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Oliver Anthony is just a centrist (updated)
He says so himself - and like most centrists, he thinks he's independent.
It has already become passé among some of our louder left thinkfluencers to talk about Oliver Anthony, the indie country singer whose song Rich Man North of Richmond made him a viral hit on the right. Which is curious when one considers how many other viral right-wing microcelebrities they will talk about for years on end; the major difference, as far as I can tell, is that weirdos like that guitar-playing Tik Tok racist present as upper-middle-class, educated, and urban.
I also think it curious since Anthony’s politics are at once far more interesting and far more normal than the boring one-note bigot provocateurs that no one can ever shut up about. For one thing, it has become clear that — much to the chagrin of his right-wing fan base — he is plainly not a bigot. Here’s what he had to say in a recent video:
I mean, we are the melting pot of the world, and that’s what makes us strong, is our diversity, and we need to learn to harness that and appreciate it, and not use it as a political tool to keep everyone separate from each other, you know?
This statement, too, is probably more complicated than it seems; after all, among conservatives, grievances about “reverse racism” are also often articulated in terms of respect for diversity and solidarity. But this isn’t an argument that Anthony is a bigot; it’s an argument that his seemingly genuine appreciation of diversity and solidarity may be naive about how that can be won in a world that has neither. This is a trap that popular liberalism often seems to run into nowadays: the discourse often abandons basic distinctions between bigotry and participation in systematic oppression, imagining that the latter must inevitably emerge from the former.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Anthony also supports ordinary liberal positions on issues like affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act — we don’t know! But in this he is also like many conservatives, whose attitudes on diversity and solidarity don’t necessarily predict any particular position on specific issues. Quite often you’ll find a relatively inconsistent basket of positions based mostly on subjective judgment calls: a Republican from the northeast might still support the VRA out of suspicion of Southerners, for example, but consider affirmative action a bridge too far.
One issue where Anthony does seem to have taken a clearly reactionary position is welfare. Some folks seem to have been thrown on this one since he is (or at least was) relatively poor himself, but this is fairly naive:
Even among the very poor you can often find real suspicion of welfare; hostility towards government programs one personally benefits from is as American as apple pie. And even among very poor welfare recipients who support welfare, you can often find extraordinary guilt and self-loathing. That’s just what happens when your culture is baked in neoliberal ideology for decades on end.
Anthony, to his credit, voices some real compassion for the poor in his songs. But he also complains about “the obese milkin’ welfare” and whines that “taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds”. Some pundits have dismissed this as thoughtless rhetorical flourish, but in the same video quoted a moment ago he made it perfectly clear what he meant:
It references the inefficiencies of the government…I think about 30 or 40 percent of the food bought on welfare or EBT money is in a classification of like snack food and soda…the government takes people who are needy and independent and makes them needy and dependent.
Complaints that the government is being “inefficient” by letting the poor buy treats aren’t just a classic right-wing pretext for draconian welfare restrictions and cuts; they also direct our concern for poverty away from class warfare by pinning blame for it on the government. Anthony has also plainly rationalized his simultaneous sympathy for the poor and suspicion of welfare exactly as the right usually does: by viewing welfare as a problem for the poor that makes them “dependent.”
Anthony’s recurring deflection of blame onto the government extends beyond his attitudes towards welfare. To be fair to him, his song does begin with an direct complaint about “working all day / overtime hours for bullshit pay”; this kind of grievance sets him apart from libertarian fans who flinch at complaints about wages and work hours. But this is the only unambiguous stand with workers against capital he has taken to date, at least on record. Even the headline complaint about “rich men” has been narrowed down to the ones who are “north of Richmond.” The generous reading of this is that he’s only annoyed with some rich men; but the more accurate read, as I noted previously, is that he’s redrawn the Mason-Dixon line so that he can call out Washington, DC. This is entirely consistent with his ongoing references to politicians; even in his allusion to Epstein, it is just the politicians who “look out for…minors on an island somewhere.”
Once one notices the particular hostility towards state power in Anthony’s lyrics, his recent — and for many, unexpected — criticism of the GOP makes a lot more sense. Neoliberal ideology isn’t partisan; it villifies everything associated with the government as corrupt and dysfunctional. It declares a pox on the houses of Democrats and Republicans alike, not because they have been captured by capital, but because they are a part of the government machine.
And it’s because this attitude is nonpartisan that neoliberalism so often sees itself as apolitical. This is probably the strongest conviction Anthony has expressed in public statement after public statement: the claim that “this isn’t about politics,” even as he talks about overtime, low wages, powerful people who want to have “total control,” taxes, poverty, welfare, government inefficiency, and so on.
So how can we describe Anthony’s politics? I think the most likely explanation is that he is part of the largest and fastest growing political faction in the United States: the pseudo-independent. Like just about everyone, a few of his views probably don’t share a partisan alignment with the rest of them. And like pseudo-independents, he appears to think this places him outside of politics and outside of partisanship — even though, like just about everyone, Anthony probably votes in a fairly consistent way. There’s some reason to believe that, like a lot of pseudo-independents, Anthony isn’t being entirely honest with himself about this. Last evening, Politico reported that despite his public protests over the Republican Party using his song in their recent presidential debate, Anthony privately gave Fox’s moderators permission to do so.
But whatever his party, Anthony’s politics are clearly caught in the tension between class consciousness and neoliberal ideology. His approval of diversity and compassion for the poor, coupled with sinister ideas about welfare and the government, position him closer to centrists like Joe Biden than fascists like DeSantis or socialists like Lula. And that is, after all, how Anthony identifies himself: “I’m pretty dead center.”
UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, the point I opened with — that the discourse has become unusually impatient with talking about someone’s politics now that it’s a poor rural guy — has become a whole lot easier to see. The most ridiculous example came just last night from fashion critic Derek Guy:
This is particularly ironic since Derek, who weighs in on politics constantly under the unmistakable impression that his takes are worth listening to, has the same exact same credentials in this field as Anthony. Though he can, to his credit, give you much better information on what socks you should be wearing this fall. How does Derek think your typical Harvard PhD — hell, your typical state college polisci undergrad — feels when some guy who studied the color wheel has a bigger political platform than they do?
In any case, what I really find about telling about this argument is its confused relationship with liberal identitarian rhetoric as we always encounter it in other cases. When for example a black entertainer weighs in on issues relevant to being black, the standard rule is that we should set credentialism aside and listen to what they have to say. Telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” and insisting that he should leave politics to the experts isn’t just considered a technical breach of egalitarian etiquette; everyone instantly recognizes it as a cartoonishly racist thing to say, the kind of clichéd line usually reserved for your drunk right-wing uncle.
In fact, quite often the rule goes even further into something called “identitarian deference” — the expectation that we should not just listen to oppressed and marginalized people, but actually defer to them. This is the implicit rule that always emerges during Democratic primaries, for example: if someone from the LGBT community insists that Pete Buttigieg has the best policies on LGBT issues, and someone outside of the community insists otherwise, this is quickly construed as a failure to listen and an act of cishet arrogance and supremacy.
When leftists talk about the problem of identitarian deference, the standard rebuttal from liberals is that the problem does not in fact exist: no one really expects anyone to defer to oppressed and marginalized groups, are merely being asked to listen to them.
So I think it pretty revealing that when I suggest that we should merely listen to Oliver Anthony, the standard objection has been Derek’s. Over and over again, liberals have taken for granted that I mean we should defer to whatever Anthony says and treat him like some kind of credentialed expert. They think this because that is what they ordinarily mean when they say we should “listen to” people.
And it is even more revealing, of course, that the one time we should neither defer nor even listen to an oppressed or marginalized group is when we are talking about the rural poor. It does not even occur to liberals that poor people have their own unique standpoint and lived experience, that they might have subjective insights into the problem of poverty that privileged people may not have noticed, and that for this reason it is a good idea to at least listen to them and try to understand their perspective even if we ultimately end up disagreeing with them. It does not, it seems, even occur to them that we should treat Anthony as a fellow worker whose ideas we should take just as seriously as we want to be treated. When it comes to the poor, all the ordinary rules of egalitarianism go out the window.
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If you want to appreciate how powerful this ideology is, a confession: when I was unemployed at the beginning of the pandemic several friends had to pressure me into applying for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. At first, I hesitated because I didn’t believe that I could possibly qualify; it took some time to realize that of course I qualified, and I only thought otherwise because I didn’t believe that I deserved help. If someone with my politics on welfare can end up thinking that way, just imagine how this works for someone who’s far more ambivalent about it.