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August 22, 2023

Take ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ Seriously

Like populism itself, “Rich Men North of Richmond” is about control, not wages.

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 finish high school. But his song is the most intelligent political commentary of the year.

That’s because there are two parts to it, though most critics and many admirers have only picked up on one.

The song isn’t simply a class-war complaint. The trouble with the rich men north of Richmond isn’t that they’re rich; it’s that “they all just wanna have total control / Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do.”

Anthony, real name Christopher Anthony Lunsford, is a throwback to the folk libertarianism that gave us the American Revolution.

There’s a social and spiritual level to the song beyond its obvious economics.

Maybe that’s easy to miss because Anthony’s biography sounds like something Hollywood would dream up for a working-class troubadour.

He lives in a trailer in Farmville, Virginia.

He cracked his skull working in a North Carolina paper mill, spent six months unemployed, plunged into depression and tried to drown his suffering in alcohol.

And he can really sing: “Rich Men North of Richmond” has poignant lyrics, but its appeal lies as much in the simple catchiness of its sound, and Anthony’s voice puts auto-tuned pop stars to shame.

It would make a great movie, but Anthony’s life shouldn’t be reduced to a caricature, and neither should the message of his song.

Look at the first verse: “Overtime hours for bulls— pay” is the line that catches everyone’s attention.

If low pay is the problem, the obvious solution is more money, so some economic conservatives say Anthony (or the song’s version of him) should just pack up and move wherever jobs pay more, while progressives would simply mandate higher wages or provide generous welfare benefits.

Those answers don’t address what Anthony actually sings about, which isn’t just money but “sellin’ my soul … So I can sit out here and waste my life away / Drag back home and drown my troubles away.”

The song’s economic agenda is in fact notably Reaganite, as Anthony directs his ire at inflation (“dollar ain’t s–”), taxes (“it’s taxed to no end”) and welfare as a substitute for work (“if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds / Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds”).

That’s not just a rejection of progressive nostrums; it’s a powerful rejoinder to complacent conservatives who think that moving to Florida is a substitute for sound monetary policy and an anti-tax agenda designed to appeal to people like Anthony, not just 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 angry about their taxes and how they’re spent is a surefire way for Republicans to lose the House, the Senate and the Electoral College, regardless of how prosperous things might seem in certain red states.

Anthony’s song is a warning to the populist right as well, however.

The rich men north of Richmond have created conditions in which wealth accrues to the financial sector, the highly educated and the politically connected.  In the context of Virginia, “north of Richmond” is a synonym for the suburbs of Washington, D.C., which wield enormous political power and economic sway over the state.

This is the “total control” Anthony sings about.

The problem with the people north of Richmond isn’t only their progressive politics or their self-dealing as insiders in a system they control; it’s also that control itself — the sense that the destiny of men like Oliver Anthony is decided faraway, where they have no voice.

Americans felt that way during the revolution: They had no representation in a Parliament an ocean away, where decisions about taxes, trade and the entire economic life of the colonists — to say nothing of their religious and political lives — were made by strangers.

If the counties (and states) north of Richmond were red instead of blue and treated the working men south of Richmond with magnanimity rather than neglect or contempt, there would still be a problem because what those men need isn’t patronage; it’s control over their own lives and a say in their fate of their own communities.

No wage will ever be high enough if the men who earn it aren’t free.

“Rich Men North of Richmond,” like populism itself, is about control, not wages.

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