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"Rich Men North of Richmond" Can Teach Us a Lot About American Populism

Virginia artist Oliver Anthony's viral song about working-class frustration has been lazily misidentified as a modern conservative ballad. Right-wing media has praised it as a blue-collar anthem, while left-wing media has criticized its lack of nuance. The song's polarized reception can teach both parties about populism and the rejection of a "Rich Man's" governing establishment.

Both parties should listen more closely to the viral “Rich Men North of Richmond”. For modern Republicans, it’s important to remember the multicultural roots of the country-folk tune Anthony sings. Country folk began with the migration of African folk music and the Old-time music of the working-class British Isles to the Appalachian Mountains. The steel guitar Anthony plays comes from native Hawaiian folk music. The working person is not necessarily American. Even when so, before they were American, they were immigrants, foreigners, and outcasts.

Republicans would also do well to critically examine who the “Rich Man” is and what exactly they do “North of Richmond” in D.C. Anthony blames his “bullsh** pay” and “overtime hours” on high taxes which apparently pay for the “fudge rounds” of people on welfare who are “5’3” and 300 pounds”. This is obviously not the Rich Man.

Democrats, on the other hand, could use an even more critical ear in hearing out the root of the populist sentiment that Anthony proclaims. While the Republican party has, at least in its rhetoric, taken ownership of the latest populist wave, branding it as Trumpism (with the much more authoritarian, but nonetheless rhetorically populist DeSantis-ism on the rise), Democrats seem to have abandoned populism since Sanders’s failed 2016 primary run, salvaging only its calls for higher wages and leaving its distaste for free trade, rejection of corporate interests, and even its labor union dominance to the rhetoric of Trumpism.

David Brooks of the National Review put it well recently when he said “We can condemn the Trumpian populists until the cows come home, but the real question is: When will we stop behaving in ways that make Trumpism inevitable?

Like any other art of personal narrative, Anthony’s experience of the working man is subjective and should be taken as such. That is not to say it is void of actionable meaning, though. Anthony’s primary gripe is with power-hungry “Rich Man” politicians of D.C.

Corporate lobbyism, gerrymandering, and suspicious stock trades run rampant among Democrat and Republican politicians alike. Even if populism is split on how to point the finger, the corruption it calls out most certainly exists.

One thing both right- and left-wing mainstream media outlets have in common in their reaction to “Rich Men” is the comparison of it to Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” as wholly supporting a right-wing viewpoint. However, where Aldean identifies as a conservative, Anthony has said that he places himself at the center of the spectrum.

In another song of Anthony’s, “Doggonit”, Anthony calls out both parties. He laments “folks hardly survivin’ on sidewalks next to highways full of cars self-drivin’” and “a war in the makin’”, all due to the collectively classified “city-slicker bureaucrats”.

If we tried defining Anthony’s ideology, it would be something closer to the holistic anti-government-class attitude of agrarian-libertarianism versus the label of modern conservatism slapped upon him, as he has stated that he is pursuing an off-the-grid lifestyle with his trailer home and 90 acres on which he hopes to raise livestock.

The practical nuance that mainstream liberal media claims Anthony lacks is only missing because it has no practical place in the current established two-party system. But we must recognize, at a higher level of abstraction, his populism and the broader populist tradition of country-folk music as opposed to Aldean’s openly conservative country-pop. 

Anyone who imagines that country music or the working-class white South is inherently conservative has likely not paid the same attention to the lyrics of Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Woodie Guthrie or Phil Ochs, all of whom call out wealth inequality just as Anthony does.

More recently, left-populist lyrics are heard in country music by Reba McEntire, Kris Kristofferson, and the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks, who were essentially ousted from the mainstream country-pop scene for their criticism of the Iraq War).

If it seems like the country music left is fading away, that’s due only to the identity that has been cast upon it by an established two-party system.

The layered populist message of artists like Oliver Anthony is currently – and likely will be for the foreseeable future – prone to both perversion and ignorance. If we lose our ability to think outside a binary political identity in these cases, the “Rich Man North of Richmond” will continue to do the thinking for us.

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.)

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