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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

‘Populist Resentment’ Doesn’t Have to Be a Right-Wing Brand

Some observations from “If the Left Doesn’t Channel Populist Resentment, We Know Who Will” by Erica Etelson at The Nation:

The liberal commentariat is miffed. Oliver Anthony, a white down-and-out former mill worker, broke the Internet with a populist country tune called “Rich Men North of Richmondrecorded on his land in Farmville, Va. Folks of all races, from the right, left, and center, are singing its praises.

I’ve watched dozens of reaction videos, many of them by Black music critics visibly moved, sometimes to tears, by Anthony’s extremely relatable lament—“selling my soul, working all day, overtime hours for bullshit pay,” while the powers that be kick us all down, “people like me, people like you.”

After decrying workplace exploitation, Anthony goes after a political establishment whose only use for the working class is to tax and control them while letting inflation, hunger, and greed run rampant. It is the song of a man who feels sad, angry, beaten-down, and all but hopeless. That is to say, it is the ballad of 2023 America.

Etelson notes that some liberal critics fault the song as a wing nut anthem, while right-wing commentators are promoting the song. “The trope of the lazy welfare cheat has been a staple of blame-the-victim, anti-government rhetoric for decades. And right-wing politicians and influencers do have a nasty habit of donning the mantle of working-class crusader while serving the rich and powerful.” Etelson adds,

But here’s what I believe liberal critics are missing when they focus on the song’s discordant notes: People areworking “overtime hours for bullshit pay.” There are “folks in the street with nothing to eat.” And working- and middle-class taxpayers are getting squeezed, because neither party is willing to raise taxes on the rich. Meanwhile, an out-of-touch Democratic establishment is telling us that, thanks to Bidenomics, the economy is thriving, the implication being that there’s little cause for complaint. If we want to reach the people who have made this song their anthem, we have to spend more time hearing what they, and their music, have to say, and less time yucking on their yum.

….The song’s fans are fed up and ready for change, but if the only change on offer is slashing the welfare rolls or sealing the border or banning critical race theory, then that’s what many of them will go with. Others will surrender to apathy and cynicism, convinced that no one in the political class truly cares about them. Populist ferment requires yeast, and right now the left isn’t supplying it.

Etelson adds, “We need to relentlessly put forward a counternarrative that holds the real culprits accountable.” There have been some good protest songs that met this challenge, but they were not as energetically promoted. Check out, for example, James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here” or going farther back further, to Iris Dement’s 1996 “Wasteland of the Free,” both as well-crafted as “Try That in a Small Town” (see Andrew Levison’s take on this song) and “Rich Men North of Richmond,” but neither of which got much play on country or Americana format stations, iTunes or Spotify.

“Liberals have a habit of denigrating rural and working-class people’s tastes and lifestyles,” Etelson says, which is overstated, since there are many liberals who don’t do that. Unfortunately, those who do so are so obnoxious that they get lots of media coverage. But Etelson is right in arguing that “This kind of elitist condescension is a big reason working-class voters (and not just white ones) increasingly vote Republican or stay home.”

It’s certainly true that Republicans have more effectively leveraged ‘populist resentment’ against Democrats, who should be embarrassed for allowing that to happen without much of a fight. It would also be good if more liberals in the arts – including writers, filmmakers and performing artists – would accept Etelson’t challenge and make more of a priority to hold “the real culprits accountable.”

2 comments on “‘Populist Resentment’ Doesn’t Have to Be a Right-Wing Brand

  1. Gerald M Turkel on

    Liberals fight for Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, Family Leave, higher minimum wages, and a host of other policies that are in the interests of all working people, blue collar, white collar, urban, and rural. Biden and other Democrats have sought to increase corporate taxes and taxes on the rich, including some efforts to tax wealth. To be sure, liberals and Democrats could do more, but there has also has to be some recognition about what they do and what they aspire to. Republicans have been great at generating resentment and using cultural and racial issues to mobilize voters, generally against their interests.

  2. Victor on

    Childless working people are barely eligible for any welfare programs. The system treats them as completely underserving of any help.

    With inflation rising (as well as wages) it is time to review the federal poverty level. $14,580 is about $11 an hour for full time workers.

    SNAP and Medicaid depend on the federal poverty level.

    Even Head Start does. Unless its statutory, the biggest expansion of childcare could come by redefining FPL for Head Start.

    EITC, TANF, WIC, CHIP, HEAP, Pell Grants, Section 8 could all be impacted by reviewing eligibility.


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