
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, to eliminate his ideas if not the speaker himself. Or maybe the goal is to impeach him as a private citizen, to try to strip away his right to run for future office, perhaps even to force him out of his own house in Mar-a-Lago. 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 him 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 in order to silence an opposing view without a thought about 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 editorials, 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 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 in the end we all 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 car. Patty’s getting on me to put in a new pool at the house before spring.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.