Blue-collar America is not faring well, and neither political party seems to care. Although touting itself as “pro-worker,” the progressive left’s obsession with race, sexual attraction, gender identity, and expanding the legality of killing unborn children has relegated “class” to a distant back of the line. The market-worshiping right, on the other hand, has long seen workers, especially manual workers, as both fungible and disposable. Meanwhile, the people who get sweaty, grimy, and sometimes injured producing the goods and services that make civilization possible—those who, unlike the laptop class, still had to show up for work during the pandemic—are sinking into financial and social oblivion as the dueling parties launch self-satisfied tweets across the ideological divide.
But a new cry has risen from the depths. “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a song by Oliver Anthony, a recovering alcoholic, former factory worker, and once amateur musician (he won’t be considered “amateur” anymore) recently went viral literally overnight. It has since been shared tens of millions of times on social media and hit #1 on iTunes. Anthony, who describes himself as a political centrist, recorded the song standing on untrimmed grass with three dogs at his feet against a dense Virginia forest backdrop. There’s no stage, no back up dancers or singers, and, as far as you can tell, no audience. It’s just a man with a guitar. And for many, including myself, it’s haunting.
Why? Part of the mystique is the rural setting and Anthony’s emotionally saturated voice. Yet what seems to be resonating with most, including those who otherwise never listen to Country music, is the message. “Rich Men North of Richmond” pulls no punches in communicating blue-collar America’s sorrow. The song begins (language warning),
I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day
Overtime hours for bullsh*t pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away
It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to
For people like me and people like you
Wish I could wake up and it not be true
But it is, oh it is
Is Anthony exaggerating or merely airing a personal grievance? No—and the statistics back him up. Even The New York Times, which has increasingly allied itself with the progressive left, has noticed that America’s working class suffers drastically higher rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic health issues, and suicide than those with college degrees and higher incomes. And the situation has only worsened in recent years as rampant inflation has eaten away the dollar’s buying power, a reality that has not escaped Anthony’s attention:
And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do
’Cause your dollar ain’t sh*t and is taxed to no end
’Cause of rich men north of Richmond.
The song’s pain, even desolation, is not only rooted in hardship; it surges from the recognition that the suffering is unnecessary: powerful people are making discrete choices—the “rich men north of Richmond” alludes to DC politicians and other powerbrokers—that are making life increasingly grim for the lower classes. Inflation is not a natural disaster; it has an entirely human cause. So too the decision to shutter factories and mines; so too the raising of interest rates; so too permitting and encouraging, by omission, fentanyl and similar drugs to ravage American communities, to the tune of over 107,000 deaths in 2021 alone; so too not prosecuting the individuals who commit and recommit crimes that make urban areas largely unlivable today (the poor, unlike the rich, cannot escape); so too the decision to allow public schools to graduate illiterate students; so too the enactment of zoning laws that prevent the construction of new communities to help ease the housing crisis; so too limiting energy production in the name of “climate justice,” which creates artificial scarcity that, in turn, causes the cost of heating and cooling to skyrocket. None of these policies (or absences of policies) are acts of God. They are acts of man—men and women who usually don’t have to suffer the consequences of what they do and fail to do.
Predictably, the song’s popularity has generated controversy, receiving sharp criticism not only from the political left but from pockets of the right, as well (those who claim to stand for “economic prosperity”). As one Twitter/X commentator sneered, “40 years ago an American hillbilly would have been lucky to own his own harmonica that costs less than a one-week supply of this guy’s beard wax.” But all click-hungry hot takes aside, “Rich Men North of Richmond” is hitting a nerve because it touches a core principle of social justice: a fair society should always reward—and never punish—those who play by the rules.
And that’s precisely the problem for much of the working class nowadays: holding a full-time job (or two) certainly counts as playing by the rules; so does staying out of trouble with the law, taking care of your health, and not abusing welfare policies (themes the song also addresses). Yet the ruling powers not only fail to reward these rule respecters. They positively punish them for noticing that they’re getting beaten with the short end of the stick: those who worry about the downward pressure illegal immigration puts on wages are branded as racists; those who protest the presence of pornography in their children’s public schools are demeaned as homo- and transphobic; those who raise voice against scandalously high energy prices are denounced as climate deniers; those who demand safe streets for their children, free from drugs and criminality, are called anti–social justice; and those who point out that the US is not living up to its founding principles of individual freedom and equality are smeared as insufficiently patriotic (though it’s the working class that supplies the armed forces with the bulk of its men and women).
In the end, “Rich Men North of Richmond” is not about a specific economic or social policy. It’s a lamentation about the fact that the most basic standards of fairness for the working class have been turned upside down and inside out. Getting called dirty names by the cultural elite as you earn subsistence wages making everyone’s lives safe, clean, and comfortable does not a stable social contract make. God willing, this song will help spark a mass renegotiation.