New York Times columnist David Brooks has penned an interesting column about Bruce Springsteen. In it, he argues much of Springsteen’s success comes from his authenticity. As Brooks notes, Springsteen resisted the urge to “broaden his appeal,” and, ironically, became a global icon in the process.
There is a good lesson to be learned here. But Brooks errs when he tries to apply this lesson to politics. His advice?:
Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.
Brooks’ argument sounds refreshing. Aside from a few interesting figures (such as Springsteen fan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie), the days of national political figures exhibiting regional peculiarities and larger than life personalities are long gone. Brooks’ longing for more authentic political figures is understandable — but it’s also unrealistic (and unwise), given our political culture.
Creative types — artists, writers, etc. — can be wildly successful by appealing to a small fraction of the public. A blogger who manages to convince only 1 percent of the American population to read his or her blog would be a dominant figure in that profession. A musician could do the same and be very wealthy. There’s often little incentive to try to appeal to everyone. In fact, trying to pander to a mass audience can actually water down your message or brand. It looks like you’re trying too hard — like you’ve “sold out” or become too commercial.
But art and politics are different arenas. Our politicians may sound “focus grouped,” but in many ways, this is by design.
Springsteen doesn’t need a majority of Americans to buy an album or attend a concert in order to be wildly successful. If people from Alabama or Montana don’t connect with a given song about the New Jersey turnpike, so be it. But to become president in 2008, Barack Obama had to convince around 65 million people that he was fit to run the country … for the next four years. That requires a degree of blandness.
And as boring as that might make my job, this is probably for the best. Our two-party system (50 percent plus 1) discourages some interesting — but also very risky or dangerous — candidates.
This may mean we’ll have to put up with Mitt Romney referencing NASCAR’s team owners instead of drivers (or Obama calling the Miami Heat the Miami “Heats”). Our system may be far from ideal, but it’s still better than most of the alternatives.