Restoring Reality And Putting The Fantasy Of The American Cowboy To Bed

Heather Cox Richardson

These days, reality is undermining the political power of the mythological image of the American cowboy. In the years after World War II, that image helped to sell the idea that a government that regulated business, provided a basic safety net, promoted infrastructure, and protected civil rights for Black and Brown Americans and for women was cruising perilously close to communism. The cowboy image suggested that a true American was an individualist man who worked hard to provide for and to protect his homebound wife and children, with a gun if necessary, and wanted only for the government to leave him and his business alone.

The cowboy image dominated television in the years after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision, first with shows like BonanzaGunsmoke, and Rawhide showing cowboys imposing order on their surroundings and then, by 1974, with Little House on the Prairieshowing a world in which “Pa” Ingalls—played by the same actor who had played Little Joe from Bonanza—was a doting father who provided paternal care and wholesome guidance to his wife and daughters. 

But that image was never based in reality. Constructed during Reconstruction after the Civil War to stand against government protection of Black rights, it was always a political narrative. In reality, the federal government provided more aid to the American West than to any other region. 

Success in the American West depended as much on access to capital as it did in the American East, and western entrepreneurs struggled constantly against rich men monopolizing resources and political power, just as in the East. The wages, dangers, and upward mobility of cowboys, miners, and other western wage workers paralleled those of urban workers in the same period. Western women provided the kinship ties that facilitated trade in the region, and they—including the Ingalls girls, on whose income Pa’s family depended—worked outside the home for wages. 

UCLA law professor Adam Winkler explained that “[g]uns were widespread on the frontier, but so was gun regulation.… Wild West lawmen took gun control seriously and frequently arrested people who violated their town’s gun control laws.” Political scientist Pierre Atlas noted that famous frontier town Dodge City, Kansas, prohibited guns altogether. 

Modern-day Americans could embrace the cowboy myth so long as our laws addressed conditions in the real world. But as extremist lawmakers and judges have removed those guardrails by legislating around ideology rather than reality—incidentally, the very scenario true political conservatism was designed to avoid—they have ushered in conditions that are badly hurting Americans. This moment in our history feels chaotic in part because the gulf between reality and image can no longer be hidden with divisive rhetoric, and ordinary Americans are reasserting their right to laws that protect equality, community, and opportunity. 

A study published yesterday in the pediatrics journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Pediatrics) shows that the idea of returning women to roles as wives and mothers by banning abortion has, in Texas, driven infant death rates 12.9% higher. The rest of the country saw an increase of 1.8%. Infant deaths from congenital anomalies increased almost 23% in Texas while they decreased for the rest of the nation, showing that the abortion ban is forcing women to carry to term fetuses that could not survive. 

When the Texas ban went into effect, Governor Greg Abbott said there was no need to make an exception for rape, because Texas was going to “eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas.” Instead, in a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers estimated that in the 16 months after the Texas ban, 26,313 rape-related pregnancies occurred in the state. 

Earlier this month, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to oppose in vitro fertilization (IVF), and today, Representative Matt Rosendale (R-MT) announced he would file an amendment to the 2025 defense appropriations bill stripping it of funding for IVF, saying “the practice of IVF is morally wrong.” 

Trump advisors behind Project 2025 want to enforce the 1873 Comstock Law to ban medical abortion and contraception nationally. Yesterday the Biden-Harris campaign released a tape in which Jeff Durbin, a Trump ally who is pastor of the Apologia Church in Tempe, Arizona, and the founder and head of End Abortion Now, says that abortion is murder and those who practice it deserve execution: “You forfeit your right to live.” 

But for Americans, particularly American women, reality trumps the Republicans’ fantasy, and they are demanding that their right to reproductive health care be protected. Liz Crampton of Politico noted that yesterday, on the second anniversary of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that protected abortion rights, Republicans were silent. House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) didn’t post about it on social media, those vying to be Trump’s vice-presidential pick kept quiet, and Trump himself didn’t boast about it (although his former vice president Mike Pence did say in a National Review op-ed that the Dobbs decision had made the U.S. “a more compassionate nation”).

Republicans in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas determined to reestablish patriarchy have now taken on the cause of eliminating no-fault divorce. Eric Berger of The Guardianexplains that right-wing opponents of no-fault divorce note that women, especially educated, self-supporting women, file for divorce more often than men and that no-fault divorce means men can’t fight it. They claim divorce hurts families and, by extension, society.  

Berger points out that it was then–California governor Ronald Reagan, who had been divorced, who signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law in 1969. Other states followed, with New York last in 2010. Berger also notes that in states that approved no-fault divorce, domestic violence rates dropped about 30%, the number of women killed by an intimate partner fell by 10%, and women’s deaths by suicide dropped by 8–16%. It’s hard to imagine American voters are going to embrace an end to no-fault divorce.

Constructing a society around the myth of free individual gun possession has also met reality. Today, for the first time in U.S. history, Surgeon General Doctor Vivek Murthy issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory calling firearm violence a public health crisis. Guns have now outpaced car accidents and drug overdoses to become the number one cause of death for American children and adolescents. That violence ripples outward to those injured, to witnesses, and to traumatized communities. Fifty-four percent of American adults say they or a family member have experienced a gun incident. 

“All of us, regardless of our background or beliefs, want to live in a world that is safe for us and our children,” Dr. Murthy said.

The national mood about gun violence appears to be changing. A trustee for a U.S. bankruptcy court has said they will liquidate the assets of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s Free Speech Systems, the media platform for his InfoWars website, in order to begin to pay some of the $1.5 billion he owes to family members of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The shooting took the lives of 26 people, 20 of them children between the ages of six and seven, but Jones told his audience that the event was a hoax designed to push gun safety laws. The victims’ families successfully sued Jones for defamation.   

Another part of the individualist myth that has met reality is that cutting taxes and slashing business regulation would boost the economy. Yesterday the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget compared the $8.4 trillion debt approved by Trump to the $4.3 trillion approved by Biden. It estimated Trump’s tax cuts for the rich and corporations cost $4.8 trillion, which as Allison Gill of Mueller, She Wrotepointed out, is more than the $4.3 trillion cost of Biden’s “Infrastructure bill, Inflation Reduction Act, American Rescue Plan, CHIPs [and Science Act], PACT [expanding health benefits to veterans exposed to toxic substances and burn pits], student debt forgiveness, and funding the IRS COMBINED.” Under Trump, Congress also passed $3.6 trillion in COVID relief. 

On the other side of the ledger, Trump’s tariffs relieved only about $443 billion, while Biden’s Fiscal Responsibility Act, Inflation Reduction Act, and deficit-reducing executive actions relieved close to $2 trillion in debt. 

The Biden administration has returned to the idea of leveling the nation’s economic playing field and has invested in manufacturing and clean energy. A new study released yesterday by Climate Power, which has been tracking clean energy jobs in the private sector, says that U.S. companies have added “more than 312,900 new clean energy jobs for electricians, mechanics, construction workers, technicians, support staff, and many others” since Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act in August 2022. 

On June 11, David Lynch reported in the Washington Post that U.S. economic growth has been so strong this year that it is helping to stabilize the global economy, while Hans Nichols of Axiosreported today that 16 Nobel prize–winning economists have warned that Trump’s economic plans will spike inflation and hurt the global economy. “While each of us has different views on the particulars of various economic policies,” the economists wrote, “we all agree that Joe Biden’s economic agenda is vastly superior to Donald Trump.”

Restoring reality to the center of our political debates would protect the rights stolen from us by ideologues in government. Curiously, it would also do a better job than the cowboy myth of reflecting real people and communities in the historic American West. 

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