A new song is making waves across online spaces. “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a seemingly working class anthem by a previously unknown artist named Oliver Anthony, has been blasted out by right-wing pundits on repeat for the past week and worked its way into the zeitgeist.
The song, played on a single guitar, starts out like any working man's anthem, lamenting long hours, low pay, and economic hardship. By the chorus, however, the politics emerge as a distillation of right-wing grievance.
The song bemoans taxes and has conspiratorial edge, echoing, for example, the QAnon conspiracy theory of pedophiles running Washington:
These rich men north of Richmond/Lord knows they all just wanna have total control/Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do/And they don't think you know, but I know that you do/'Cause your dollar ain't shit and it's taxed to no end/'Cause of rich men north of Richmond
The second verse is even more explicitly political, flogging a familiar right wing hobby horse: welfare abuse.
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain't got nothin' to eat/And the obese milkin' welfare/ Well, God, if you're 5-foot-3 and you're 300 pounds/Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds/Young men are puttin' themselves six feet in the ground/'Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin' them down
Anthony’s tune has ignited a fierce debate over class politics, including on the left. Perhaps the best take was offered up by Hamilton Nolan, a labor writer for The Guardian who published a piece on his Substack titled, “Who Is Your Enemy, My Brother?” Nolan took a compassionate approach to the song, noting it had resonated with many, many Americans while pointing out that it embodied the greatest trick of capitalism: diverting anger away from capitalists to break solidarity among working people.
Nolan ended with a series of questions he would pose to Anthony in the spirit of solidarity in order to address the *misdirected* anger in the song.
“The job is not to say: Fuck you Oliver, you fat fuck, fuck you and your ten million fans, take your shitty song and go the fuck back to Cracker Barrel,” he wrote. “No. That doesn’t really help. The job is to say: Oliver, my red-haired brother, I know your rage and I have felt it and while you’re getting mad about how much tax comes out of your check, have you ever thought about how much your boss takes out of your check? Have you ever thought about how much of what you produce never shows up in your check in the first place?”
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Insightful as Nolan’s take was, however, there is good reason to wonder just how many minds like Anthony's class-based appeals will really change.
For one thing, the singer/songwriter has reportedly dabbled in right-wing conspiracy theories. His YouTube channel has a public playlist of videos called "Videos that make your noggin get bigger," which features, as Mashable reported, "a who's who and what's what of right-wing figures and conspiracy theories. People like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro and multiple conspiracy videos about 9/11 involving Jewish people."
Even beyond the impenetrability of conspiracy theories, Anthony's song speaks to a deeper resentment endemic on the political right, particularly south of Richmond. Simply put, class-based appeals and solidarity have not been enough to overcome cultural divides at scale in the past.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal revolutionized the southern economy and electrified the homes of millions of rural southerners. But that record of success wasn’t enough to prevent a realignment once the Democratic Party embraced civil rights.
Cracks in the “Solid South,” so named because the region had aligned against the Republicans since Reconstruction, became visible as far back as 1948. That was the year President Harry Truman called on Congress to pass a civil rights program and desegregated the armed forces by executive order. What’s more, he successfully advocated the adoption of a strong civil rights plank in the party platform. It was the first time a major party had taken such action.
In a small rebellion, southern “Dixiecrats” walked out of the 1948 Democratic National Convention and briefly formed their own short-lived “States’ Rights Party,” invoking a unifying principle from the old Confederacy. Though Truman’s reelection killed the new enterprise and Democrats eased off the gas on civil rights the following election, the peace was only temporary.
In 1964, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. That was followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act. It didn’t matter to the southern states that Johnson was also working on aggressive social reforms—in 1965, he also signed amendments to the Social Security Act creating Medicare and Medicaid. The die had been cast.
Recognizing vulnerability in their opposition, Republican politicians like Barry Goldwater, who had famously opposed the Civil Rights Act, capitalized on the growing discontent among southern white conservatives, deploying coded and not-so-coded appeals aimed at their racial grievance. In 1964, Goldwater became the first Republican presidential candidate to win electoral votes in the deep south since Reconstruction. He was the first Republican ever to win the state of Georgia.
Every Republican president since has employed some variation of Goldwater’s Operation Dixie, which has since become known as the “Southern Strategy.” Infamous GOP campaign consultant Lee Atwater put it this way in 1981:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—r, n—r, n—r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n—r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—r, n—r.”
The southern realignment really solidified in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan had thrown red meat to disenchanted southern whites. He said the Voting Rights Act had been “humiliating” for the south. On August 3, 1980, he delivered a speech pledging to support “states’ rights” to a crowd of more than 10,000 at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. The event drew criticism for its unusual location, just miles from where three civil rights workers had famously been murdered and buried in shallow graves sixteen years prior. Reagan also famously railed against welfare abuse, telling stories of the infamous “welfare queen” in her Cadillac and of “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps. These caricatures are widely understood to be thinly-veiled racial stereotypes of Black Americans.
What Republicans like Atwater understood better than Democrats then—and perhaps still seemingly understand better than the left—is that a deep vein of resentment runs through white southern politics that policy arguments simply cannot dissipate. The anger is generational, aimed at perceived northern ‘elites’ who repeatedly imposed their will on a region they did not understand. The defeats have been military, legislative, and perhaps most cutting of all, moral. White southern conservatives have repeatedly been not just the losing side, but the wrong side, of history.
In the documentary “Boogeyman: The Lee Atwater Story,” Tucker Eskew, a GOP strategist and the former President for Media Affairs and Global Communications under President George W. Bush, put it best, explaining that “resentment became the destiny of the Republican Party.” Out of that destiny came “Rich Men North of Richmond.
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