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15 August 2023

Democrats are losing the country music culture war

America’s white working class anthems tell stories the left want to forget.

By Charlotte Kilpatrick

In mid-July the country singer Jason Aldean released a video for his song “Try That in a Small Town”. The video, like his lyrics, is full of political code. In it, he juxtaposes images of him singing in a cowboy hat in front of a small county courthouse with Gotham-like scenes of violence from American cities. In the original video, news clips from a Black Lives Matter protest – since removed – were projected against the walls of the courthouse and overlain with the lyrics, “Round here we take care of our own.” His song refers to an antiquated sort of small-town justice that allows “good ’ol boys raised up right” to patrol the streets in vigilante herds with the guns their granddads gave them.

These references were not lost on anyone with an understanding of America’s grim racist history. In 1927 the courthouse where Aldean filmed his video was the site of the lynching of a black teenager by a white mob. Henry Choate, 18, was kidnapped from jail, tied to the back of a car and dragged miles across town. He was then hung in front of the courthouse, his body left as a warning to the black community.

The political fallout of Aldean’s video was immediate. Country Music Television banned the video and celebrities condemned the songwriter for race-baiting. Right-wing commentators rallied behind Aldean, claiming he was the victim of left-wing cancel culture. In retribution to liberal scorn, the song shot right to number one on Billboard’s country chart.

Ask anyone on the American right and they will say the song has nothing to do with race. Aldean himself insists, “There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it – and there isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage.” To those on the right, the song is an anthem that defends traditional values being eroded by left-wing coastal elites who think working-class people are stupid, backward hicks. To them, the song’s success has nothing to do with imagined racist overtones and everything to do with liberals trying to tell them not to listen to it. Meanwhile liberals, including yours truly, interpret the video as undeniable proof of the sort of racial animosity that got Donald Trump elected. 

The reaction to “Try That in a Small Town” showed how polarised the United States currently is. For much of the last half-century, the benefits of economic prosperity have gone mostly to the college-educated class who live predominantly in cities. In the collective imagination, these are people sipping lattes at swanky cafés, who buy their fruit and veg at local farmers’ markets, and drive fuel-efficient cars. Go to a wine bar in a gentrified part of a city and there’s little chance country music will be playing. Folk albums stand a better chance, but that is only because since the 1960s the genre has been dominated by middle-class liberals. Regardless of whether the song’s about heartbreak or economic turmoil, anything with a solid twang that would be played on an FM country music station in fly-over country is decidedly uncool.

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The reasons for this have nothing to do with the quality of the music and everything to do with the demographic who listen to it. Like the people in Aldean’s small town, these are the left-behinds. They are the ones without a four-year college degree working for low wages with little job security. While forty years ago a male high-school graduate could provide for his family, now he’d be lucky if he could earn enough to pay his rent and cover any emergencies to his car or health. It is no coincidence that the indicator that best predicts how somebody will vote is not income or gender, but a four-year college degree. According to Pew Research, Joe Biden won only 33 per cent of white voters without a college degree; those voters comprised 27 per cent of Biden’s total vote, compared with almost 60 per cent of Bill Clinton’s supporters who were white without a degree 28 years earlier. In 2016 Hilary Clinton won 52 per cent of all voters with a four-year degree and 66 per cent of those with a postgraduate degree.

It would be a foolish oversimplification to extrapolate from these figures that college makes people smarter. While a university degree is still hopefully some proof of acquired analytical skills, it is – more importantly – the ticket to an elevated sense of social status. Money is not the bottom line. There are certainly truck drivers out there without thousands of dollars of student loans, earning more than freelance journalists who need to check their bank account before wondering if they can order an Uber. But that same truck driver won’t enjoy all the social capital of telling folks in the wine bar that they write for the New Yorker.

This loss of perceived social status is not a figment of the right’s imagination. For all the left’s rhetoric of inclusivity, the one demographic that it is acceptable to mock is poor under-educated white people. The lack of education isn’t just a problem for finding a well-paid job. In their book Deaths of Despair, the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that white people without a college degree were disproportionately more likely to die from drugs, alcohol or suicide than those with a college diploma. The authors argue that ballots cast for Donald Trump “are surely not for a president who will dismantle safety nets but against a Democratic Party that represents an alliance between minorities – whom working-class whites see as displacing them and challenging their once solid if unperceived privilege – and an educated elite that has benefited from globalisation and from a soaring stock market, which was fuelled by the rising profitability of those same firms that were increasingly denying jobs to the working class”.

This perceived loss of social status is what Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California Berkeley, refers to as “the deep story”, which she uses to explain the feelings of loss and pain that lie behind a reflexive resentment working-class whites feel against liberal “elites” and deep state government. In her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Hochschild describes how those on the far-right believe two fundamental truths: first that the deep story is real, and second that liberals are trying to gaslight them into believing the deep story is not real. According to Hochschild, the message that the right hear from liberals is that they shouldn’t feel resentful because beneficiaries of affirmative action, immigrants and refugees were not really stealing their place in line to the American Dream. It’s scarce comfort that any time they speak of what they perceive as unfair advantages, they are righteously labelled as racists by the very people who use their class privilege to get ahead.

[See also: America is nothing more than a self-help society]

Country music’s longevity is proof that America is not the classless society it claims to be. It is often argued that since its founding, American society has been stratified into hierarchies, with a white elite at the top advocating policies that divide those at the bottom. While the middle class occupies itself with obtaining the luxuries and status of the upper 1 per cent, country music is the swan song of those whose standard of living shifts constantly between survival and just getting by. Dolly Parton’s working-class anthem “9 to 5” or the Chicks’ songs of aspiration share more in common thematically with the lyrics of ethnic minorities than they do with the hipster sounds of modern folk. It’s not for nothing that a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” has now beaten Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” to gain second place on Billboard’s country chart.

What makes country music particularly American is the theme of hope and perseverance: that if anyone just works hard enough they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get ahead. That belief in social mobility is as persistent as it is mythological. But it also serves the purpose of allowing those who have benefited from the system to look down disdainfully at those who have not. To many it sounds as if the left says that if ethnic minorities fail to get ahead it’s because of systemic racism. If working-class white people fail to get ahead it’s just because they’re stupid.

It wasn’t long ago that the Democratic Party was the home of the white working class. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” were targeted at the very groups that now vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Although Biden and the left are still focused on many anti-poverty issues such as raising the minimum wage and universal healthcare, Trump and his clones know they can pull voters away from the left if they bang on about a conspiratorial left-wing woke agenda. A vote for Trump is almost certainly a vote against their own economic best interests, but why vote for the guy who thinks you’re deplorable, when you can vote for the guy who tells you he’s going to make you feel like you’re winning again?

There is certainly a huge lack of empathy in America right now. Public school children in the small Tennessee town where Aldean filmed his video are forbidden by law from learning any version of history that teaches that America is a fundamentally racist society. They are, however, allowed to shoot any guns their parents might give them. But if Democrats want to win more elections, they need to have the compassionate understanding that hardship is not a zero-sum game. Different but equally awful political decisions and circumstances are responsible for the fact that in 2019 nearly 43 per cent of children in Tennessee lived either below or just above the poverty level.

Over the weekend another country song went viral. Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North Of Richmond” is a cri de couer about the hardship of the working man down on his luck. Anthony’s heartbreak is palpable in his video as he strums his guitar in the middle of an overgrown field singing, “I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day, overtime hours for bullshit pay.” The song has many of the classic elements of a good country tune: it’s sorrowful, has a sharp twang, and is raw in its authenticity. It also has a political edge. Instead of pointing his scorn entirely at the rich men north of Richmons Anthony also rails against elfare recipients and high taxes. Only 30 days sober when he wrote the song, Anthony sings, “Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground ’cause all this damn country does is keep kickin’ ’em down.”

If the political left wants to live up to its values of mercy and compassion it needs to continue extending compassion to those who feel the world has left them behind. One way of bridging that empathetic gap might be listening to country music, to the art of those we need to better understand.

[See also: How the left forgot the petty bourgeoisie]

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