Former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich, who is often right about many things but has a few unfortunate blind spots, apparently donned the sleep mask and covered his eyes writing a piece on his Substack about the aforementioned Oliver Anthony tune which is making the rounds. Just as has been done with many pasty populists before him, Anthony’s cri de coeur is being feted by the usual suspects as Yet More Proof Of How The Dread Democrats Betrayed The Working Class. Of the good old “economic anxiety” theory of why poor downscale wypipo like to vote for Trump. (And Bush—two of ‘em--before him. And Reagan. And Nixon and Goldwater).
While if you look hard enough in a mountain of bullshit, you’re likely to find a kernel or two of truth—corn is hard to digest and often will pass through the intestinal tract whole—the mountain of bullshit is still bullshit. And the whole “economic anxiety” theory—that large numbers of rural white working class voters would vote for Democrats if only the party had been more economically left-leaning, but some fundamental bond of trust was broken—is garbage.
Just like the song.
Let’s take a look at the lyrics.
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.
So far, nothing objectionable. A complaint about low wages sounds progressive enough. But we’re just getting started.
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.
Uh-oh. “People like me and people like you”. Whoever could he be referring to? And who could he be NOT referring to in his assessment of the volk of the nation? And what, exactly, “has the world gotten to”? Are his complaints about low wages and long hours, or is he mad about something else?
Livin' in the new world, With an old soul
These rich men north of Richmond
Lord knows they all just wanna have total control
Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do
And they don't think you know, but I know that you do
'Cause your dollar ain't shit and it's taxed to no end
'Cause of rich men north of Richmond.
Hmm. “Rich men north of Richmond”. That could refer to the political and economic elite of the country, the bulk of which are located in the northeast corridor. (Washington DC is about a two hour drive north of Richmond). OR, if you live in the South, it could just as easily refer to the historical Union—a complaint about how godless Northern liberals and whatnot are trying to tell us noble country folk what to do.
And “wanna have total control” is suggestive of some even fouler conspiracy theories.
And there’s a complaint about taxes. If you’re poor, your federal tax liability will generally be fairly low (though the working poor still are stuck with payroll tax, and local taxes are often far less progressive).
I wish politicians would look out for miners
And not just minors on an island somewhere
The second line of this couplet is a crude Jeffrey Epstein reference, which seems to put this song well on its way to QAnon territory. As for the first—why just miners? What about farmers, dockworkers, nurses, machinists, software engineers, housekeepers, waitresses, call center operators, bus drivers, and teachers? Advocating for a particular constituency is fine, but not if you are fixing on throwing everyone else under the bus.
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain't got nothin' to eat
And the obese milkin' welfare.
And here we go! WE are being mistreated and starved, while THEY are getting fat on those generous government bennies! What are those dastardly Rich Men North of Richmond doing to harm us so? Why, they’re helping those OTHER poor people who aren’t us, and taxing US to pay for it. While this arrangement might be unfair if it were true, by and large it’s not—a lot of white folks collect “welfare” in this country, or the slightly-more-respectable Social Security disability insurance.
Well, God, if you're 5-foot-3 and you're 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds
Young men are puttin' themselves six feet in the ground
'Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin' them down.
A well-written racist dogwhistle is, of course, something that can be denied—but I think we ALL know just what Anthony means by “fudge rounds”, and it’s not a packaged confection sold under the Little Debbie label. Forty years after Reagan started floating this pernicious myth, here we see the good old “welfare queen” nonsense getting recycled.
The rest of the song is repeats of the above lyrics, so I won’t repeat them here. But other than a desire for higher wages in the opening verse, the economic complaints lodged in the song are classic right-wing fare: We, the hard-working proletariat, aren’t being screwed by the bourgeois and the capitalist class, but instead by the lumpenproletariat below us, whose sustenance we have to pay for. And that’s ignoring the rather blatant racism in the tune.
So to see Reich treating this song as anything other than fetid rubbish, not to mention the author of this diary (as well as more than a few commentors), is disturbing.
There is, of course, a valid cause for complaint concern past Democratic capitulation (though often from the minority) to Wall Street. And Democratic positions on the environment are a deal-braker for folks working in resource-extraction industries, particularly coal. (It’s hard to win elections in West Virginia, after all, if your party’s platform calls for effectively putting one of the state’s major industries out of business).
But if you really believe the whole “economic anxiety” codswallop, then I’ve got a bridge in Ketchikan, Alaska to sell you.
Seriously, people. Read your Marx.
Read the part about “false consciousness”. Think of how that might currently apply to the cultural reactionaries in the so-called “white working class”, who have a long history of only voting for Democrats when centrists like Reich’s former boss are on the ballot, but will flee to the GOP the second they see a homeless person in the neighborhood park, or a riot on a TV in some distant city, or a barista at the local Starbucks gives them any lip (or worse, starts making anywhere near as much money as they do), or anyone dares to suggest that the poor should be taken care of rather than exploited and otherwise kept far away.
Think of how our current “identity politics”—and know that the primary practitioners of such are the GOP, whose entire platform seems to be “brown and/or queer people are coming for you and your kids!” when it’s not “vote for God-King Trump”—maps onto Marx’s warnings concerning false consciousness.
Consider Marx’s writings on the American abolitionist movement and on slavery. He made it clear that emancipation of slaves was a necessary prerequisite to empowerment of the working class, that “Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin”.
And know this: Talk about how civil rights is a side issue and a distraction, of only how economic “class” matters, is bollocks. It is a denial of the whole problem of false consciousness, of how the powerful will sow division and try to set the working class against each other.
There is no leftist politics, worth its salt, that does not include emancipation and liberation of Black and Brown people, of women, of the LGBT community, or of religious or other cultural minorities. Any socialism that seeks to leave someone behind, to throw one community under the bus so that another may prosper, is not true socialism. It is the rancid politics of Pat Buchanan. It is herrenvolk socialism. National socialism.
It is an offense to anyone with any moral sense whatsoever.
Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.
There are many valid criticisms of the Democratic Party, though the most damning are retrospective in nature. The Biden Administration is easily the most pro-labor government of the United States that has existed in my lifetime. You have to go back to when the Baby Boomers were still children to find one that was better. And still—a whole bunch of workers to whom Joe Biden has delivered substantial victories at their jobsites, are going to vote for Trump next November. Because something something woke.
But regardless—using a racist, right-wing screed to discuss Democratic failures on economic matters is an own goal of epic proportions. Obama and Biden both won office without trying to kick this particular Lucy-held football. Our policies, as Democrats, should seek to uplift the “white working class”, just as we seek to uplift working class people all around the country.
But the suggestion that this demographic should get preferential treatment, or that the greater struggles of those who have to suffer the double-whammy of both poverty and discrimination should be put on the back burner, in the hopes that working-class whites might return to the Democratic fold, is morally obtuse.
“Rich Men North of Richmond” is every bit as obnoxious and vile as “Try That in a Small Town”. Reich should be embarrassed to mention it in his column, other than to denounce it as the garbage that it is.