Recently, I started watching Yellowstone, the TV series about a wealthy rancher in Montana and his struggles to keep his ranch intact. It debuted in 2016, so I am a little late to the party, but it is beautifully filmed and explores several themes that are relevant to our times — principally, what is popularly known as “cowboy culture.” The central theme of the show is land. There is tension between John Dutton, the rancher who owns 28,000 acres of pristine wilderness, and the local Native American tribe that once owned that land and wants it back.
Later in the series, a group of Wall Street financiers jet in with elaborate plans to build a city with thousands of luxury condos, a private airport, and a brace of ski resorts — all of it on John Dutton’s land, which they attempt to wrest away from him through a series of nefarious tactics. The state becomes involved — dazzled by the prospect of untold billions in new tax revenue — and so Dutton runs for governor just so he can shut down those wine swilling city slickers.
The plot often lurches off in unexpected directions but the show does a brilliant job of exploring “cowboy culture,” which may be described as ranching and rodeos. The show celebrates the cowboy way of life and, I must admit, left me with an appreciation for that part of American culture I never had before.
After binge watching the show, I admit I came away with a deeper understanding of cowboy culture (and why diesel powered Ram 3500 pickups are so popular on ranches). At the same time, there is an extraordinary emphasis on violence and killing people who are perceived as threats to the cowboy way of life.
This is the part where serendipity happens. Most readers know I follow the work of Heather Cox Richardson, an historian who attempts to chronicle the events today that will be taught in history classes for future generations. She posts a daily article on Substack entitled “Letters From An American.” As luck would have it, the focus of her post on October 27 was America’s embrace of cowboy culture and its effect on the political divide that plagues the country at the moment.
Her thoughts begin with the horrific massacre in the town of Lewiston, Maine last week. Some of you will cheer what she has to say; others will be deeply offended. Either way, here is what she wrote (lightly edited).
Today, data from the Commerce Department showed that the U.S. economy grew at an astonishing rate of 4.9% in the third quarter, and we learned that in Lewiston, Maine, a single shooter killed at least 18 people — more people than died by gun homicide in Maine in the whole of 2021 — and injured at least 13 others. These two things are the results of two dramatically different worldviews.
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and the administration’s other economic advisors have resurrected the idea that the government can promote economic growth by regulating businesses, protecting workers, and investing in ordinary Americans.
That theory reaches back to the liberal consensus of the years from 1933 to 1981, when members of both parties believed that the intricacies of the modern economy required the federal government to keep the playing field level so that a few people could not monopolize resources and power, cutting others out. In those years, Americans used the government to regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, promote infrastructure, and protect civil rights. The system created what economists call the “great compression.” Wealth and income distribution became much more even, and economic inequality fell dramatically. The economy boomed.
The modern-day Republican Party grew out of a rejection of that idea. In the 1950s and 1960s, a faction insisted that such government action was a form of socialism that stopped the economy from responding efficiently to market forces. Individual entrepreneurs should invest their money without government interference, they argued, and their investments would dramatically expand the economy. Putting money at the “supply side” rather than the “demand side” would allow everyone to prosper together, they promised: a rising tide would lift all boats. They vowed to cut taxes and regulations and to restore American individualism.
Those same people championed the image of the American cowboy as the symbol of the country: a man who wanted nothing from the government but to be left alone to work hard and prosper, and who protected himself and his family — if he had one — with a gun. (This is almost a verbatim synopsis of the central theme of Yellowstone.)
That image was always a myth, but it was an attractive one to white voters who had come to resent the government’s protection of civil rights, those voters who listened to politicians who assured them that the government’s actions were simply a way to direct tax dollars into the pockets of undeserving minorities.
The political image of cowboy individualism played into the hands of the National Rifle Association, which had organized in 1871 in New York in part to improve the marksmanship skills of American citizens who might be called on to fight in another war, and in part to promote in America the British sport of elite shooting, complete with quite hefty cash prizes in newly organized tournaments.
By 1920, rifle shooting was a popular American sport, and the NRA worked hard to keep it respectable. In the 1930s the NRA backed federal legislation to limit concealed weapons; prevent possession by criminals, the mentally ill, and children; require all dealers to be licensed, and require background checks before delivery. The NRA backed the 1934 National Firearms Act and parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act, designed to stop what seemed to be America’s hurtle toward violence in that turbulent decade.
But in the 1970s, a faction in the NRA forced the organization away from sports and toward opposing “gun control.” The NRA formed a political action committee (PAC) in 1975, and in 1980, for the first time, it endorsed a presidential candidate: Republican Ronald Reagan. When Reagan was elected, the NRA became a player in national politics and was awash in money from gun and ammunition manufacturers.
By 2000 the NRA was one of the three most powerful lobbies in Washington. In 2004 the federal assault weapons ban expired, and gun companies began to sell AR-15–style semiautomatic rifles (the AR stands for “ArmaLite Rifle,” which was the name of the military weapon on which the mass-market AR-15 is based). Gun sales had been flat for years, but gun and ammunition sales took off during the administration of Democratic president Barack Obama as advocates told customers that he would confiscate their guns.
Firearms companies played on the politics of the era, advertising their products as tools for heroic figures taking on dangerous threats in society. The firearms industry estimates that about 20 million AR-15s have been sold in the U.S., and mass shootings took off as individual rights trumped the rights of the community.
The NRA spent more than $204 million on the 2008 election. In 2016, NRA spending surged to more than $419 million, with more than $30 million going to support Trump. Since 2020, lawsuits and a dramatic dropoff in funding have dramatically weakened the NRA, but the image of the gun-toting individualist has become so central to the Republican Party that congress members have taken to sending holiday cards showing their families brandishing assault rifles and to wearing AR-15 lapel pins on the floor of Congress.
But now, as the nation reels from another mass shooting, there is yet more proof that Republican economic individualism from which the gun obsession developed doesn’t work as well as the idea of using the government to support the American people. Growth under the Trump administration before the Covid-19 pandemic hit was 2.5%. Trump promised he would get it to 3%, which he claimed was an astonishing rate.
Despite the dire warnings that the economic policies of the Biden administration would cause a terrible recession, Biden and Harris rejected supply-side policies and stood firm on the traditional idea that trying to hold the economic playing field level and investing in workers and infrastructure would nurture the economy. The economy has responded exactly as they predicted, giving the U.S. strong growth for the past five quarters.
Manufacturing has taken off, and the rate of job growth is historic. At the same time, new bargaining power has helped workers make dramatic gains: yesterday the United Auto Workers union and Ford reached a tentative agreement that includes a 25% wage increase over the next 4.5 years, along with cost-of-living adjustments that will bring the increases up to 33%. The union still has to ratify the agreement, but the UAW has called off the strike at Ford plants, suggesting it has faith the union will agree.
A worldview that requires the government to work for the people, rather than handing power to individuals to impose their will on the majority, supports the idea of gun safety laws. Such laws are very popular: in April 2023 a Fox News poll showed that at least 80% of Americans want criminal background checks on gun buyers, better enforcement of existing gun laws, a 21-year age requirement for gun purchases, and mental health checks on gun buyers. Seventy-seven percent wanted a 30-day waiting period to buy a gun; 61% wanted to ban assault rifles and semiautomatic weapons.
Those eager to dismantle the government have stood in the way of such measures, but the heartbreaking news out of Maine has changed at least one lawmaker’s stand. Representative Jared Golden (D-ME), who represents Maine’s conservative second district, which includes Lewiston, today apologized for his previous opposition to gun safety laws.
“The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure, which is why I now call on the United States Congress to ban assault rifles like the one used by this sick perpetrator of this mass killing,” Golden said. “To the families who lost loved ones and to those who have been harmed, I ask forgiveness and support as I seek to put an end to these terrible shootings.”
Cowboy Culture And Empathy
Being the wild eyed liberal that I am, I also subscribe to a column by Teresa Hanafin of the Boston Globe. She too had some thoughts on the insanity in Maine and they are far less kind that those of Richardson. Of Jared Golden, the Maine politician who had a change of heart after the mass shooting, she had this to say:
“Translation: ‘I didn’t give a flying fig when other families were victimized by gun violence and devastated by senseless slaughter. Who cares? But now that I realize that my wife and daughter and relatives could be in danger, well, that’s different. Now I’ll do the right thing.’
“One might think that if we just wait for a mass shooting to happen in every congressional gun worshiper’s district in the country, we’ll eventually enact some sensible limits on guns. Don’t hold your breath.”
Hanafin had more to say on America today and the impact cowboy culture has on who we are as a nation.
This inability for some Americans to feel empathy unless something affects them or their family directly isn’t limited to issues like gun control or racial discrimination or same-sex marriage. It pervades our entire society.
Too many of us refuse to entertain the notion of everyone paying into a universal health care system so that everyone is protected and nobody has to suffer medical bankruptcy. We’re the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t want to keep all its residents healthy. Even some developing countries provide such care.
We spend far less than other high-income countries on social services such as child care, education, paid sick leave, and unemployment insurance. Other governments ensure generous sick and maternity leave, make sure that workers get vacation, and protect workers against exploitive business practices. (The US, meanwhile, is putting kids to work in dangerous industries.)
The result? Americans are sicker, unhappier, more stressed, have a higher cost of living, and don’t live as long as people in most other rich countries. We rank 18th in quality of life. And no, residents of those countries are not impoverished by massive taxes.
Unlike other countries, most Americans do not believe in embracing all of our fellow residents and collectively helping everyone to succeed, providing help as a society when someone needs it.
Part of it is attitudinal. Take our views on poor people: 60 percent of Europeans believe that the poor are trapped in their circumstances and need help to escape poverty; only 29 percent of Americans believe that. (Everyone has bootstraps, right?) On the other hand, 60 percent of Americans believe that the poor are lazy; only 26 percent of Europeans share that view.
Another factor is America’s ethnic heterogeneity, far more than any European nation, for example. Studies have shown that the more diverse a population, the less willing that society is to redistribute resources to benefit everybody. That’s pretty disgusting.
Like those who change their minds on guns and racial discrimination and gay marriage only when it touches them directly, too many Americans are completely unwilling to help those who can’t afford medicine or a livable apartment unless it’s a relative or friend. There’s no universal bond among us, the feeling that we’re all in this together.
Empathy: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another, especially strangers. Where’s ours?
The synthesis of Yellowstone, Heather Cox Richardson, and Teresa Hanafin is this. Cowboy culture celebrates a deep, abiding myth about America that pervades our collective consciousness. Many of us grew up watching Marshall Dillon keeping the peace in Gunsmoke. My earliest childhood heroes were Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, and the Lone Ranger. I read Shane in high school, a book that celebrates the rugged individual myth.
The problem with that myth is that while it celebrates individualism, it also emphasizes white male supremacy while erasing the contributions to society of Native people, people of color, and immigrants who do not not trace their origins to a select group of European countries. In other words, it expressly contradicts the promise that America is built on — liberty and justice for all — and substitutes a much more limited idea of liberty and justice for some to the exclusion of others.
Cowboy culture even plays a significant role in how America embraces the EV revolution. Virtually all ads for new automobiles today show happy smiling people scaling mountains, fording streams, or camping in splendid isolation somewhere in a forest. The theme is the same rugged individualism that lies at the core of cowboy culture, a theme that once made Marlboro the most popular cigarette brand. The Rolling Stones even incorporated the idea into one of their songs by singing, “He can’t be a man cuz he doesn’t smoke the same cigarette as me.”
America has a choice. We are either cowboys making our way alone against an uncaring world or a nation that supports and cherishes all its citizens and each other. It is popular in some circles to denigrate the latter as socialism or communism, but it is simply the message given us by a man who died over 2000 years ago, a man who is celebrated as the Son of God.
Don McLean may have summed it up best. “They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.” The operative word is “perhaps.” It offers the possibility that people could listen. The choice is ours to make.
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