Here’s another sin to lay at the feet of us baby-boomers: we forgot to teach our kids and grandkids about Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.
That’s the only explanation I have for why right-wing MAGA Republicans embraced, however briefly, singer-songwriter Oliver Anthony’s pulsing country tune “Rich Men North of Richmond,” an anthem whose lyrics would have been cheered for at any F.D.R. campaign rally in 1932.
After being discovered by a local West Virginia radio station, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which dropped on August 8, transformed Oliver Anthony from a man singing songs in his backyard into the No. 1 trending country musician in the world. In less than a week, the song racked up more than 20 million views and knocked our country on its side; it sat at 50 million at the time this story was published. Anthony has since rejected several multi-million-dollar record deals, demonstrating he wants no part of the fame or fortune, but only to bring people together with his music.
Beneath the riffs heard on the left as crazy, inconsistent, and conspiratorial—“I wish politicians would care about miners / Not just minors on an island somewhere,” “Lord if you’re 5’3 and you’re 300 pounds / Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds / Young men are putting themselves six feet in the ground / ’Cause all this damn country does is keep on kicking them down”—the heartfelt song speaks of forgotten men, discouraged workers under the heel of powerful plutocrats who don’t give a fig about them or their struggling families or their battered heartland towns. Anthony’s words evoke the New Deal images that fired the most progressive period American politics has ever known.
Anthony himself recently protested when the song—which he insists is about “people, not politics”—was applauded by right-wing partisans who generally oppose every single effort to make society fairer for people like those he was singing about.
How did this happen? How could people who think unionizing workers are Bolsheviks and food stamps are socialist have failed to recognize the plaintive echoes of the 1930s in this tune? How could progressives attacking the song as hostile to their own values have missed the familiar roots of its discontent?
And yet a galaxy of pixels has been devoted to analyzing this cultural development, and only a handful of voices have made that patently obvious connection.
Oliver Anthony’s words evoke the New Deal images that fired the most progressive period American politics has ever known.
I certainly wasn’t raised in that state of ignorance. My parents—the son of a tenant farmer in Arkansas and a coal miner’s daughter from Kentucky—were Depression children; they were taught that F.D.R. was the last hope for their poleaxed communities. When war came, my dad was an Army Air Corps pilot, my mom was an army nurse, and F.D.R. was their commander in chief. When F.D.R. died, in 1945, my mother was 22, and he had been her president for more than half her life. Roosevelt seemed like part of my extended family.
But I was a boomer. Very soon, the only Democratic president I paid attention to was a “Camelot” Kennedy in Washington; “Hyannis Port” replaced “Hyde Park” in the newspaper datelines. We boomers wept at Sunrise at Campobello, the poignant 1960 film about Roosevelt’s battle with polio, and made a 1995 best-seller of No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-winning account of the Roosevelts in wartime. But, mostly … we moved on.
In 1981, when President Reagan declared in his inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” we did not hear the ghosts of our parents’ generation laughing derisively and telling us, “Look, our problems were a ruinous depression, a broken banking system, and murderous marauding Nazis. Government—F.D.R.’s government—was very definitely the solution to those problems, bucko!”
New Deal amnesia isn’t a partisan failing. Republicans whose parents hissed at F.D.R. during movie newsreels in the 1930s and voted against him four times have raised children and grandchildren who don’t know they’re supposed to hate Roosevelt and everything he worked for—whatever that may have been.
And so we boomers, on the left and the right, got jobs and saved money—entrusting it to banks protected by the F.D.I.C., an F.D.R. creation that has spared us the kind of bank failures that wiped out millions of nest eggs in our parents’ time. We opened 401(k) accounts that invested in well-regulated, honestly marketed mutual funds that were a far cry from the conflict-riddled “investment trusts” deceptively sold before the New Deal.
If we were very lucky, we exercised our corporate stock options and built investment portfolios, confident in the accuracy of the prices quoted by our brokers and the financial information in our prospectuses—assurances that no investor could have relied on before the New Deal’s market reforms. Then, if we lived long enough, we debated about when to start collecting Social Security—one of F.D.R.’s most historic achievements.
How could people who think unionizing workers are Bolsheviks have failed to recognize the plaintive echoes of the 1930s in this tune? How could progressives attacking the song as hostile to their own values have missed the familiar roots of its discontent?
And at every step, we took all these comforts and protections for granted, as if American capitalism had always worked like this. No matter which party we belong to, middle-class people today—whether or not we admit it, or even know it—have built our financial security on the bedrock of a regulated financial landscape bequeathed to us nearly 90 years ago by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.
And we forgot all that? Incredible.
We even forgot, if we ever knew, Roosevelt’s cautionary references to the debt-fueled speculative bubble that burst disastrously in 1929, so we had a debt-fueled speculative bubble of our own in the early 2000s. We let unregulated “credit-default swaps” and esoteric mortgage securities flood the market while Wall Street’s primary New Deal watchdogs were tied up and underfed. We were stunned in 2008 when this financial recklessness gave us the worst hard times since the Great Depression—but all too soon, we allowed protections enacted after 2008 to be pared back or erased. We’d moved on.
By all means, listen to “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Imagine you’re hearing it amid a depression that has put at least 25 percent of the labor force out of work, shuttered almost every bank in the country, left factory towns devastated, and closed down our stock markets and commodity exchanges. Imagine you’re hearing it in a country as riddled by conspiracy theories, class resentments, and violent racial bigotry as we are today. Imagine hearing it just before Franklin Roosevelt tells you all this misery can be fixed if we just pull together for the common good. Imagine you lived long enough to watch that happen.
The New Deal wasn’t perfect—far from it. But when F.D.R. was sworn in on March 4, 1933, America couldn’t afford to wait for “perfect.” We were out of work, out of money, out of hope, and almost out of time. Roosevelt put millions to work, got the money flowing again, and restored our confidence in a brighter future. Even the Rich Men were impressed: soon after the inauguration, the plutocratic House of Morgan told its London affiliate that “the whole country is filled with admiration for President Roosevelt. The record of his accomplishment in just one week seems incredible because we have never experienced anything like it before.”
Our parents, whether they loved F.D.R. or hated him, knew they were watching a historically important president in historically perilous times. In a story recounted by Jonathan Alter in his book The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, a visitor tells F.D.R., “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history. If it fails, you will be the worst one.” Roosevelt corrected him. “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.”
He did not fail us. We have failed him—by failing to remember how much we owe him and how much, to this day, his legacy improves our daily lives. If “Rich Men North of Richmond” reminds us of how hard life still can be for others, it’s a hit in my book. Maybe it will prompt us to once again, finally, pull together for the common good.
Diana B. Henriques is a journalist and the author of several books, including the upcoming Taming the Street: The Old Guard, the New Deal, and FDR’s Fight to Regulate American Capitalism, to be published on September 12 by Random House