The Oligarch’s Mythology of Cowboy Individualism: Bezos in a 10-Gallon Hat

By some strange synchronicity, I finished Heather Cox Richardson’s magnificent work of historical revisionism, How the South Won the Civil War, on July 20, the day Jeff Bezos shot himself into space. The juxtaposition provided insights on Bezos’ cowboy hat that I otherwise would not have had, how the myth of cowboy individualism was leveraged to restore oligarchic rule after the Civil War, and by the modern right to push back movements for democracy from Goldwater to Reagan.

When the extractive, cotton-based oligarchy of the South was shattered by the war, and Reconstruction brought a genuine surge of democracy to the region, it resulted in multi-ethnic legislatures that were beginning to provide basic public goods to all people, such as schools, hospitals and roads. Meanwhile, the extractive economy was moving West. Cattle ranching was one of its major industries.

Through the Democratic Party, the oligarchs gained traction North and South with the myth of the cowboy individualist. Richardson writes, “ . . . they contrasted what they saw as a system of race-based wealth redistribution taking hold in the East with an image of the American West where hardworking men asked nothing of the government but to be left alone. The cowboy era and Reconstruction overlapped almost exactly . . . Democrats mythologized the cowboy, self-reliant and tough, making his way in the world on his own . . . By 1880, the cowboy had become an iconic image of the American individualist . . . “

In reality, cowboys were low-paid hired hands who generally stayed that way, a third of them people of color. Kind of like Amazon warehouse workers. While the West was the region where the federal government was most involved. It provided subsidies and land grants to railroads, as the U.S. Army pushed native tribes onto reservations. The cattle industry would not have been possible without those government interventions. Just as space travel would not be possible without decades of public investment, let alone the computer and transportation networks on which Bezos and Amazon rely to make their billions.

Richardson’s basic proposition is that oligarchic forces defeated in the South regenerated themselves in the West, where extractive mining, timber and ranching industries concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few men sitting atop a caste system rife with racial and gender hierarchies. Keeping natives, Mexicans and women in their assigned places providing cheap and free labor.

Oligarchic forces suffered real defeats at the hands of democracy in the Depression-era 1930s. But the Movement Conservative right that began to emerge in the 1950s again returned to the mythology of the cowboy individualist as a foil against a federal government undermining business power and beginning to restore civil rights to Black people.

William F. Buckley and his new publication, the National Review, were key expositors of the new thrust. “The rhetoric of Buckley’s Movement Conservatives on race mirrored the warning posed by the Democrats during the Reconstruction: a behemoth federal government was using tax dollars to help redistribute wealth to undeserving black people. And, just as during Reconstruction, the American cowboy was the face of opposition, the self-made man.”

Richardson notes the plethora of westerns on the new television networks. Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza, Wagon Train, The Lone Ranger. Westerns dominated television. In 1959 there were 26 on TV.

Then in 1964, the right’s new hero rode out of the West, cowboy-hatted Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a supposedly self-made man whose family department store fortune was made in a West being enriched by federal water projects and military contracting. Defeated, he carried only his state and the deep South, foreshadowing the Western-Southern alliance that would begin to dominate the Republican Party. By 1968, Californian Richard Nixon enshrined the Southern Strategy and racial backlash as a permanent feature.

In 1980, the supreme cowboy, Ronald Reagan, tooted the racist dog whistle loud when he proclaimed his support for states rights at the Neshoba County Fairgrounds in Mississippi near where civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were killed in 1964. No one leveraged the image of the Black “welfare queen” more adroitly to undermine federal social programs and civil rights protections.

And no one was a more effective proponent than Reagan of the faith that links the oligarchs of the slaveocracy with Goldwater and the modern right, “ . . . if the government simply turned rich men loose to work their magic, they would create ever-expanding prosperity and everyone would get richer.”

Rich men like Jeff Bezos, who has certainly made a narrow upscale class richer, while parasitizing retail sector after retail sector and creating brutal labor conditions at his warehouses. Meanwhile riding on digital, road and aviation infrastructure created through government initiative and investment. While soaking up public subsidies from state and local governments coast to coast.

In that light, Jeff Bezos’ cowboy hat makes all the sense in the world. It is the expression of a cowboy mythology created by rich oligarchs to undermine democracy and public action that would spread wealth around more evenly. Even as they leverage government to further build their own wealth and corporations, much as the ranchers relied on subsidy railroads and the U.S. Cavalry. Bezos has been mocked for his ten-gallon. But if the hat fits, wear it.

The descent into oligarchic rule has only sharpened in the 40 years since Reagan was elected, while democracy is under pressure from the oligarchic class in a way it has not been since the 1850s. Concludes Richardson, “Now, for the second time, we are called to defend the principle of democracy.”

Jeff, his cowboy hat, and the oligarchic mythology it represents are the quintessential picture of what we’re fighting.

This first appeared on Patrick Mazza’s blog The Raven.