What Can Liberalism Offer Oliver Anthony?

The future of progressive politics in America just might revolve around whether someone like Chris Murphy, a U.S. senator from a prosperous New England state, can find common ground culturally and politically with a man like Oliver Anthony. Earlier this month, Anthony, a young country singer, dropped his song “Rich Men North of Richmond” into the nation’s political-cultural stew pot. A red-bearded high-school dropout, former factory hand, and virtual unknown, he strummed a guitar in the Virginia woods and sang with an urgent twang about the despair of working-class life:

I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day

Overtime hours for bullshit pay

So I can sit out here and waste my life away

Drag back home and drown my troubles away.

His song, which became an unlikely national hit, also took jabs at “obese” welfare recipients and high taxes. The right applauded and that turned off the left. Vox christened Anthony a right-wing breakout star; Variety floated accusations that he was an “industry plant”; The Washington Post divined in his song the “mainstreaming” of conspiracy culture. The press coverage of Anthony, and the dismissive tone on the left, would change only on Friday, when the singer released a video in which he disowned the right’s championing of his song.

From the start, Senator Murphy, a liberal Democrat from Connecticut, winced at the anti-welfare and anti-tax tropes, which are hardly new to country music. But he was more struck by the anguish encoded in a haunting song by an artist who struggles with alcoholism and depression, and who lives in a camper in rural Virginia.

I got on the phone with Murphy recently to talk about all of this. “To just ridicule and dismiss the things that he is saying is a real lost opportunity,” the senator told me. “I worry that we are entering a world where we don’t talk unless people are 110 percent in alignment with us.”

By proposing a broader conversation, Murphy has given himself an intriguing task. At times, he wonders if liberals can recognize a primal call of pain for what it is. Anthony sings in an argot filled with cultural allusions that may sound offensive or at least alien to some (one commentator criticized his supposedly inferior use of rhyme). Progressives who want to fix a broken economy, Murphy argues, better find a way to hear out people like Anthony. It was with that in mind that a few weeks ago Murphy typed out a post on X (formerly known as Twitter):

a. I think progressives should listen to this. In part, bc it’s just a good tune.

b. But also bc it shows the path of realignment. Anthony sings about the soullessness of work, shit wages and the power of the elites. All problems the left has better solutions to than the right.

Murphy’s comment did not please his tribe. Some social-media liberals—skeptical that ties between Democrats and the rural working class can be repaired—decried Murphy’s apostasy and wondered archly if he had hit his head. Others muttered that the 50-year-old second-term senator deserved a primary challenge.

Murphy is a repeat provocateur. In July, he tweeted that “there are a lot of social conservatives who believe in populist economic policies, and it would be a good idea to have those people a part of a Democratic/left coalition and accept a bit more intra-movement friction on culture issues as a consequence.” That post included a thoroughly unscientific but still revealing poll that found that 77 percent of those who responded disagreed with him.

Murphy insisted to me that he remains steadfast in support of gay and transgender rights—a major wedge separating upscale college-educated liberals from socially conservative, less affluent voters. But Murphy declined to sidestep his broader view: Working-class people, rural and urban, are in pain and drifting away from politics in general and liberalism in particular.

Murphy backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries and Joe Biden in the 2020 round but nods now toward a populist polestar. “There is a realignment afoot out there in America that is not recognized by the elites,” Murphy said. “Tackling this metaphysical crisis for the working class may involve elements of the Bernie Sanders coalition and the Trump coalition.”

The Democrats’ challenge, he notes, extends beyond white people. Latino working-class voters have steadily distanced themselves from Democrats in recent elections. Even Black working-class support, the very core of the Democratic Party, has shown signs of fracture. “The anguish in that song was voiced by a rural young white man,” Murphy said. “But that anguish would sound familiar if you were listening to a young African American in Hartford, Connecticut, talking about a system set up to enrich economic elites.”

Murphy, who is the clean-cut son of a corporate lawyer and has what appear to be national ambitions, makes an unlikely populist. But he seems intent on listening. Earlier this month, he headed to the Blue Ridge Mountains city of Boone, North Carolina, where 37 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. “It’s one of the poorest regions in America and offers a different conversation than in suburban America,” he said. “That trip reinforced to me that we should not obsess on what divides us.”

Deaths of despair—that is, from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcoholism—are rising at a frightful pace. Overdose deaths in the United States topped 106,000 in 2021. By comparison, the European Union, which has 100 million more people, recorded about 6,200 overdose deaths that year. Such deaths often break along economic and educational lines.

Jennifer Sherman, a Washington State University professor who is president of the Rural Sociological Society, has spent decades among working-class and poor people in the mountains and plains of the West. She has observed a pervasive sense of loss. Workers drop out or end up in service jobs, she told me, and fight losing struggles with the wealthy over zoning and for control of land, forests, and water. “If the Democrats want to figure out how to be relevant, they have to move beyond ‘Trust us, we care,’” Sherman said.

The Republicans are aware of these shifting class tectonics. “I have a very smart conservative friend who describes the next five years as a race,” Murphy said, “to see whether the right can become more economically progressive before the left becomes a bigger tent.”

In the current tumult, some people with heterodox politics see opportunities for political and economic change. Sohrab Ahmari, the editor of Compact magazine, identifies as a man of the right, but his politics are a curious amalgam. He is a Catholic cultural conservative who also is pro-union and admires President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. His recent book, Tyranny, Inc., argues that Republican and Democratic leaders have deregulated business and allowed corporations to gut the stable well-paying jobs of working-class Americans. It’s as if Opus Dei danced a tango with the Catholic Worker.

Ahmari gives grudging credit to Biden for sluicing money into working-class communities and openly admires Murphy for challenging a neoliberal writ that has dominated both parties. The Connecticut senator “takes seriously the dealignment of the rural working class and the Democratic Party,” Ahmari told me. “He’s right to insist on more from his party than sneering.”

Several times in our conversation, Murphy mentioned his party’s populist standard-bearer, Bernie Sanders. That reminded me of a day several decades ago when I traveled to the Lamoille River Valley in northern Vermont to watch Sanders campaign in a room of dairy farmers—predominantly French American, Catholic, and conservative. Sanders was none of those, fluent only in Brooklynese. He went on about milk prices and corporations fixing rates and hammering people like them, and the audience nodded along. He would take 65 percent of the vote in that county; as one of those farmers told me: “Bernie speaks like me. He’s got my vote.”

Murphy is seeking something like that language to address the pain of the country’s working class. Perhaps that’s a pipe dream and American politics are too broken.

But as a countervailing view, consider this: On Friday, Anthony posted a YouTube video of himself sitting in the cab of his truck and talking about the swirl of the past few weeks. It was fascinating in all respects.

“It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news trying to identify with me, like I’m one of them,” he said at one point. “I see the right trying to characterize me as one of their own,” he continued, “and I see the left trying to discredit me, I guess in retaliation.” Addressing complaints from the left that he is attacking the poor, he quoted some lyrics from another of his songs:

Needles in the street, folks hardly surviving

on sidewalks next to highways full of cars self-driving,

The poor keep hurtin’, and the rich keep thrivin’.

He sounds like exactly the sort of guy whom progressives should be trying to win over.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

This post was originally published on this site