You don’t need a college degree to understand what’s happening in our country.
Oliver Anthony, the songwriter behind the viral hit “Rich Men North of Richmond,” didn’t even graduate from high school.
But his song is the smartest political commentary of the year.
That’s because it has two parts, although most critics and many admirers picked up only one.
The song isn’t simply a class war complaint — the problem with the rich men north of Richmond isn’t that they’re rich, it’s that “they all just want total control / want to know what you’re thinking, want to know what.” ” you are doing.”
Anthony, whose real name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford, is a throwback to the popular libertarianism that gave us the American Revolution.
The song has a social and spiritual dimension that transcends its obvious economics.
Perhaps that’s easy to overlook, as Anthony’s bio sounds like something Hollywood would have dreamed up for a working-class troubadour.
He lives in a trailer in Farmville, Virginia.
While working in a paper mill in North Carolina, he suffered a traumatic brain tract, was unemployed for six months, fell into depression and tried to drown his illness in alcohol.
And he really can sing: “Rich Men North of Richmond” has poignant lyrics, but its appeal also lies in the simple catchiness of its sound, and Anthony’s voice puts automatically tuned pop stars to shame.
It would be a great film, but Anthony’s life should not be reduced to caricature, nor should his song’s message.
Look at the first verse: “Overtime hours for bulls–t pay” is the phrase that grabs everyone’s attention.
If low wages are the problem, the obvious solution is more money. As such, some business conservatives say Anthony (or the version of him in the song) should just pack up and move to where jobs pay better, while progressives would simply dictate higher wages or provide generous welfare benefits.
Those answers don’t address what Anthony is actually singing about, which is not just about money, but about “selling my soul.” . . So I can sit out here and waste my life / drag myself home and drown my sorrows.”
The song’s economic agenda is indeed distinctly Reaganist, as Anthony expresses his anger at inflation (“dollar ain’t s–t”), taxes (“it’s taxed to no end”), and welfare as a substitute for work (“if you “You’re 5’7” and weigh 300 pounds / Taxes shouldn’t be paid on your bags of fudge).
This isn’t just a rejection of progressive panaceas, it’s a powerful retaliation to smug conservatives who think moving to Florida is a substitute for sound monetary policy and an anti-tax agenda meant to appeal to people like Anthony, and not only rich men north of Richmond.
Moving from one end of the country to the other doesn’t help anyone escape inflation, and writing off workers who fret over their taxes and how they’re being used is a surefire way for Republicans to win the House, Senate and Electoral College lose. regardless of how prosperous things may seem in certain red states.
However, Anthony’s song is also a warning to the populist right.
The rich men north of Richmond have created conditions in which wealth flows to the financial sector, the highly educated, and the politically connected.
In the Virginia context, “north of Richmond” is synonymous with the suburbs of Washington, DC, which wield enormous political power and economic influence over the state.
This is the “total control” Anthony sings about.
The problem facing the people north of Richmond is not just their progressive politics or acting as insiders in a system they control, but control itself – the feeling that the fate of men like Oliver Anthony is being decided far away from where they are have no voice.
This is how Americans felt during the Revolution: They had no representation in a distant legislature where decisions about taxes, trade, and the whole economic life of the colonists—not to mention their religious and political life—were made by strangers.
If the counties (and states) north of Richmond were red instead of blue, and the workers south of Richmond were treated with magnanimity rather than with neglect or contempt, there would still be a problem, because what these men need is not patronage but control over their own lives and a say in the fate of their own communities.
No wage will ever be high enough unless the men who earn it are free.
Rich Men North of Richmond, like populism itself, is about control, not wages.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.