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BU Researchers: The American Frontier Continues to Shape Us

Residents of these western areas more Republican, anti-tax, anti-regulation


Easterners who heeded the 19th-century call to “Go West, young man” (and they were mostly men, given the harsh frontier conditions) were proverbial rugged individualists. That’s not just history: recent research by BU economists says those pioneers bequeathed their cultural DNA to Americans who live in the same places today.

Even though the frontier closed almost 130 years ago, the paper by Samuel Bazzi and Martin Fiszbein, both College of Arts & Sciences assistant professors of economics, and doctoral student Mesay Gebresilasse (GRS’19), found that people who live in American counties that had the longest frontier experience exhibit the most individualism in the 21st century. Residents of those counties tend to vote Republican for president, support lower property taxes and smaller government, and are averse to public spending, redistribution, and regulation of things like guns and pollution.

Each decade a county was part of the frontier, the paper notes, “is associated with 3.5 percent more votes for Republican candidates in presidential elections since 2000. This association ratchets up over the 2000s as each election exhibits a significantly larger effect.”

And as late as 1940—half a century after 1890, when the US Census Bureau declared the frontier closed and the last time it tracked popular children’s names at the county level—families in longtime frontier counties chose more unusual names for their children, favoring Reuben and Lucinda, for example. “We borrow our names-based measure of individualism from social psychologists, who note that individualistic types are prone to give their children infrequent names, reflecting a desire to stand out,” the paper’s authors write. (The paper was posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research.)

The upshot for the authors, says Bazzi, is that culture can trump changing economic circumstances, given that the frontier mind-set endures long after roads, homes, and other tendrils of civilization have reached into the old frontier.

“The way that people tell and sustain narratives about the past oftentimes motivates their reasoning and the way they view current events,” he says. “People come to view themselves as potentially carrying on that tradition.… Culture is sticky, and culture doesn’t change as quickly.” (This applies in other areas of life, according to Bazzi; for example, developmental economics teaches that cultures with big families cling to that practice even when economic circumstances make smaller families more feasible.)

Researchers Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse

Samuel Bazzi (from left), Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse pored over census, election, and other data, including the names frontier residents gave their children, for their paper. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

The researchers used census data from 1790 to 1890, defining the frontier line as a point beyond which population density fell below two people per square mile. Counties within 100 kilometers of that line and having fewer than six people per square mile were counted as on the frontier in the research, and the researchers measured how long the counties remained frontier, as the frontier line gradually shifted westward over time.

“It’s individualists who were attracted to the frontier because of those conditions, and then once they’re there, those conditions further amplify the individualism and the importance of self-reliance,” Bazzi says. Those individualists were disproportionately male and in their prime (ages 15 to 49), he says, because “it was easier for men to strike off on their own and thrive in this harsh environment,” which could be crime-ridden and demanded manual labor and trekking over terrain without roads, and the pioneers might face and have to fight Native Americans hostile to their encroachment.

This turf made people resent government aid to those who the pioneers saw as less hardworking than themselves, the researchers found. The sense of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the continent was America’s for the conquering, sired attitudes against curbing pollution and environmental despoliation among today’s dwellers in longtime frontier counties.

“You see the frontier having this sort of lasting imprint on their preferences about things like regulation, even if we account for their partisanship or economic personal circumstances,” Bazzi says.

To conduct the study, the researchers studied and cross-referenced such records as census data, election returns, contemporary property tax rates, and opinion surveys measuring people’s attitudes toward public spending and redistribution.

They also studied psychological insights into the link between individualism and the frontier, which was noted as far back as 1893, when historian Frederick Jackson Turner suggested that the latter bred the former.

“His notion of individualists settling the frontier is something that social psychologists have extended to thinking about frontiers more generally,” Bazzi says. For example, he says, Japanese psychologist Shinobu Kitayama “documented similar sorts of traits in Japan” among frontier dwellers.

The researchers aren’t political scientists, but if the foregoing makes it sound like Democrats’ only hope in such counties is to muffle their progressive policies, even if it disgruntles their base, you won’t get a fight from Bazzi, who says, “I wouldn’t talk about them as much.”

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

2 Comments on BU Researchers: The American Frontier Continues to Shape Us

  • Walter Suarez on 04.02.2018 at 7:17 am

    Insightful article. However, we should define the distinctions between perceived history and actual history. Perceived self- sufficiency has always been an American trait yet seldom a true one. The federal government was always present in the West after the initial stages of “settlement” (if we can call that clash, displacement, and genocide of native Americans.) While Americans moving west did take the initiative to move, they always asked the government to protect them from Native American attacks and for their new land to be legitimized. Both of course did happen with the federal government creating forts and deploying troops and passing the Home Stead act (1862). In fact, given that these regions were territories and not states for much of the 19th century, the federal government had more powers here than it did in the east where it had to compete with state and local power. Let’s also not forget that much of the West was “settled” due to technology in the forms of the telegraph and railroads, both industries heavily subsided by Uncle Sam. Government may have been out of sight, like Americans want to believe, but it was certainty present. – Walter

  • Will on 04.02.2018 at 10:21 am

    Rock on, Walter! For more than thirty years, historians of the American West have argued that the concept of tne “frontier” is ethnocentric,leads to a distorted image of American history, and should be retired from scholarly discourse. Patricia Limerick urges us to talk about “conquest” rather than “settlement” of the west, and to recognize the role that the US government had in transforming native lands into property that could be divided up and sold within the capitalist system.

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