Oliver Anthony: Libertarian Populist or Postliberal Patriot?
Is “Rich Men North of Richmond" a song about a man disaffected with big government or a postliberal who is indignant at our entire ruling class?
A few weeks ago, a song by a bearded man playing guitar in the woods went viral. Oliver Anthony, the singer, is a folk singer from Virginia who came seemingly out of nowhere. The song, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” is a strong rebuke of our elite political class and a jeremiad of the struggles of the common man. The song has clearly struck a nerve, especially since it has become a meme. However, many are asking, what does the song actually mean?
There are two rival readings of Oliver Anthony. Is he a libertarian populist who is disaffected with big government or a postliberal who is indignant at our entire ruling class and the pathologies of modern American life?
A first glance would suggest the former. The lyrics of his now-viral song might suggest that he dislikes big government spending (“your dollar ain’t shit” and “the obese milking welfare”), views “taxation as theft” (“and it’s taxed to no end”), and hates a roving “DEI” bureaucracy brought to you by the woke Democrats (“want to know what you think” and “young men and puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground ‘cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down”) and an overbearing, seemingly totalitarian (“Lord knows they all just wanna have total control”) administrative state that controls all aspect of one’s life (“and want to know what you do”). If we were to sum up the lament of the song with just one phrase, we might come up with, “Would you just leave me alone!”
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The establishment of the Republican party seems to take this view. The first Republican presidential debate opened the program by playing a part of Anthony’s song as part of their segment on “Bidenomics,” where moderators Martha McCallum and Bret Baier asked each of the presidential hopefuls how they would help make life more affordable for Americans who have been hit hard by inflation driven by Biden’s policies.
The candidates had some different views and answers, but they all carried a similar theme: government spending and burdensome regulations have — to borrow a phrase from Vivek Ramaswamy — “acted as a wet blanket on our economy.” Former Vice President Mike Pence and former Governor Nikki Haley even suggested that Social Security and Medicare would have to receive cuts or restructuring as part of scaling back reckless government spending. On this view, if the government just got out of the way and let the market do its work, then all of the problems that people like Oliver Anthony were singing about would be solved.
Senator Ted Cruz tweeted a clip from a video interview of Anthony by The Free Press talking about how people need to band together instead of looking elsewhere for a savior, quoting the classic line from Ronald Reagan: “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” On the one hand, this interpretation of Anthony’s perspective is quite plausible.
The main problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that Anthony himself eschews the idea that his song is about Bidenomics or the Democrats. Rather, as he says, “That song has nothing to do with Joe Biden. You know, it’s a lot bigger than Joe Biden. That song is written about the [Republicans] on that stage and a lot more too, not just them, but definitely them.” In his telling, rather than being a critique of progressive liberal policies and a pining for the days of the Trump tax cuts, “it’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me, like I’m one of them.” He later tweeted, “I. Don’t. Support. Either. Side. Politically. Not the left, not the right. I’m about supporting people and restoring local communities.”
Right-wing Twitter’s response to Anthony’s rebuke of the conservative movement was a mix between criticism and support. Some questioned whether Anthony’s “non-partisanism” was a way of not getting caught up in a political binary or becoming instantly hated by half of the country. Rather than just come out and endorse Donald Trump or RFK, according to this thinking, Anthony wanted to keep his head above water in our polarized times by appealing to “diversity,” and “coming together.”
With that in mind, what would it mean to take seriously Oliver’s critique of the entire political establishment and the controlled, shallow “binaries” that it encapsulates? What if Anthony is not a third-way libertarian or a moderate centrist who hates both extremes, but is rather, in at least some sense, a postliberal longing for a return to a genuine normalcy? In this light, the libertarian interpretation of Anthony becomes ironic not for its overall misinterpretation of Anthony, but rather for what it says about nearly all of the GOP and “Conservative, Inc.” itself. Even Cruz, a standard-bearer for the Trump-MAGA wing of the Republican party, and one of the strongest conservative voices in Congress, quickly and easily slips back into right-liberal bromides of the Reagan era.
Let us reconsider the themes and lyrics of “Rich Men North of Richmond.” First, who does the song fundamentally rebuke? They are the people who have gotten rich by selling out the blue collar working class of the country. They represent the uniparty oligarchy that runs America. By contrast, the “people like me, and people like you” of the song are the hoi polloi, everyone else who is ruled. However, it seems he is speaking to a specific constituency of the ruled class: the rural, probably not-college educated, working class people who would be the subject of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. They do not have a fully coherent political philosophy, might be disengaged from politics completely, are probably some of the “obese milking welfare,” and are the people laughed at and mocked by the folks at the Cato Institute when they celebrate the death of the “white working class.”
The song opens and closes with the same lines: “I’ve been sellin’ my soul; workin’ all day; overtime hours, for bullshit pay.” The “I wish politicians would look out for miners” line is best understood as a cry for help from the “left-behind places” and hollowed out industries that have been the backbone of the American way of life for normal people. Rather than a call for laissez faire economics, the lines about taxation and government spending are best understood as a critique of what Oren Cass calls “economic piety,” growing the economy as much as possible and then redistributing the gains through (often bad) government policy so everyone gets something. Far from a paean to neo-liberal capitalism, “Rich Men North of Richmond” is a rebuke of the political and economic ideology that has empowered the connected “few”, who have left the disoriented “many” to fend for themselves over the scraps produced by our lopsided economy.
To delve further, Anthony talks about the anomie and alienation produced by modern life. Lines like “so I can sit out here and waste my life away; drag back home and drown my troubles away;” speaks to the way that the material and spiritual conditions of contemporary America make life meaningless. The line about the suicide epidemic amongst young men beaten down by the country’s liberal ideology tacitly calls out the devastating effect that feminism has had by making an enemy out of men in particular.
The interview Cruz quoted has a line that underscores the postliberal instincts of Anthony’s lyrics. Anthony says:
The people who are going to save us are each other. Local relationships…even families are torn apart. I made an example in one post about–and I’ve seen this in my own household at times–where you’ll have a whole family under the same roof, and instead of them spending time with each other and caring about each other, every one of them’s sitting there, just looking at their own piece of technology, like completely self-absorbed in that and not in each other. That’s the real problem. We’re very disconnected from each other, just on a community level.
I cannot think of any better example to critique the progress of liberalism brought about by technology and the tyranny of modern science, which is at the heart of the modern, liberal project. Phones and “vital communities” replace the family, the front porch, the church, and the community centers, leaving us all as atomized individuals addicted to screens and “fudge rounds.” (In another song, “I Want to Go Home,” Anthony talks about the loss of religion with the line, “I don’t think nobody’s prayin’ no more.” This could hardly be seen as an endorsement of secularizing found in modernity.)
He sums up the sentiment of disorientation and alienation with the pre-chorus: “Lord, it’s a damn shame; what the world’s gotten to; for people like, people like you; wish I could just wake up and it not be true; but it is, oh it is.” For Anthony, and millions of Americans like him, liberalism is a genuine nightmare! Sadly, the abstractions and illusions that underlie liberal ideology have been the ruling ideology of both parties for at least sixty years, and have made the nightmare all too real.
Oliver Anthony, rather than engaging in a “non-partisanism” that seeks to offend neither side, is really engaged in a fundamental critique of both sides of our political order. Indeed, this critique is best pegged on contemporary America (“livin’ in the new world, with an old soul”), as the family, the front porch, the church, and the community centers were all things we used to have. We used to have real food, institutions and laws that fostered integrated community life, and welfare systems that respected the dignity of work, but with the understanding that not all could work and that society was about securing material and spiritual goods for all.
We could all have these things again, but only if we first see as Oliver Anthony does: that both sides have failed because both sides are in many senses different versions of the same failure. If we understand this, regardless even of what Anthony truly believes, then we can understand why this song is hitting a nerve, and what opportunities await us for remedying these problems as election season rolls around and a postliberal future presents itself.