Oliver Anthony’s viral song “Rich Men North of Richmond” is clever on several levels. First, there’s the wordplay between “rich men” and “Richmond.” Second, there’s the district north of Richmond, one not known for its relative poverty, but for its indifference to both the material and spiritual poverty experienced outside of its borders. Third, there’s the lyrical content, telling tales of the men and women whose lives are shaped by those who occupy the district that wields far too much control over our culture and economic well-being.
While the song has been heralded by Fox, the Blaze, and here at The Federalist, neither the artist nor the song are about the battles between conservatives vs. liberals, but about the battles between the elites and everyday citizens. Anthony even said in a conversation with Rolling Stone that he is “pretty dead center down the aisle on politics” and that “it seems like both sides serve the same master — and that master is not someone of any good to the people of this country.” Naturally, Rolling Stone titled the piece “Right-Wing Influencers Just Found Their Favorite New Country Song.”
There are also people on Twitter claiming the musician’s overnight success must be the result of right-wing astroturfing. Maybe, though the better explanation is the return of norms aside, the populist anger captured in the Sanders-Trump voters of 2016 has not gone away, especially in light of the failures of elected officials to address the shared concerns that led to that overlap in the first place. In other words, while David Brooks may have recently remembered them, albeit in the way an amateur primatologist remembers a group of chimps he once observed, it’s Jon Gabriel who gets to the heart of why Anthony’s song resonates.
Writing at Discourse, Gabriel says:
“As it slowly replaced the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant aristocracy, meritocracy promised to reward ability over pedigree. In many cases, this goal was realized. But the system has devolved into a new caste system stressing academic accreditation and boutique beliefs over simple merit and hard work. An Ivy League student garners degrees, builds a social network and marries a similarly educated spouse. Through their high-salary professions, these members of the meritocracy lavish advantages on their offspring, who matriculate to the same elite schools. Once the cycle repeats for a generation or two, you start referring to common cold cuts as ‘charcuterie.’”
It’s not that they refer to meat and cheese plates as charcuterie or that we have elites, Gabriel notes, but that the quality of our current crop has gotten so poor. “Elites of previous eras won world wars, established lasting peace, raised prosperity around the globe and transformed a backwater set of colonies into a global hegemon,” he adds. “Today’s crew can’t defeat third-world foes, police our cities, pay their bills, or keep the power on.”
I’d add they can’t even do corruption right. The elites used to be competent when it came to greasing their pockets, maintaining plausible deniability, and the illusion of playing by the same rules as everyone else. Now, every representative who plays Wall Street is a wizard and the White House can wave away obvious influence-peddling schemes with “well, everyone does it.” Long gone is any sense of circumspection or noblesse oblige, which is something that people without special privileges tend to notice.
Our tastemakers in the media and D.C. can pretend that people’s natural responses to those changes is an act of faux outrage at those new truths. They can howl about how only they get to be the populists’ rebel musicians, speaking truth to power. Or they can acknowledge that they’re not very good at being elites and that failure invites such populist sentiments as those Anthony articulates.
Don’t expect them to, though. While they were once the ones outside the establishment, agitating to get seats at the table through cultural insurgency and protest songs, today those former rebels are the establishment. It’s the artists like Oliver Anthony who represent the new counterculture. And until our elites remember that they’re supposed to be good at the job, the new insurgents’ songs of protest are only going to get louder and more numerous.