Bruce Springsteen’s Super Bowl ad, “The Middle,” has been rightly criticized for selling planet-killing Jeeps in the name of national unity. But even the appeal to the middle itself, in the US context, is deeply reactionary.
Middleness – the ethic and aspiration to be neither master nor slave -- has historically been animated through, and dependent, on capitalism, slavery, settler colonialism, the heteropatriarchal family. It has diverse articulations – left and right-leaning, imperialist and anti-imperialist, even racist and anti-racist – that express and respond to very specific historical geographic conditions.
But middleness is always an organizing trope – one that guides and directs political identification and action by splitting off and fixing others in place – the slave, the nonwhite immigrant, the banker, the industrialist, the independent woman, the sexual deviant, the intellectual, the communist. It works because it both provides space to express resentment and even political opposition to elites, while securing a place above others.
Today, appeals for reconciliation with the right in the US call for finding common middle ground. Anne Appelbaum put it in a recent Atlantic piece, “people should do something constructive—something that benefits everybody, lessens inequality, and makes people work alongside people they hate. . .This might not build eternal friendships, but seditionists and progressives who worked together at a vaccination center could conceivably be less likely to use pepper spray on each other at a demonstration afterward.”
Beyond the problem of false equivalence here between “seditionists and progressives,” or the curious idea that your average seditionist would happily volunteer at a Covid vaccination center, there is the problem of shared values and interests itself.
This common ground, (or “common soil” that sifts through Springsteen’s earnest, Steinbeckian fingers), produces only a commonly shared history of domination that invokes what political theorist Kevin Bruyneel calls “settler memory.” The Jeep ad at once gives us the frontier, the farm, the cowboy, the church, and the nation while disavowing dispossession, removal, settler colonialism, Indigeneity. And as always, the American idea of “the middle” promises inclusion, but always at a cost.
As if to underscore the cruelty of this point, the moment in the ad where Springsteen says, “All are welcome to come and meet here in the middle” a powerfully Christian nationalist symbol of a cross superimposed on an outline of the continental United States is displayed.
That the ad is narrated by Springsteen, that liberal balladeer of the American heartland, isn’t a contradiction. It is rather a longstanding tension. The contemporary idea of political middleness begins with the great upheavals of the 1960s – the social conflicts that erupted around race, class, gender, age, and empire. In the midst of growing divides, conservative Republicans seized on populist language of the middle to remake themselves. They would no longer be the “party of the rich” but the party of “Middle America.”
Forged in part by George Wallace’s presidential campaigns in 1964 and 1968, the idea of a sovereign people squeezed by wealthy elites and bureaucrats above and black protesters and criminals below was taken up by Nixon campaign strategist Kevin Phillips in the 1968 election to bring former New Deal Democrats into a new political coalition. What Phillips called the “Emerging Republican Majority” was made up of southern segregationists, white ethnics in industrial cities of the east and midwest, sunbelt conservatives, and western populists. Along with similar catchphrases employed by Nixon, such as the Silent Majority and forgotten Americans, the term Middle America was commonplace at the Nixon White House. Members of the administration, headed up by Pat Buchanan, even began a “Middle American working group” for a presidency increasingly obsessed with identifying and winning over this constituency.
Across 1969 and 1970 the problem of “Middle America,” “the Silent Majority,” “Forgotten Americans,” and the “white worker” was taken up repeatedly in major newspapers -- The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and in magazines such as Newsweek, Fortune, The New Republic, and Harpers. Reporting on Middle America tended to reveal a confusion as to whether it was an extant sociological demographic or a conscious political tendency.
Understood as a healthy democratic majoritarianism, an expression of that deeply republican belief that real Americans are neither rich nor poor, masters nor slaves, establishment elites nor welfare recipients; this first Middle America could be celebrated as the kind of humbling common sense that holds the nation together. But the second Middle America – not the idea but the historically-rooted political formation – was forged principally in reaction to the struggle for racial equality, and was therefore was animated, and would continue to be, by a white racial identity.
In 1976 sociologist Donald Warren produced a study of what he called “Middle American Radicals” in his 1976 book, The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation. Warren described Middle American Radicals (or MARs to use the acronym) as largely lower middle-class, white, often urban ethnic. MARs, Warren argued, had proximate roots in the Wallace campaigns of 1968 and 1972, but also in such things as the more politically ambiguous trucking strike of 1973-1974.
By late in the decade, Republican conservatives actively fought for this constituency. As Chilton Williamson wrote in National Review in 1978, “[P]opulist conservatism … is winning far more sympathy from the Old Right in the 1970s than it ever enjoyed in the Sixties when it spoke in the accents of George Wallace. No doubt this is owing in part to the tempting success of President Carter’s delicately orchestrated campaign of beer, grits, baptismal water and STP.”
Herein lies the destructive power of Middle America. It has traveled from Nixon to Reagan to both Bushes to Trump, remaking the national Republican Party as an entity fusing right-wing populism to neoliberal imperatives. But it shaped the Democratic Party over time as well, from centrist Democrats’ appeal to “the real majority” in response to McGovern in 1972 to the Democratic Leadership Council that gained dominance in the wake of Michael Dukakis’s loss to George H.W. Bush in 1988.
The United States has long considered itself a middle-class nation, and its main political traditions – at least since Andrew Jackson – are anchored in the notion that political representation and authority should derive from majoritarianism. And historically this majority has been defined white, Christian, and propertarian.
In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville aptly described the political identity of the American middle as “these eager and apprehensive men of small property” who will always oppose revolution.” But while Tocqueville described a general phenomenon which accompanied the expansion of equality of conditions, this middle was first mobilized politically in Andrew Jackson’s campaigns of that era. Jacksonianism appealed to both white settlers on the frontier and the emerging urban Euro-American working class by attacking patrician Whigs, and defending both slavery and Indian removal. This “herrenvolk republicanism” as historian David Roediger called it, was an assertion of small-holding, homesteading, and laboring whites as the virtuous producers of society.
The iterations of middleness have gone left and right, only nominally challenged within the context of white sovereignty – or what W.E.B. Du Bois called “democratic despotism.” We see it in the populist response to the Gilded Age and the rise of the corporation. There, the producer was contrasted to the parasitic plutocrat, steeped in American traditions of autonomy as freedom. It was simultaneously the language of William Graham Sumner’s deeply reactionary ‘forgotten man’: “He is the simple, honest laborer, ready to earn his living by productive work. We pass him by because he is independent, self-supporting, and asks no favors. He does not appeal to the emotions or excite the sentiments. He only wants to make a contract and fulfill it, with respect on both sides and favor on neither side.”
The Silent Majority is no longer a majority, and the Middle is fast disappearing in this new Gilded Age. Under these conditions, the right has become increasingly militant in its commitments. That is why appeals to reconciliation, such as Springsteen’s Jeep ad, are appeasement with something increasingly dangerous.