A Democratic Senator Defends ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’

A hit country artist offended progressives who couldn’t recognize his song as a primal cry of pain.

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:

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.”

Jennifer Sherman.

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 tend to 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.”

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The Atlantic