As you may have heard, this week the Republican Party released what they’ve termed a “Pledge to America,” a document that lists their agenda for the next legislative session. Erin Echols, a student at Kennesaw State U., took a look at it and was struck by the contents, particularly the images.
Of the 48 total pages of the document, 14 consist of images, either a single one or a collage of several. Of course, in a document of this sort, you’re going to have the required patriotic images — the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Capitol and other buildings in D.C. Nothing surprising there. But Erin points out that the cowboy seems to be a recurring theme.
It reminded me of a post by Macon D. over at Racialicious a while back about some ads by a Republican primary candidate for Agricultural Commissioner in Alabama:
The hat, the horse, the rifle, the sweeping music that makes me think of old Western movies… it all evokes what Macon D. calls the “Independent (White) Cowboy Myth,” a version of rugged, stand-alone, honest manhood. Macon D. quotes Mel at BroadSnark:
In this mythology, the cowboy is a white man. He is a crusty frontiersman taming the west and paving the way for civilization. He is the good guy fighting the dangerous Indian. He is free and independent. He is in charge of his own destiny.
Here’s the follow-up ad he made after losing:
And, for the record, I’m not arguing this presentation of Dale Peterson is necessarily fake; for all I know he dresses and acts like that all the time. People do; I’m related to some of them. I’m not saying Peterson is a fraud who really wears tuxes and has never been on a horse. That’s irrelevant. What I’m interested in is the power of a particular cowboy mythology, the one on display in Peterson’s ads.
As Macon D. points out, Ronald Reagan actively appropriated the cowboy persona, often wearing cowboy hats and jeans, sometimes alongside a horse (he had also played cowboys in a couple of movies). He openly identified with the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” an effort by groups in the western U.S. in the ’70s and ’80s to stop designation of federal lands as protected wilderness areas, push for more mining and livestock grazing rights on public land, and oppose some other environmental and land use regulations, depicted as impositions from distant elites.
Macon D. quotes Sarah Watts on the appeal of the White cowboy myth when Theodore Roosevelt first used it:
…he met the psychological desires in their imagination, making them into masters of their own fate, propelling them into violent adventure and comradeship, believing them at home in nature, not in the hothouse interiors of office buildings or middle-class homes.
The cowboy myth, then, arose partly to allay deep anxieties about changes in American society. But the myth is just that — a myth, a romanticized notion largely unmoored from the realities of cowboys’ lives. Mel says,
Cowboys were itinerant workers who, while paid fairly well when they had work, spent much of the year begging for odd jobs. Many did not even own the horse they rode. Frequently, they worked for large cattle companies owned by stockholders from the Northeast and Europe, not for small family operations (a la Bonanza). The few times cowboys tried to organize, they were brutally oppressed by ranchers.
This isn’t true just in the past. I know people who work as hired hands on ranches now. They love many aspects of the life. But most of them aren’t particularly well-paid; they don’t have retirement benefits or health insurance; they aren’t on a path to being able to buy their own ranch and be a self-reliant family farmer. Some become managers, with more responsibility and money, as in any occupation. But sometimes what initially seemed like a great deal — getting free housing as part of the job — turns out to have downsides, such as being expected to be available round-the-clock since you’re right there on the property, or fearing that if you piss off your employer and get fired, you’re out of a place to live immediately as well.
The examples I’ve given here have all been Republicans. Democrats use the cowboy mythology as well — Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is well known for often appearing in a cowboy hat and nearly always wearing a bolo tie rather than a necktie. However, Republicans seem to appropriate the cowboy persona more often, or at least more successfully.
Anyway…back to Erin’s analysis of the “Pledge to America.” The other interesting feature of the images is their overwhelming Whiteness. Some examples of group photos:
Overall, the photos show a sea of Whiteness. As Erin says, whether it’s an unintentional oversight or a calculated choice, the resulting message is that America’s citizens, the hard-working, patriotic folks who matter and to whom the party is making pledges, are White. Given the current racialized tone of much of our political debate (especially regarding Hispanic immigrants and Muslims, a racialized group often conflated with “Arabs”), it’s a portrait of America that is likely to speak to, and soothe, the fears of some groups more than others.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.