Essays - Winter 2009

The Future of the American Frontier

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Can one of our most enduring national myths, much in evidence in the recent presidential campaign, be reinvented yet again?

By John Tirman

December 1, 2008


 

The presidential campaign of 2008 will be recalled for many firsts: the first African-American presidential nominee, the near-miss campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, the record spending and record turnout. But what was not new was its reliance on a very old standard of American political culture, the frontier myth. Perhaps no other set of ideas about America is more powerful politically, and the two autumn campaigns were reverential in their implicit bow to, or explicit exploitation of, the dense complex of frontier images and values attached to the American experience.

The limitless possibilities of the American dream, the expansion of American values, the national effort to tame faraway places, the promise of a bounty just over the horizon, and the essential virtue of the American people who explore and settle these frontiers—all of these tropes fortified the hopes of the campaigns to situate their candidate in the company of legendary pioneers. It is a testament to the power of this myth that it grips us still—its self-gratifying qualities having ensured its long lineage—even as the actual frontier of American action is swiftly closing. A century ago, the closure of the continental frontier obsessed politicians and intellectuals alike. Today, when the global frontier is closing, our political leaders have little sense of its significance.

Instead, the run for the White House recycled the frontier myth with scarcely a nod to its growing irrelevance. The Republican ticket, representing Western frontier states, was exemplary in this regard. John McCain’s credentials as a genuine hero were much in play. In frontier mythology, the hero is central to how we understand the tasks of taming the wilderness and extracting its bounty, and from Andrew Jackson to George Armstrong Custer to Jimmy Doolittle, the American hero has often been a warrior. That burnishing fact of McCain’s career was front and center in the political campaign. His self-description as a “maverick” glosses the hero status neatly, because the hero in our national narrative is typically the loner seeking justice. He repeatedly called himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, invoking one of the icons of the frontier myth, a self-made hero if there ever was one. And in his campaign he recycled one of the sacred phrases political leaders like to use to underscore their commitment to America’s unique greatness—John Winthrop’s line from Matthew that we are “as a City upon a Hill,” an exemplar for all the world.

The maverick hero was joined on the ticket around Labor Day by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who was introduced as yet another maverick and a frontier mother who hunts and can “field dress” a moose. Much was made of this, both sarcastically and triumphantly, but the direct embrace of the frontier myth was unmistakable and instantly popular. “The gun-toting Sarah Palin is like Annie Oakley,” exulted Camille Paglia, “a brash ambassador from America’s pioneer past.” One conservative blogger called her “a Western frontier version of Thatcher.” In viewing the giddy Palin debut, one reference that came to mind was historian David W. Noble’s depiction of “timeless space” as a treasured American perspective—the absence of confining histories, cultures, or mores, combined with the limitless American landscape. Alaska self-consciously conveys those qualities, considering itself a residual frontier, and the many exciting possibilities of that frontier were rejuvenated in the person of Alaska’s governor.

The Democratic ticket’s claim on frontier values was less obvious. Barack Obama invoked John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, and Franklin D. Roosevelt as paragons of a global leadership that must be renewed, implicitly assuming that the whole world is our rightful domain of action. In this, he is in the internationalist tradition that seeks to promote American values, missionary-like, to a grateful world. As an Illinois lawyer-politician and as an African American, he is readily associated with Lincoln as frontier hero and liberator of the slaves. In his manner and education, he has often been compared with Kennedy, the new frontiersman. Obama’s intriguing personal journey is that of a lone truth seeker on a quest (common to all heroes), in this world but somehow always elevated above the mundane, an American Odysseus. His rapid rise to national prominence has been built on the irrational hope of his supporters that he can singlehandedly transform politics and the world, and indeed he was lampooned on the right as a Christ poseur.

What is striking about these candidates is the authenticity of their credentials. McCain’s heroism is evident in his gruesome captivity narrative, replete with cycles of courage and weakness. Obama scaled heights never before ascended by a black American, overcoming obstinate racism and xenophobia as the Herculean labors of a new epic. (Compare these two with the would-be cowboys Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush clearing brush from their ranches.) These truly heroic images are among the reasons why the campaign was fought so fiercely.

As the 2008 election shows, we can’t escape the frontier, even if the frontier has escaped us.

Why is the frontier myth losing its relevance? When the continental frontier closed—when the last indigenous tribes were subdued and the land taken—it created a sense of crisis in American politics. The answer to that crisis was to look outward, across oceans, to imagine frontiers to conquer abroad. Much of the ensuing century has involved America on such global frontiers. But now that frontier is also closing, as our capacity to treat the world like a virgin terrain diminishes, and the question it stirs is What next? What frontier, if any?

The cultural theorist Richard Slotkin describes the myth of the frontier as “the conquest of the wilderness and the subjugation or displacement of the Native Americans . . . the means to our achievement of a national identity, a democratic polity, an ever-expanding economy, and a phenomenally dynamic and ‘progressive’ civilization.” This conquest, he explains, was not only pursued for its own tangible rewards—security, land, and riches—but for and by a morally cleansing series of “savage wars” that conveyed upon the pioneers a “regeneration through violence.” It was at the frontier, where civilization confronted wilderness, that American values were forged. The frontier provided abundance for those courageous enough to seize it, in contrast to the scarcity and squalor and discontent common in cities in the East. The frontier myth braced and was braced by individualism, Social Darwinism, Manifest Destiny, and similar traditions of American ideology, and has been endlessly replayed and elaborated through the cultural power of novels, films, and journalism.
While not always recognized for what it is, it informs our foreign policy, our sense of place, and our purpose on this planet.


John Tirman , the executive director and principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies, is at work on a book about Americans’ attitudes toward war.


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