For a Connecticut Democrat not actively seeking higher office, Boone, North Carolina would seem like an odd location for a summertime visit.
Earlier this month, however, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy met with a group of scholars, writers and activists in the Appalachian college town to prompt a discussion about social and economic decline in rural communities far-flung from the friendlier confines of Murphy’s home state.
“I think I need to show that I'm willing to learn about how parts of the country are different than Connecticut, and I'm trying to show that earnestness,” Murphy told CT Insider. “Some of the things I've said have ruffled some feathers on the left, but I have not backed down in terms of my desire to try to build bridges, and hope that shows an earnestness as well.”
Over the last year, Murphy has written and spoken at length about loneliness, masculinity and the failures of neoliberalism, in what the senator has described as a philosophical and political quest to understand what is fueling the nation’s deep partisan divides.
After returning from North Carolina, Murphy again jumped into the cultural fray this month by encouraging his social media followers to listen to a viral country music hit by the singer Oliver Anthony, whose rise to the top of the digital music charts was driven in part by praise from conservative media personalities.
Critics, including those on the left, faulted Murphy for promoting lyrics that seemingly referenced right-wing conspiracy theories, and more overtly ridiculed welfare recipients. Alan Elrod, the founder and president of the Pulaski Institution, a progressive think tank based in Arkansas, said that Anthony’s music “dips into some pretty fever swamp stuff,” and perpetuated stereotypes of Southerners as prejudiced and conspiratorial.
“There’s a lot of wonderful country music, there’s a very long tradition of talking about hardship, economic hardship and loneliness, a lot of the themes he’s concerned with,” Elrod said. “This song just feels so clearly not even close to measuring up to some of those actual ballads.”
Responding to that criticism, Murphy said that while Anthony has spread some “loopy and dangerous” ideas, his message of working long hours for “s—t wages” resonated with voters in a way that Democrats should acknowledge.
“I think there's a reason for a broad swath of this country to be really angry at the political and economic elites who made a lot of mistakes over the last 30 years,” Murphy said.
The senator added that he has not reached out to or heard from Anthony since his post. Anthony has not responded to requests for comment from CT Insider.
Murphy, who was subject of some speculation about a presidential run four years ago, conceded that his aim in reaching out to people disaffected with traditional politics is not entirely altruistic — he wants to help Democrats attract more voters in races up and down the ballot.
Such a strategy could pay dividends if Democrats are able take control of Congress in 2024 while electing President Joe Biden to a second term. Murphy is also facing reelection next year, though his seat is generally considered safe.
“Recognizing things that are not conventionally thought of as governmental problems may be an interesting way of reaching people who aren’t reached by the normal political dialogues,” said Ron Schurin, a retired professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.
The song Murphy spotlighted on X, formerly known as Twitter, is titled “Rich Men North of Richmond,” referring to the group who Anthony blames for the country’s ills. Murphy said he understands the shot is directed at people like him, representing one of the richest states in the county — and one of the most economically unequal.
“I get that Connecticut has a reputation as being monolithic, but we aren't,” Murphy said.
Elrod said that Murphy’s New England roots should not prevent him from being an effective advocate for issues impacting people in predominantly poor, rural areas of the country — pointing to Robert F. Kennedy as an example of one predecessor who successfully ventured into unfamiliar territory in order to grasp the nation’s problems.
“It’s good that he’s trying to start and do that work,” Elrod said. “The risky part is to make sure that as he does that, he’s taking in a great many perspectives and voices and not allowing a particular idea of Appalachia, the rural South and these places to be sold as sort of the only real version.”
Next month, the senator will begin his annual walk across Connecticut, meeting with voters whose principal concerns, he said, are not that dissimilar from those he heard from people in North Carolina and elsewhere. “I’m mostly talking to people who never turn on CNN, Fox News or MSNBC; on that walk I'm constantly reminded people are focused generally on evergreen issues: wages, education, public safety, not the issues that dominate the cable news shows,” he said.