My hometown of Richmond, Virginia is back in the news again. This time, it’s not about Confederate monuments or gun violence, but a country music song written by a young man from a small rural town in Virginia.
Oliver Anthony released “Rich Men North of Richmond” on YouTube this summer. The folksy song resonated with people so much that it instantly soared to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s the first time an artist with no prior music history has ever topped the charts.
Since then, countless articles have been written about the overnight sensation – many debating the ultimate message behind the somewhat controversial song.
At the onset, “Rich Men North of Richmond” seems to encapsulate a classic protest song in honor of the everyman.
But a NPR article reports that beneath the surface, “you’ll also find extremist and conspiratorial narratives” – an unfortunate, ever-present trend in American culture.
Disinformation and conspiracy theories aside, the song has succeeded in connecting with people over a shared grievance.
Listening to the opening lyrics, it’s clear why it achieved instant popularity. The country singer’s words are raw and honest with a heartfelt delivery that reveals a profound sense of hopelessness.
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.
No doubt Anthony is paying homage to the working-class American.
A former factory worker himself, he proves the ideal harbinger to voice a disaffected message of frustration to the masses.
Conservative media didn’t waste any time co-opting the song as a rallying cry for the Republican Party. When it was played at the first GOP presidential debate, Anthony took to social media to set the record straight.
“It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me, like I’m one of them… I wrote that song about those people on that stage,” Anthony responded in a YouTube video.
“I see the Right trying to characterize me as one of their own and I see the Left trying to discredit me – I guess in retaliation. That shit’s gotta stop.”
As for Anthony’s political leanings, numerous sources cite he neither identifies as a Democrat or a Republican. In a previous video, he states he’s always sat “pretty dead center down the aisle on politics.” He finds fault with both parties remarking that each serves the same master.
“And that master is not someone of any good to the people of this country,” he adds.
Anthony provided clarification on who that “master” is in an Instagram post he declared would be his last about politics on social media. In it, he explains: “Rich Men North of Richmond is about corporate-owned DC politicians on both sides.”
In the United States, it’s no secret that politics and business are inextricably linked.
In 2010, a significant shift occurred with the Supreme Court decision on the Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission case. The ruling allowed corporations, along with wealthy donors and special interest groups, to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.
Before the landmark case, corporations were restricted in their ability to directly donate to candidates’ campaigns. However, they could still participate in politics through Political Action Committees (PACs), fundraising organizations that solicit contributions from members to go towards candidates, ballot initiatives or legislation.
PACs have been a major source of funding for both parties, but corporate influence on politics dates back even further. Throughout the 20th century, corporations have had indirect ways of supporting politicians and influencing policy including lobbying, providing campaign resources, and establishing relationships with elected officials.
For decades, American executives have advised government leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, on public policy.
As a result of Corporate America’s increased influence in our politics, many of our elected officials end up promoting legislation that benefits the bottom line of private corporations – not the lives of everyday Americans.
It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to
For people like me and people like you
Wish I could just wake up and it not be true
But it is, oh, it is
Anthony’s lament of the system in place isn’t mutually exclusive to the working class. In fact, I’d venture to say that people across all socio-economic backgrounds (as well as any age, gender, race, sexual orientation and ability) share the same sentiment.
Indeed, corporate influence can be problematic, but not all interactions between government and corporations are inherently corrupt.
The United States has regulatory agencies, laws, and mechanisms in place to address conflicts of interest, promote transparency, and ensure the government serves the public.
However, in order for that to happen, Americans have to be engaged in U.S. politics. We have to hold our elected officials accountable and demand they serve us. And that’s where “Rich Men North of Richmond” falls short.
While the song succeeds at conveying a collective dissatisfaction about how our country runs, it fails to inspire us to do anything about it.
As the saying goes, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” When we think about the promise of freedom that America was founded on, I believe it’s up to “We The People” to defend it by taking action in some way.
We have to get past the “politics as usual” mentality that assumes all politicians are untrustworthy and actively participate in shaping the country we want to live in. That includes staying informed, speaking out, and above all, voting for political candidates who are advocating for the majority of Americans.
Over the years, the world has witnessed the Republican Party’s brand devolution and the normalization of Trumpism. American democracy is still experiencing the aftershocks of the Trump administration from the overturn of Roe v. Wade to environmental protection rollbacks and much more.
While exceptions among individual politicians exist, there’s no denying there are consistent trends in policy support that define our two-party system.
Typically, the Democratic Party has advocated for labor unions, workers’ rights, and income equality to ensure a strong social safety net and overall better standard of living, while the Republican Party has historically supported tax cuts and deregulation for corporations, claiming it stimulates economic growth and job creation.
However, this economic theory, commonly known as trickle-down economics, has shown to repeatedly fail. After more than 40 years of practice, it has exploded budget deficits and increased wealth disparity.
To this day, corporations continue to push higher prices despite making record profits. According to the Economic Policy Institute, CEO pay has skyrocketed 1,460% – nearly 400 times as much as a typical worker. And the richest one percent accumulated nearly two-thirds of all new wealth – almost twice as much money as the bottom 99 percent of the world’s population.
As for the intertwining of corporate interests and politics, it was Trump, with the support of the majority of Republican lawmakers, who signed into law a $1.9 trillion tax bill benefiting corporations, not working Americans – the most significant change to the tax code in over 30 years.
When big companies won new tax breaks, it allowed corporate executives, major investors and the wealthiest Americans to receive unprecedented tax cuts.
Needless to say, it’s been a policy hardly benefitting working-class and middle-class Americans.
Currently, the GOP is pursuing a lawsuit that would give them their biggest campaign finance win since Citizens United. If successful, it would allow unlimited spending of campaign dollars on advertising, dismantling the ethos of our long-established political ecosystem.
While the Democratic Party is far from perfect, President Joe Biden and his administration continually demonstrate a priority of people over profit through policy proposals related to infrastructure investment, social programs, and climate action. Earlier this year, Biden also proposed more than $2 trillion in tax hikes in an attempt to ensure billionaires and corporations pay their fair share.
Given these measures, it’s my belief that voting for Democratic candidates offers us the best, most realistic shot at moving us closer to a country that’s more fair, just and equitable for all Americans.
Sure, we can bemoan a corporate-owned political system that seems too powerful to take on. We can wish to “wake up and it not be true.” But neither apathy, nor inaction, will help instigate change.
As Americans, our greatest power lies in our voices, our wallets, and at the polls. And taking action in these ways is precisely how we can go from singing about a problem to being part of the solution.