Cowboy politics: the changing frontier myth and presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush
This is the first in-depth and comprehensive study of the deployment of the Frontier Myth by US presidents. It explores how and why this quintessential American vision has been adapted and transformed to advance radically different political agendas. The dissertation incorporates key elements from the disciplines of history, literature and anthropology. It explores the relationship between presidential politics, history, literature, and popular culture in representing the frontier and the textual, verbal and visual representations that have been deployed to depict the significance of the westering, frontier experience in relation to the four presidents. The study relies on a broad range of primary and secondary resources from several research institutions including three presidential libraries. My research reveals that major events in American and world history have caused the emphases of the myth of the “Old West” frontier to be reshaped, at times abruptly, so that presidents of different eras could attempt to harness this Western symbolism in promoting their remarkably wide-ranging ideologies and doctrines. The first of the “frontier” Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, vigorously pursued an active federal government and helped directly establish a forward looking Frontier Myth that today would be considered on the left. A series of tragic events during the Lyndon Johnson through Jimmy Carter presidencies (1965-1980), however, including the American quagmire in Vietnam, race riots, economic stagflation, and other crises both at home and abroad, broke up the consensus of a liberal, progressive Frontier Myth that no longer appeared to match the historic experience. These events caused the entire structure and popular representations of American frontier symbols and images to shift political direction from the left to the right, from liberalism to conservatism—a profound change that has had dramatic implications for the history of American thought and presidential politics. The popular idea today that frontier American leaders and politicians are naturally Republicans with conservative ideals flows directly from the Reagan era. Looking forward, the nature of the resilient Frontier Myth could once again be entering a watershed period as it did during the 1960s: its message in the realm of presidential politics depends on the shape and influence of national and world events that will occur in the years and decades to come.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
SupervisorCarlson, Keith T.
CommitteeBartley, William; Banco, Lindsey; Khanenko-Friesen, Natalia; Julien, Richard
Copyright DateApril 2016
Frontier Myth US Presidents American West Theodore Roosevelt Lyndon Johnson Ronald Reagan George W. Bush