By now, the chattering classes of every political stripe have been dining out for weeks on the phenomenon that is Oliver Anthony’s underground hit “Rich Men North of Richmond.” I may just be one more person making stuff up and putting it on the internet (Anthony’s words in a recent Newsweek interview), but I grew up in rural East Tennessee and I teach Appalachian and rural studies to college students. From where I sit, there’s one clear reason why both conservatives and liberals misjudged his politics. It’s not about the lyrics to the song. It’s about where he is from.
Since the song’s release in early August, you can trace the boomerang arc of the culture wars in the breathless media reactions to the song’s meteoric rise. At first, Anthony was a right-wing anti-hero whose song found the spotlight on stage at the first GOP primary debate, where the candidates were asked why the lyrics were striking a chord with Republican voters. At the same time, liberals lambasted Anthony as anti-poor, criticizing the lines in the song that stereotype and condemn welfare recipients.
As both liberal and conservative politicians fell all over themselves to be on the right side of this story, Anthony himself finally intervened saying, “It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them,” asserting his emphatic political agnosticism and disgust with “corporate-owned D.C. politicians on both sides.” This assertion sent both of those sides scrambling, backpedaling their hot takes and trying, belatedly, to add some nuance to the conversation.
Well, you can imagine what happened next. By the end of the month, Nikolas Kristoff was shaming liberals in the pages of the New York Times for being too quick to judge Anthony, and the left was falling all over itself trying to reverse course from the knee-jerk judgments that once again managed to alienate the very people who by all rights should be their strongest voting base. Meanwhile, the right viciously turned on Anthony, accusing him of faking his accent and calling him an “industry plant” in full QAnon-style frenzy.
I’m not here to defend Anthony’s repugnant welfare-bashing, which is a tried-and-true tactic for undermining working-class solidarity. It’s the wind in the sails that carried J.D. Vance into the U.S. Senate. There is plenty of good commentary out there about Anthony “punching down.” Billy Bragg even used that phrase when he rewrote the lyrics to the song.
But conservatives haven’t cornered the market on blaming the poor for their own circumstances. Liberals just use different language when they do it.
Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama both stepped in that quagmire during their presidential runs (“baskets of deplorables,” “clinging to guns and religion” respectively), and plenty of well-intentioned Democratic policies like soda taxes and 1990s-era welfare reform are premised on the patronizing notion that if you give poor folks the freedom to make their own choices they won’t make the right ones. Or that government assistance creates dependency on a “nanny state.” Democrats’ embrace of neoliberal economic principles is every bit as responsible for eviscerating the social safety net as anything the Republicans have managed to get through Congress.
So yes, Anthony’s lyrics are, well, not even a dog whistle, but a regular whistle very much audible to the conservative human ear. But that’s not the primary reason the commentariat on both sides of the aisle were so quick to assume that Anthony was a right-winger in the first place. The reason is pretty clear to me: it’s because he’s from rural Virginia.
Imagine that the same song had been released by a gravelly-voiced singer from Boston or New Jersey with working-class credibility and Springsteen vibes. Would the right have been so quick to claim him as one of their own, or would they have viewed the parts of his song that are pro-poor with a bit more suspicion? Would the left have only heard the line about a 300-pound man buying fudge rounds with his welfare check, or would they have conveniently explained it away to elevate Anthony as an authentic voice of the people? I’m fairly certain that what led to the widespread (though misguided) assumption that Anthony was a right-winger was the fact of Anthony’s biography (and geography), his hillbilly accent and his Southern bona fides.
As a kid in Appalachia, I made an effort to have a neutral accent. I’m ashamed of that now to be honest, but at the time I was well aware of the assumptions people would make about me if I talked that way. I’ve heard over and over again from fellow academics from Appalachia that they’ve felt they had to do a kind of rural code switching to be taken seriously by their colleagues. I’m fairly certain that if Anthony sang those words with a Yankee accent conservatives wouldn’t have been so quick to assume he was one of them, and liberals wouldn’t have been so quick to pile on.
As many have pointed out, the lyrics have plenty of red meat for conservative listeners. But the overall message of the song is a lament for the working man and a bleak portrait of social collapse at the bottom rung of America’s economic ladder. In other words, classic Democratic talking points. But these talking points rarely ever translate into policies that actually make rural lives better. As rural sociologist Jennifer Sherman was recently quoted in The Atlantic, “If the Democrats want to figure out how to be relevant, they have to move beyond ‘Trust us, we care.”
When Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, the media was quick to blame the rural electorate for his victory. Headlines ominously touted “The Revenge of the Rural Voter,” as though rural folks hadn’t already been voting conservative for decades. Rural folks didn’t all of a sudden pivot to Trump. It was middle-class and wealthy suburban voters, long a Democratic stronghold, that jumped ship in numbers significant enough to swing the pendulum towards authoritarianism.
But the rhetoric of rural voters taking revenge on coastal urban elites stuck because it confirmed existing urban biases—it’s not our fault! Rural folks are just too ignorant to figure out that the Republicans don’t care about them. It’s those uneducated rednecks who bafflingly insist on “voting against their own best interests” who are to blame for the alarming rightward lurch in American politics.
This is, simply, factually, not true. There is overwhelming research telling us it is not true. But as long as that story continues to give cover for powerful progressives’ utter disregard and contempt for the rural poor, it will keep playing on primetime.
Emelie K. Peine is a professor and director of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound.