When I was a college student in eastern Tennessee, classmates who felt called to teach in inner-city schools would take on student teaching practicums in the small town of Graysville. On the surface, a big city like Detroit could not seem more different than the tiny mountain town that was racially not diverse and overwhelmingly white. However, the issues that afflicted both were largely the same: a lack of upward mobility, extraordinary rates of fatherless homes, poorly performing schools, high rates of addiction, health problems, and an outsized dependence on welfare.
These issues, as conservative pundits are often quick to note when talking about inner cities, are a culture-wide problem. It’s not just the economics and politics that keep people down. Individual choices matter, as does the way people perceive their situation. Social scientists have long noted how what they call a strong “locus of control,” or the view that your choices have a real impact on your life, tends to predict socioeconomic success. The opposite is also true: When someone views themselves as mainly a victim of things beyond their control, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
All of this came to mind last month when a country-folk song from out of nowhere became an anthem for populist outrage. In “Rich Men North of Richmond,” previously obscure Virginia songwriter Oliver Anthony rails against Washington elites for creating a world in which hardworking Americans can barely make ends meet and are dying of despair.
The song really struck a chord online, particularly with listeners on the political right, and shot to number one on the Billboard Singles chart. Days later, it was used as an opener at the first Republican presidential debate—a move Anthony himself slammed, saying “I wrote this song about those people.” For many listeners, the song’s message reinforced the belief held by many: that elites of both parties have ruined America and are keeping ordinary working people down, and outrage is an appropriate response.
Because of Anthony’s roots and the song’s lyrics, listeners linked it with the plight of rural Appalachian communities, places like Graysville. In these mostly white regions, poverty, drug use, and dependence on welfare have become the subject of documentaries and books like J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. However, as Mark Antonio Wright pointed out at National Review, Hillbilly Elegy also identified and addressed subtler, cultural factors at work in the Coal Belt, such as opioid abuse, “young men immune to hard work,” and “a lack of agency—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.”
While “Rich Men North of Richmond” laments real problems that can rightly be laid at the feet of corrupt politicians and government overreach, such as inflation, unemployment, and “deaths of despair,” fans of the song seem determined to blame these problems only on outsiders. There are, as Wright points out, reasons to doubt that framing. For instance, there are millions more job openings in the U.S. right now than there are unemployed workers, though the same opportunities are not available everywhere. And many of those jobs, contrary to the song, are well-paid blue-collar positions. Yet labor force participation is low even after Covid. When you consider also the personal agency involved in drug addiction and obesity—two scourges on rural America—the simple victim narrative gets even more complicated.
Wright’s National Review article provoked quite a social media backlash. That’s because a lot of Americans are angry. “Rich Men North of Richmond” gave them an outlet to express that anger. However, outrage anthems can only express so much and often obscure complex truths, including some that conservatives are happy to point out. Perhaps the most important of those complex truths is that cultures themselves can become toxic when built upon bad ideas and thus can create victims. In many cases, the problem is not as much the “rich men” in a faraway town but the lack of dads in ours. As Wright suggests, “We the People” have adopted plenty of self-destructive beliefs and habits.
None of this absolves politicians of what’s been done to make Americans’ lives worse. Ronald Reagan’s adage that government is usually the problem rather than the solution is even more true than when he said it. However, I also believe that outrage is not a strategy, nor are outrage anthems.
Blaming our country’s issues on shadowy oppressors “out there,” which political parties do whenever they assure their voters that they are victims, encourages the mindset that only perpetuates poverty, relational brokenness, and addictions. It’s based on an impoverished worldview that replaces agency with anger and treats people as less than fully human, refusing them the dignity of being responsible moral actors whose fate and whose communities are at least partially within their purview and control. In fact, the victim worldview is the thing most likely to empower those “rich men north of Richmond” at the expense of everyone else.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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