What’s wrong here?
A self-described high school dropout living in a camper with a tarp on the roof sings a plaintive cri de coeur about blue collar workers being shafted by the wealthy, and it is right-wing Republicans who rush to embrace him while Democrats wag their fingers and scold him for insensitivity.
Huh? Have Democrats retreated so far from their workingman roots that their knee-jerk impulse is to dump on a blue collar guy who highlights “folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat”?
If you’ve been on Mars for the last couple of weeks, I’m talking of course about Oliver Anthony, a country singer who a month ago was unknown and now has had his song, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” soar from nowhere to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the last two weeks.
“I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day,” Anthony laments. He blames the travails of workers on “rich men north of Richmond” — a swipe at Washington and elites generally. Some of his lines aren’t so different from elements in F.D.R.’s speech about “the forgotten man” or in Robert Kennedy’s elegy for “the shattered dreams of others.”
Yet in this case, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene labeled “Rich Men” the “anthem of the forgotten Americans,” and Fox News asked participants in the Republican presidential debate to discuss it. Meanwhile, some on the left pounced on it as right-wing propaganda and even as “racist trash.”
Does the left really want to leave battered, angry workers to be defended by a G.O.P. that periodically guts unions, targets Social Security, resists health care coverage and opposes increases in the minimum wage?
Anthony, who calls himself “just some idiot and his guitar,” seemed taken aback by the assumption that he must be a right-winger. He said his song was meant to blast politicians on both sides, including those in the G.O.P. presidential debate who were trying to weaponize his words. “I wrote that song about those people,” he said.
“It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them,” he added.
I don’t agree with everything Anthony says, but his principal theme is that working-class Americans have been screwed over — and he’s right on that. He’s also correct that both parties bear some responsibility and have twiddled their thumbs as working-class Americans die by the tens of thousands from drugs, alcohol and suicide.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics figures offer a metric of the catastrophe: Average weekly nonsupervisory wages, a metric for blue-collar earnings, were actually higher in 1969 (adjusted for inflation) than they were this year. Meanwhile, bosses are earning far, far more.
A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies says that the C.E.O. of Live Nation Entertainment, a concert company, earned $139 million in 2022 — while workers earned a median pay of $25,673. The report adds that since 2020 at Dollar Tree, where many struggling Americans shop and work, prices have increased, average worker pay has dipped and the C.E.O.’s stock holdings increased in value by more than 2,000 percent.
This is the context in which many working-class Americans have lost hope and are self-medicating or simply killing themselves. It constitutes a social great depression: We lose more Americans to “deaths of despair” every 10 days than the total of all the service members killed in two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq — yet we have all been far too complacent about the suffering. This was the topic of my last book, it’s a theme of my next and it’s the focus of my “How America Heals” series this year, so I’m all for Anthony bellowing his frustrations and calling attention to these issues.
He makes the valid point that these disparate social crises reflect a broader pathology that is holding America back. “People talk about epidemics in this country, and the homelessness and the drug use and the lack of skilled labor and the suicide rates,” he said. “Those aren’t problems, those are symptoms of a bigger universal problem … we don’t talk about it enough.”
Anthony says he dropped out of high school, earned a G.E.D. and worked in a paper mill for $14.50 an hour until he fractured his skull in a workplace accident. He has wrestled with alcohol and drug use and with mental health issues, he acknowledges.
“I am living in a 27-foot camper with a tarp on the roof that I got off of craigslist for $750,” he wrote on Facebook. His message and his story resonate deeply with frustrated workers — that’s why the internet is full of “Oliver Anthony for President” T-shirts.
Liberals are properly attentive to racial injustice, but have a blind spot about class, driven in part by unfair stereotypes that members of the white working class are invariably bigots. In fact, you can’t think seriously about inequality in America without contemplating race, but that’s also true of class. And as the Harvard professor Michael Sandel has noted, one of the last acceptable prejudices is disdain for the less educated.
Anthony sounded some conservative themes in his song, including complaining about taxes — and that led to some liberal jeers. But as Noah Smith observed in his economics blog, a Virginian earning the median factory wage pays a total tax rate of more than 24 percent —higher than one estimate of the rate paid by the 400 richest Americans.
I wish Anthony hadn’t complained in his song about obese people on food stamps; that’s a horrible stereotype and was simply mean. But just as Anthony should show more compassion for people struggling on food stamps, liberals should show more compassion for workers who have been left behind. It’s partly this condescension that has driven many working-class voters, initially white voters and more recently brown and Black ones as well, into the arms of conservative politicians who would shaft them even more.
If we’re going to achieve a more progressive agenda, then we need to win elections — and that means respecting workers rather than scorning them, insulting their faith and casually dismissing them as bigots. If we believe in empathy, let’s show some.
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Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can follow him on Instagram and Facebook. His latest book is “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” @NickKristof • Facebook
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