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We Need To Take "Rich Men North of Richmond" Seriously
It's a complaint on behalf of millions, albeit misplaced
But why does this song resonate?
Oliver Anthony is clearly talented. Great voice. Catchy sound. Intriguing song title.
The lyrics and their various messages are the key, however. The song starts off like a working-class ballad. Anthony is telling the story of working himself to the bone.
He’s wasting his life away; a message many in both the blue and white-collar ranks can probably relate to in one way or another.
Anthony appears to blame the system here, singing how it’s “a damn shame what the world’s gotten to for people like me and people like you.”
At this point, it’s unclear what people, if any, he’s specifically talking about. Or if it’s people generally in the workforce. Like an American Beauty situation where he’s decrying the “normal” American life while hoping for something greater.
Anthony just wants to “wake up” and have it “not be true”, but “it is, oh it is.”
Then Anthony hones in on what he’s referring to. How he’s “living in the new world with an old soul.” And how:
“These rich men north of Richmond, Lord knows they just want to have total control.”
Still, it’s somewhat vague. Is Anthony referring to rich men ONLY in Washington, D.C.?
As you can see from the map above, D.C. is north of Richmond, Virginia, but so is the entire northeast, including New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, etc.
Plenty of rich men!
“They want to know what you think, want to 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.”
If the song stopped here, we could fairly attribute the message to out-of-touch politicians. Maybe even financial elites. Fat cat CEOs. Income inequality.
But the song takes a hard right turn.
“I wish politicians would look out for miners, and just minors on an island somewhere.”
For the first time, Anthony zeros in on politicians. And not just any politicians, but those who are not looking after coal miners. Taken in the context of the remainder of that sentence and song it’s clear he’s blaming Democrats.
The “minors on an island somewhere” evokes not only Jeffrey Epstein but the common far-right trope of Democrat-run pedophilic cabals. You know, the types that operate out of Washington, D.C. basements.
This is where I start to have big problems with the song. Not because Anthony and others might think this, but because the blame is largely misplaced.
With regards to coal mining and Jeffrey Epstein, for example, Eric Levitz pointed out the following:
“In fact, last year, every Democrat in Congress voted for legislation that ensured permanent funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which pays out $149 million in benefits for miners suffering from black-lung disease. Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, meanwhile, provided $200 million in new funding for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Finally, $4 billion of the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean-energy funding is reserved exclusively for projects in communities with closed coal mines or retired coal power plants so as to provide employment opportunities for jobless miners. By contrast, there is no public evidence that any Democrat in Congress or the White House traveled to a private island with Jeffrey Epstein.”
Nowhere in this song does Anthony blame company bosses, corporations, shareholders, taxes that benefit the rich, or income inequality.
Instead, he goes on to blame the “obese milking welfare” and how if you’re “5 foot 3 and 300 pounds, taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.”
Right, because that’s the big problem in America. Those obese people milking welfare.
Not the fact guys like Warren Buffett pay less in taxes than their own secretaries.
Not the fact CEO pay is so extreme that they were paid 399 times as much as a typical worker in 2021.
The current tax code inordinately benefits the 1%, while shouldering the burden on the working-class people Anthony is singing about.
But sure, blame the obese people on welfare eating fudge rounds.
Despite his grievances being misplaced, Anthony is right that he and many other working-class people are getting a raw deal. Many politicians are out-of-touch. The system is designed to benefit the wealthy elites north of Richmond, whether that be in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., or in the ATM of America, New York City.
This is precisely why we need to take “Rich Men North of Richmond” seriously. The working class grievances are real. They are genuine.
The blame, however, is often misplaced.
It was only a few decades ago that blue-collar unionized employees voted Democrat in droves. And for good reason. Their employers were often union-busters. They tried to take advantage of workers, whether it was through unfair pay or unsafe working conditions.
Now many of those people think like Oliver Anthony, blaming the welfare state for a problem that is better characterized as an income inequality problem perpetuated by wealthy elites north, south, east, and west of Richmond.
I’m not here to bash wealthy people. If you take risks, innovate, and execute bold ideas, turning them into reality, then you should be financially rewarded.
But is anyone seriously worth 399 times more than a typical worker?
That’s where I think we’ve gotten out of hand.
So when we hear messages like those conveyed in “Rich Men North of Richmond”, we must take them seriously and correct the record.
Acknowledge that while the welfare state may have some bloat in need of reform, it’s not preventing working-class people in America from improving their lives. In fact, programs like Medicaid are life-savers for many people in rural America.
The chief problem is income inequality.
It’s the people at the top living unreasonably fat and happy at the expense of working-class people. It’s a system designed to tax those people less - aided by windfalls like the Trump tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the rich - while placing more of the costs on Oliver Anthony and those like him.
Perhaps Anthony’s next song can focus on union-busting employers, corporations that screw over their employees, indifferent shareholders, and willfully blind government regulators.
We should be looking in all directions from Richmond. Not just north of it.
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