How this summer’s hit ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ was appropriated by both the right and left

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This summer two American country singers, Jason Aldean and Oliver Anthony, came out of nowhere with unexpected hits. In both cases, their songs were politically appropriated.

Rich Men North of Richmond by Oliver Anthony, which appeared on YouTube just a few weeks ago, is the No. 1 song in the U.S. this week, surpassing even Taylor Swift.

“Rich Men North of Richmond” is now the No. 1 song on the U.S. Billboard Top 100.

Sociologically speaking, although its content is essentially libertarian, the song muddies the waters between the American populist left and the right. It is celebrated by both the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party and some Democrats.

Anthony’s song was featured at the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate. The singer has said he hates to “to see that song being weaponized. I see the right trying to characterize me as one of their own, and I see the left trying to discredit me.”

While Anthony has avoided partisan politics, the singer of Try that in a Small Town, Jason Aldean, is an avowed Trump supporter. His hit is clearly on the right of the political spectrum and lauded by Republicans.

Oliver Anthony presents himself as “pretty dead centre on politics.” But that didn’t prevent him from reading verses of the Psalms, evoking God’s enemies, during a recent performance of his hit song. The song’s lyrics fit the ideology of the American libertarian universe well.

‘Try that in a Small Town’ is clearly on the right of the political spectrum.

As researchers working in the field of political sociology, we are interested in representations of those within nationalist and populist movements.

Two visions of the “people”

But before analyzing the songs, let’s recall what populists on both the left and the right have in common.

Each sees the political field as divided between the people (seen as organic, authentic and moral) and elites (which are considered disconnected, strategic, inauthentic and above all, immoral). The left tends to see the people as a demos — the bedrock of democracy — while the right views them as an ethnos or heartland — guardians of the nation’s authenticity.

Right-wing populists see the community as distinct from the state. In their view it is characterized by its high capital of autochthony, of “local people,” as opposed to immigrants or elites. The evocation of the small town in Aldean’s hit is typical of this representation.

Work valued, work despised

The American populist right is characterized by its adherence to both the ideologies of producerism and libertarianism.

Producerism is an attachment to a rigorous work ethic in both senses of the word — rigorous in the Protestant sense of a disciplined, vocational and meritorious relationship to work, but also in the valorization of manual and physical labour, or what sociologist Everett Hughes describes as “dirty work.”

Recent research on the social identity of “dirty” occupations explains how its artisans reconstruct their self-perception in order to create a positive image. From this perspective, Anthony’s evocation of the situation of miners activates solidarity among the people who do this kind of work. In this way, they reconfigure their identity by responding to the contempt in which their occupation is held.

Finally, assiduous religious practice is often associated with adherence to a populist conception of politics. In The Flag and the Cross, sociologists Philip S. Gorsky and Samuel L. Perry demonstrate that white people who identify as evangelical Christians are much more likely to adhere to Christian and white nationalism than are non-believers.

A class discourse with a libertarian dimension

However, what sets Anthony’s song apart from the usual populist right-wing discourse is that it formulates a class opposition based on socioeconomic income. This goes further than the vague evocation of an opposition between common people and elites. And this explains why the song also appeals to some on the left.

Yet there’s nothing specifically “left-wing” about the moral denunciation of the rich. Above all, it has deep roots in the Christian tradition.

Conversely, for the social-democratic tradition, it’s not the fact of being rich that’s evil in itself, but rather the absence of labour law, of freedom of association and of mechanisms and institutions that ensure redistributive justice.

So, as singer Billy Bragg points out in a song responding to Anthony’s hit, unions are conspicuously absent in Anthony’s worldview, as they are in that of libertarians.

To counter the very real difficulties brought about by the transformation of the working world, contemporary social democrats suggest establishing major continuing education programs and investing in adult education. This type of occupational retraining will attenuate the anxiety generated by the “New World” Anthony evokes in his song.

Thousands of fans gather on the grounds around Eagle Creek Golf Club and Grill in Moyock, North Carolina, on Aug. 19 to see the new star Oliver Anthony perform.
(Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

Inflation and ‘peripheral regions’

On the right, several factors explain the success of Anthony’s anthem.

Firstly, there’s the widespread perception that the left has abandoned the blue-collar workers to whom Rich Men is de facto addressed. Part of this segment of the population feels scorned by “elites” who monopolize symbolic, educational and cultural capital. The fact that they are considered privileged on the basis of their “race” and their “gender,” according to some rather mechanical analyses, does little to help us understand the stigma these workers actually face, nor the social issues confronting post-industrial regions.

This first dynamic is amplified by what is also perceived as a lack of understanding of the day-to-day reality of people who live far from major urban centres.

Inhabitants of the rural areas tend not to feel represented by elected representatives and the media. Even if this dynamic persists year after year, it is rare for the left to question the importance of including the point of view of rural inhabitants within “good” diversity.

On the other hand, inflationary times favour the spread of libertarian “solutions.” When citizens see their purchasing power melt away and the price of their mortgage soar, they are faced with difficult choices, or even seeing their life project at risk. If they don’t see the positive impact of the taxes they pay, they are likely to see the social state and redistributive justice as mechanisms that don’t work for them.

Polarization benefits populists

There is no magic bullet to stop the rise of the populist right. But there are some sociological lessons to be learned about polarization.

The social identity of groups is largely constructed through framing, rituals and interactions. To defuse the polarization that feeds the populist right, its opponents must stop appealing to them as a “basket of deplorables,” to cite Hilary Clinton’s elitist phrase. Opponents of the populist right must also stop pathologizing them, as is often the case in psychological approaches to political radicalization. Rather than defusing the framing and polarization that benefit populist politicians, these approaches reinforce them.

The main effect of excluding groups from participating in legitimate political interactions is to reinforce their solidarity. Mocking their rituals has the same effect. A legal framework must prevent incitement to violence and defamation and protect the right to one’s reputation and privacy. Ultimately, however, allowing participation can enable members of groups to reframe their discourse. It can also bring about changes that defuse or alter the social identity of people who identify with the groups.

Members of the populist right are generally able to supply cognitive or moral reasons to justify their actions. No one is obliged to share them, nor to find them “good.” However, we must seek to understand them, and to reconstruct the perceptions of justice and injustice that they fuel, or on which they are based. It’s an avenue as unpopular as it is difficult, but the alternatives are not clear.

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