Cowboys & Presidents

The Laws of the Wild West Have Been Projected Onto International Politics

American politics under George W. Bush have led many to seek explanations for the U.S. reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 and the country’s subsequent attack of Iraq.

For a European, it boils down to a seemingly neverending attempt to understand and explain America – a close friend, even relative, while at the same time so fundamentally different in its thinking and politics from the countries of the European Union. These efforts are by no means recent. Even Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America is remarkably insightful and accurate to this day, was not the first European to engage at length in discussing the essence of America.

By the time the Frenchman traveled the country in 1831/32, the myth of the frontier had already taken hold, which was to develop into one of the most important elements in the formation of an American national identity. By the 1830s, the real frontiersman Daniel Boone and James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” Natty Bumppo, modeled after him, had laid the groundwork for what would become a story of Indians, frontiersmen and settlers, cowboys, sheriffs, cattle barons, rancher’s daughters or saloon girls.

The creation around 1900 of the cowboy as American Hero was a new invention, often credited to Owen Wister, author of the novel The Virginian, which for the first time laid out many of the most important narrative elements of the modern western. It introduced the figure of the cowboy as a morally superior man of few words, who is not deterred from using his gun if necessary, even if the woman he loves begs him not to and threatens to leave. Of course in the end, she stands by her man, just as Grace Kelly did 50 years later in High Noon.

Even though a Quaker, Kelly’s character saves Gary Cooper’s life by killing one of the villains. Thus love is stronger than the personal ideals and beliefs of a woman – especially if the man for whom they are thrown over is a western hero. Naturally, his ideals would never be corrupted by emotions or any influence from others, least of all women, otherwise he would not be fit for the part of the hero of the frontier narrative.

The figure of the cowboy has developed into a symbol of America, generally regarded in a positive light.

In political terms, however, especially as seen from outside the United States, the image of the cowboy conjures up decidedly negative feelings, culminating in the term “cowboy-politics.” While by no means an analytically precise and reliable scientific concept, it works perfectly as a heavily-charged catchword. Within a rather blurry range of meanings, there are certain recurring elements which may be summed up as follows: “Cowboy politics” is a way of handling public policy, mostly on an international level, whose main component is the threat or actual use of military power directed toward any antagonist on the world stage. This antagonist is not necessarily but frequently a nation or region hopelessly inferior not only in military, but also economic power.

Strictly speaking, the meaning of “cowboy politics” can be narrowed down to any aggressive action which favors the wielding of superior gunpower over negotiation and diplomatic modes of conflict resolution.

The irony, however, is that this contradicts the myth. The disproportionate distribution of power in favor of America is not in fact in tune with what the classic cowboy hero would have endorsed. In the frontier narrative, the balance of power would be the other way:  The hero would take on a more powerful antagonist in defense of the weaker and – against all odds – through sheer moral superiority, emerge victorious simply by being right.

This firm belief in knowing what is morally right leads ultimately to the core of what is often sloppily labeled as “cowboy politics,” and lies at the heart of the current American administration’s defense of its actions in the “war on terror.”

The classic hero of the frontier myth instinctively knows what is right and wrong, who is good and bad. He was born with all the necessary resources to make him prevail in the fight against evil, against those who don’t share his vision or undermine his effort to fight the good fight. Whatever interests may be the real driving force, the myth dictates that the overall motivation is a sense of mission to spread what is by definition the highest and best form of civilization.

The concept of Manifest Destiny, a term already coined in 1845, sums up this idea and far transcends the religious notions on which it was originally based. It implies a fateful, predetermined course of events, a higher purpose, indicating that these are not issues of choice, negotiation or deliberation, which would mean hesitation,  indecision, and ultimately weakness.

For an American politician, especially one aiming to be elected (or re-elected) as president, it has rarely been a disadvantage to present himself with some of the attributes of the western hero. Ronald Reagan made a successful transition from playing cowboys onscreen to becoming a “cowboy president.”  George W. Bush’s favorite form of self-portrayal as a Texas rancher has to be regarded in this tradition of the powerful and assertive American male modeled on the frontier hero. The combination of the words ‘ranch’ and ‘Texas’ constitutes enough of a signifier to a largely conservative-minded clientele of voters in midwestern and western American states.

And while conservative politicians tend to reach back to the cowboy image more often than liberals, this does not mean that the latter would pass up a chance to use it to their advantage. Even Bill Clinton could not help vacationing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the mid 90s, having his picture taken on horseback with the Grand Tetons looming in the background (remember Shane?). In the post war era of presidential images made largely on television, only someone with the polish of John Kennedy could get away with Martha’s Vineyard.

Many US-Presidents, all white and male to this day, have repeatedly exploited cowboy-related imagery in the designs of their political personas. The near future may show if and how this can work for a female or an African-American candidate. A look at the frontier myth may make it seem impossible – women traditionally being assigned at best subordinate roles at the side of the male hero and African-Americans being completely excluded from the mythic narrative.

However, a national mythology is an ever-changing and extremely adaptable complex of narrative and imagery. So we may be in for a surprise.


Martin Weidinger is a political scientist specializing in American Studies  and Film and is a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Vienna

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