There is a journey you take the first time you see Oliver Anthony sing “Rich Men North of Richmond.” For a half-second, you take in this pink-skinned, russet-bearded man in his wooded seclusion. If you are an American, that is all the time it takes to classify him. He is the silent majority, he is the forgotten man. Moreover, he is a hick and a cracker and all the things that go along with being that. Then a cry of complaint and generations-deep sorrow issues from behind his buck teeth, and your heart swells, and your hair stands on end. As he sings of “wasting his life away” for “bullshit pay,” and what a “damn shame” it is “what the world’s gotten to for people like me and people like you,” you think, yes, yes. By the time the chorus arrives you are ready to fight by his side in any revolution.
And then, without losing the look of sublime torment from his face, he wails, “If you’re 5 foot 3, and you’re 300 pounds, taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.” Huh? What is this nasty little rhyme about fat people doing in the middle of the crusading anthem you were busy being moved by? Really, you feel a bit let down. Much of the commentary on Anthony’s song, of which there has been a great deal, centers on this moment of disappointment.
For those of a liberal persuasion (all music journalists), the line isn’t just a bit of clunky songwriting, but a pronouncement of Anthony’s true nature—that of a right-wing, small-minded MAGA chud. Which, most reviewers agree, is rather a shame, because he is a hell of a singer. He really had them going until the fudge rounds thing.
Anthony’s song has thus reignited the age-old speculation about why the American working class directs so much of its rage toward the poor and their entitlements. Shouldn’t someone like Anthony want more welfare? Whenever this issue arises, progressives do one of two things. One is to gleefully repeat John Steinbeck’s remark that the American poor see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
They mean that people like Anthony have been beguiled by Horatio Alger myths into “voting against their interests” and favoring policies that serve the ruling class. Of course, this doesn’t explain why they seem to hate the ruling class, but people willing to dismiss the complexities of a whole social group with a single witticism aren’t generally sensitive to such contradictions.
The other standard explanation is that the white members of the working class are racist and attack welfare as a proxy for the black “welfare queens” they associate with it. It is undoubtedly true that racial antagonisms lurk beneath many criticisms of welfare. However, those who make this argument underestimate the familiarity of welfare to working-class whites. For someone like Anthony, welfare recipients aren’t a hazy stereotype, but, in many cases, people who live in their own communities, look like them, and may even be their own relatives. The truth is that no glib canard can capture the complex connection between working-class anger and hatred of welfare. We must be more curious and look deeper.
The essential text for understanding the unique consciousness of America’s working class is Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, first published in 1991. The book is a massive, erudite study of liberalism and its discontents, but its most important contribution comes in its final chapter, titled “Right-Wing Populism and the Revolt Against Liberalism.” Lasch sought to explain why so many of the workers who made up the core of the New Deal coalition turned to the GOP in the 1980s. His essential insight was that most American workers are enmeshed in a “petty-bourgeois” culture of which liberals have grown increasingly contemptuous.
American workers still have many of the values of the “old middle class” of yeomen and tradespeople from which they hailed (both domestically and abroad). America’s aspirational culture, and the relative affluence made possible by the years of peak labor organization and New Deal policies, extended this middle-class self-conception among workers even as living standards began their decline in the late 20th century, under the neoliberal order.
In a sense, Anthony, who has saved up enough from blue-collar and sales jobs to play the part of the yeoman on a 92-acre spread, is living the highest aspiration of America’s working class. For his isn’t a class of temporarily embarrassed millionaires—but of temporarily embarrassed homesteaders.
One of the values Lasch identified with the petty-bourgeois mentality is “investment in the ethic of personal accountability and neighborly self-help, which tempers their enthusiasm for the welfare state.” What the official left doesn’t understand is that this mentality is perfectly compatible with class anger directed upward. One important source for Lasch was Jonathan Rieder’s classic 1985 study of white ethnics in an integrating Brooklyn neighborhood, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism. For the people Rieder interviewed, anger at the rich and contempt for those who take “handouts” weren’t contradictory, but deeply synthesized.
“Whatever their conservatism entailed,” Rieder observed, “it did not entail affection for corporate business.” In an example cited by Lasch, Rieder interviewed a man who called himself a “conservative Democrat,” and who insisted: “It’s okay to talk about the welfare classes, but the real problem is the middle-class squeeze. You get it top and bottom. It’s not only welfare, but the multinational corporations who are ripping us off, taking our jobs away and sending employment to the South and West.” Today, with deindustrialization further advanced, he would talk about sending jobs to China.
“Taxation represents a real economic burden for the working class.”
Thus, welfare isn’t merely an offense to the sensibilities of workers, but a form of expropriation from below that mirrors exploitation from above. Taxation represents a real economic burden for the working class, particularly as wage-laborers pay a substantially higher share of their earned income in taxes than the wealthy pay on capital gains. While welfare programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families represent a small fraction of the federal budget, the idea that the wealth one generates is being transferred to someone less deserving is compelling to people who are genuinely being screwed out of the product of their labor, both by regressive taxation and capitalist exploitation. Workers who pride themselves on self-reliance see both the passive-earning fat cat and the fat man with a food-stamp card as bloodsuckers.
Pundits and politicians across the spectrum would like Anthony to think differently. The left wishes Anthony would recognize himself as a member of the proletariat and give up his reactionary dreams of independence. Deep down, most of the right-wingers who have tried to make political hay out of his song would like to see him quit hating rich men and focus on the undeserving fat people. They have been wounded by Anthony’s rejection of their embrace. “It’s aggravating,” he said, “to see people on conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them.” He isn’t. Anthony is what he is, a member of the American working class, rooted in values of independence, honor, and strength. His message isn’t up for grabs by any political camp. Whoever wishes to harness the energy expressed in the song must be willing to understand and respect Anthony and people like him on their own uncompromising terms.
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