The Resurgence of Frontier Politics

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 09/19/06

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In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner penned The Significance of the Frontier in American History, the monograph that inaugurated the study of cultural history and identified one of the principal archetypes in American consciousness.  The concept of the frontier had been bound up with the Jacksonian doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which essentially was the American desire to take and consume in the name of progress; but Turner teased out frontier spirit as a separate, and uniquely American, phenomenon:

All peoples show development; the germ theory of politics has been sufficiently emphasized. In the case of most nations, however, the development has occurred in a limited area; and if the nation has expanded, it has met other growing peoples whom it has conquered. But in the case of the United States we have a different phenomenon. Limiting our attention to the Atlantic coast, we have the familiar phenomenon of the evolution of institutions in a limited area, such as the rise of representative government; into complex organs; the progress from primitive industrial society, without division of labor, up to manufacturing civilization. But we have in addition to this a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that Americans did in fact conquer many peoples on their way westward, the consequences of this “beginning over again” on American culture Everything old could be made new again; a man down on his luck, with a broken family, could try his fortune out West; a family struggling to get by could remake themselves, at least in imagination and attempt, as gold-rush millionaires.  Nothing was permanent, failure was only a temporary state of existence.  To Turner, the perennial optimism engendered by the frontier was nothing less than the seminal characteristic of American society:

This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.

Forty-three years later, John Steinbeck picked up the theme in the short story “The Leader of the People,” part of his book The Red Pony.  In the story, Jody Tiflin’s grandfather comes to visit him; their conversation develops into a nostalgic monologue by the grandfather on the subject of the now-defunct frontier spirit, what Grandfather calls “westering“:

It wasn’t the Indians that were important, nor adventures, nor even getting out here.  It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast.  And I was the head.  It was Westering and Westering.  Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only Westering…

Steinbeck’s conception of westering unites the frontier spirit with transformational leadership and a kind of grassroots phenomenon related to mass movements throughout time — Gandhi’s March to the Sea, Themistocles’ defense of Athens, and the various Bolivar uprisings in Latin America spring to mind.  The difference is that all these movements were led by a charismatic figure, while American westering sprang up without a leader (save old Horace Greeley), and continued without a manager.  “I was the head,” says Grandfather, but so was everyone else.  The frontier spirit was thus an American original: a popular movement that was completely democratic, where everyone was in charge of his or her own manifest destiny.

By 1936, Steinbeck was lamenting the death of westering, its once-vigorous proponents reduced in Grandfather to a nostalgic old shell of a man.  Turner, too, saw the frontier as part of the past:

…Never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is not tabula rasa. The stubborn American environment is there with its imperious summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier. What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely. And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.

What Turner, and later Steinbeck, missed was that westering was not simply a phenomenon of physical expansion, but a hunger of the spirit. Accordingly, it need not, and did not, die out with the close of the frontier era in 1890.  Westering is America’s peculiar incarnation of hope, the way Americans express their desire for change, growth, and dreams.  It is the American dream given corporeal form; in the absence of this form, the frontier has become a symbol of wholesome adventurousness, of American grit and determination.  Westering remains one of the most powerful metaphors in the American cultural psyche — and as such, it is an image of profound force in our politics.

Americans have always been attracted to frontier political figures.  The first great American frontier politician was Andrew Jackson, back when Tennessee was part of the “frontier.”  A more bona fide frontiersman achieved national prominence in 1856 as the first Presidential candidate of the fledgling Republican party: John C. Fremont, the “trailblazer” who had launched five expeditions to the New Mexico Territory, polled 33% that year.  In 1896, William Jennings Bryan captured a bit of the frontier magic with his “Cross of Gold” speech and passionate defense of Midwestern farmers.  Theodore Roosevelt, an Easterner who loved the West, transformed himself through Rough Rider imagery into a Western symbol.

But more recently, the mythos of the West has faded from both the actions and the lips of national political figures.  The great populists of the twentieth century have come not from the West, but from the elite circles of New England and the Midwest.  They were lawyers (Wendell Willkie), scholars (Adlai Stevenson), and wealthy heirs (Nelson Rockefeller, John F. Kennedy).  Bona fide Western politicians like Mo Udall and Bruce Babbitt, have largely failed in national politics, while more successful Presidential candidates from Western states, such as Barry Goldwater and John McCain, have largely eschewed Western imagery in favor of more generic self-characterizations.

But in the past ten years, the image of the frontier has made a dramatic resurgence in political rhetoric and imagery.  The catalyst for this change, amazingly, was neither a populist nor a true Westerner; it was none other than the cowboy-boot-wearing, Texan-talking George W. Bush.  Even more confusingly, Bush’s strongest support came not from the West itself, which remained a swing region, but from the deep, redneck, poverty-stricken South.

Why should the South, a region heavily settled at an early date and (the Exodusters notwithstanding, as African-Americans are not generally Bush supporters) not a heavy contributor to the original frontier movement, be attracted to a candidate in chaps and boots?  The answer brings us back to the first part of this essay: the Western myth is not a physical obbject in American culture, it is a symbol of hope, change, renewal, and a fresh start.  The deep South saw an escape from socioeconomic stagnation reflected in Bush’s spurs; the frontier myth registered subconsciously with them even as the Republicans’ incessant rhetoric of “God, guns, and gays” gave them reason to vote against the Democrats.  In such close elections as 2000 and 2004, the impact of Bush’s Western ethos in the South may have been one of many critical parts of the Republicans’ success.

My friend Kari Chisholm grasped Bush’s frontier magnetism in a brilliant Oregonian op-ed right after the 2004 election:

Let’s face it: For all of his strengths, average middle-class American families simply couldn’t identify with John Kerry. He may be a decorated veteran and an extreme-sports athlete, but he and Teresa always came across as prep-school liberals, part of the brie-and-chablis scene back East.

Conversely, George “Dubya” Bush has portrayed a regular-guy image, comfortable with the NASCAR-and-barbecue crowd. While Kerry tried to fake it with L.L. Bean camouflage hunting gear, Bush looked at home in his blue jeans and cowboy boots.

Chisholm argued persuasively that Kerry’s lack of westernness was symbolic, and maybe even causatory, of the Democrats’ shoddy campaigning in recent years.  His solution: the a new campaign strategy embodying Western mythology and based on the recent successful campaigns of several Western Democrats:

The Democrats have simply failed to connect with average Americans. Yes, it’s true, finding a good ol’ Southern boy to lead the party might bring back the glory days, but it’s almost impossible to find a Southern Democrat with presidential stature anymore. (With the possible exception of John Edwards.)

Let us look west. In the mountains and ranchlands of the West, there are Democrats who understand real America. Out here, far from the nation’s capital, there are Democrats who understand skepticism of the federal government. Out here, Americans will find Democrats comfortable in jeans and boots. In the West, we can find Democrats able to speak plainly in the language of real America. …

Reclaiming a majority is not about turning South, or preaching the Gospel, or moving left or moving right. It’s about reconnecting on a gut-level with middle America.

Let us look west.

Kari took up his own challenge and founded Western Democrat, a fantastic group blog dedicated to Westernizing the Democratic Party.  He believes that a 2008 Presidential run by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson would best define and sell the Western brand — a view I had already reached independently in my first-ever Kos diary.

No one better typified the nascent frontier movement in American politics than newly-elected Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer.  A fiery populist with a keen intellect and a hatred of lobbyists, Schweitzer bested Secretary of State Bob Brown to win the Governorship.  In an interview, Schweitzer revealed some of the Western flair and inspirational language that made him an inspiration to aspiring Western candidates:

…I’ve broken more colts than there are days that I’ve been in office. I’m just a regular guy, getting things done in Montana. I don’t know if that works nationally, but I don’t care. …

You know who the most successful Democrats have been through history? … Democrats who’ve led with their hearts, not their heads. Harry Truman, he led with his heart. Jack Kennedy led with his heart. Bill Clinton, well, he led with his heart, but it dropped about 2 feet lower in his anatomy later on.

We are the folks who represent the families. Talk like you care. Act like you care. When you’re talking about issues that touch families, it’s OK to make it look like you care. It’s OK to have policies that demonstrate that you’ll make their lives better — and talk about it in a way that they understand. Too many Democrats — the policy’s just fine, but they can’t talk about it in a way that anybody else understands. …

You need to have good solid policy — that’s important. But you’ve got to touch people. They’ve got to know you; they’ve got to know that you believe in what you’re saying. And that’s probably more important when people vote than your policies.

When I started Schweitzer for President in May 2005, it was because I believed Schweitzer had hit upon the perfect cocktail of Western independence and political inspiration, a mixture that, if furthered, could transform Democratic politics from Montana on up.  I wrote at the time:

Brian Schweitzer is easily the smartest, most inspiring Democrat I’ve ever heard. And in my opinion, Democrats have had enough of mediocrity in the past few years. It’s time we decided that only the best will do for the highest office in the land.

The site, now operated by Kevin McCarthy, sports a draft petition with 250 signatures (including that of former DeanBlogger Zephyr Teachout) and pledges of over $15,000 for a Schweitzer run.  Obviously the Schweitzer message resonates with individuals across the country.


All these little movements toward frontier politics — Chisholm’s, Schweitzer’s, Richardson’s — have come together with enough force to start something.  The Democratic Party in the West has finally ceased to cede the frontier to Bush and his cronies; through a series of localized grassroots movements, it is finally starting to fight back.  Across the West, Democratic candidates have emerged who truly understand the frontier ethos and the westering impulse of American society — people like Jon Tester in Montana, Dina Titus and Jill Derby in Nevada, Jerry McNerney in California, Gary Trauner in Wyoming, Jon Tester in Montana, and Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.

These pictures tell the story better than words ever can.  These are the new Western Democratic leaders of tomorrow — every one at home in wide open spaces, dressed to travel, energized, enthused, down-to-earth, blunt, honest, in touch with average Americans.  Every one understands the promise made by the frontier to the American people nearly two hundred years ago — the promise of eternal renewal, of endless opportunities to remake oneself in the image of one’s dreams.

The significance of the American frontier is indeed great; but it is not, as Turner would have it, relegated to history.  Instead, it is the significance of the frontier to our hopes and dreams that is the true measure of our greatness.  If the Democratic Party provides Americans with a chance to fulfill their wildest imaginings, if it grasps the westering spirit of the frontier, it will be able to win elections once again; more importantly, it will be able to return to what it once was and should be again: a party of hope, of ideas, and above all of humanity.  But if Beltway ideas and lobbyist dollars prevail once again in the halls of Democratic power, then the party may be well and truly lost.


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