Streetwise Professor

January 4, 2021

Frontier Individualism vs. Collectivism in the Days of Covid and Contested Elections

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:29 pm

In 1893, at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his soon to be famous article, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The article has been extensively analyzed, and heavily criticized, over the years. Of course any grand theory of cause-and-effect regarding the history of an entire people over a period of centuries is going to oversimplify, omit other causal factors, and have some implications that are falsified by the historical record. Nonetheless, Turner’s tour de force does make many insightful observations and generalizations. Because of these, it provides a very useful analytical frame that sheds quite a bit of light on America’s current divided state, how it got here, and where it will go hence.

Most notably, Turner identified many character and behavioral traits that he identified with the frontier. Most notable of these are individualism, though it must be stressed that “individualism” is not a synonymous with social atomism, for as Toqueville noted at the time the frontier was very much a going concern, Americans had a mania for voluntary associations of various sorts, i.e., Americans exercised their individualism by gathering together in private (or at most quasi-public) organizations ranging from churches to charitable and social reform groups to militia companies.

Other characteristics noted by Turner include informality, democracy (of a particularly local variety), risk taking and initiative, and yes, violence. To which I would add another Toqueville observation–a passion for equality, in the sense of a resistance to a formal social hierarchy. (This is related to “informality.”). There was also an active scorn for ideas and norms and fashions originating in Europe.

Stated broadly, the frontier ethos was one of individual autonomy and liberty and freedom from authority.

These values can be seen on one side of the American political divide. They are, for example, highly correlated with support for Trump.

They are also the values that are most intensely scorned by those on the other side of the divide. Those people–painting with a broad brush, the progressive left–elevate the collective over the individual. They denigrate liberty, and emphasize equality, but not of the Toquevillian sort. They construct elaborate social hierarchies, which are at present organized around various attributes of “identity”–race, gender (pick one! hell, pick several!), ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof). They elevate security and safety over risk taking. They take Europe as a model.

It must be noted that this fissure has always been present to some degree in the U.S., although its nature has changed dramatically over the years. Take for example the War of 1812, which was fervently supported by those on the frontier, and adamantly opposed by the urban and commercial elites in New England and the Middle States. A similar divide between Jacksonians on the frontier and anti-Jacksonians outside of it.

Since Turner wrote, the frontier values that Turner identified as central to the American identity at the time that he wrote have lost ground to their antithesis. The causes are too numerous to list, and are interrelated, but a few salient ones that come to mind include:

  • Urbanization.
  • The dominance of large scale enterprise, especially corporations but also government bureaucracies, which means that most people earn their income working in a large organization which inherently limits the scope for individuality and individual initiative, and conditions people to operating in highly collectivist environments (even if they are privately owned).
  • The emergence and increasing prominence of women in the workplace, government (especially primary and secondary education), and politics. (Even in frontier days, women were at the forefront of reform movements, e.g., temperance, that were explicitly directed at sanding down the rough edges of (male) frontier behavior.) The impact of women is profound, not just directly, but indirectly, primarily through public education and the socialization of men.

(Immigration is somewhat interesting, and cuts many ways. Many immigrants self-selected precisely because they were individualists at heart. Even those who emigrated from relatively collectivist societies (e.g., Scandinavia) tended to be the more adventurous and individualistic. But immigration also brought strains of collectivist thought and identity. )

All of these trends show no sign of abating.

Indeed, the Covid hysteria is arguably accelerating these trends, and greatly so.

The experience of the last year illustrates the divide, and also gives an idea of where the balance now lies, especially among the alleged “elite” in business, media, government, and politics. The safetyism and collectivism of the advocates of mask mandates and lockdowns (in the face of much evidence of their inefficacy, and irrefutable evidence of their costs) is pitted against those who bridle at restrictions on individual choice.

But Covidianism is more than a mirror on social changes that have taken place and existing fissures: it is driving further changes away from the frontier Americanism ethos. The lockdowns, and the self-limiting behavior promoted by the endless drumbeat of doom-and-gloom emanating from government and media, are gutting one of the major bulwarks of Jacksonian America–small business–while at the same time greatly empowering large enterprises and governments. Indeed, every time it looks like there may be some respite, the lockdowns and restrictions are slammed down again, and yet again–despite the lack of evidence of their efficacy in fighting Covid and the palpable evidence of their baleful economic consequences.

Those on the collectivist side–in the US, but especially outside the US–see this as a golden opportunity to throttle their individualist enemies. Call it “The Great Reset” or “Build Back Better” or whatever other Orwellian phrase du jour they choose, the collectivists see Covid as an opportunity to reorganize society on collectivist lines, and to quash “selfish” individualism. It has proved so much more powerful a bludgeon than “climate change” to achieve their agenda, so they are wielding it with a relish.

I say “opportunity”, which suggests that seizing on the Covid hammer is merely opportunism–letting no good crisis go to waste. But the utility of Covidianism in the advance of collectivism has raised questions in some minds as to whether this is more than mere opportunism.

I would say that in this century, and through much of the late years of the last, the frontier ethos was fighting a rear guard action. The Trump years have been, to a considerable degree, a particularly intense battle in that fighting retreat. This is why the 2020 election was so pivotal–if it had gone the other way (and it is defensible based on evidence to say if it had not been stolen) the collectivist surge might have suffered a serious setback. But in the event, it was the individualists who suffered the reverse.

The battle is not over yet. The inherent flaws in collectivism, and the very real potential that the 2020 winners may succumb to Victory Disease and overreach, could lead to an individualist comeback, a la the late-1970s/early-1980s. But even then, there is a ratchet effect at work. Each rebound starts from a lower level, and seldom is able to restore things to the way they were before the previous decline.

A rather bleak prognosis, I’m afraid. But there is honor–and sometimes profit–in fighting against heavy odds. That’s a frontier value too. That is what I will strive to do. I hope you do as well. Perhaps we can seize victory from the jaws of defeat. But only if we fight, and never if we submit.

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  1. The profit motive in fighting against heavy odds certainly animates my writing efforts. I don’t see how my kind of material could ever get published if I were to go through established (collectivized?) publishing houses, where young woke editors rule the roost.

    And that’s just fine, as I’m betting that self-published material going against the grain of established woke civility will yield bigger gains.

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — January 5, 2021 @ 7:28 am

  2. Given universities are the archetypal collectivized institution, perhaps it’s time for you to hand in your robes and become a wild man, roaming the expanse of America, one man and his gun(s)?

    On the topic of frontier mentality, I reckon the shock you all suffered last November must have been akin to that experienced by first settlers who reached the Pacific. “Is that it? I thought it would go on forever!”

    @Pembroke: Wot, no link to a blog or somesuch? You haven’t really got the hang of this self-publishing lark yet, have you?

    PS Happy New Year!

    Comment by David Mercer — January 5, 2021 @ 8:33 am

  3. I have to niggle on one point Professor, that is: women as an antithesis to frontier values. If we take a quick look around the world today, societies that are most repressive and most likely to “cause trouble, have issues” are societies, cultures and religions that leave (force) women out of needful roles and representation.
    As far as women on the American frontier, their role and participation was crucial to the frontier “ethos”. Anyone who thinks that the west was settled without their full and active participation needs to go back and reread some of the literature. They pulled on pants, worked behind the plow, planted the gardens, were equal partners in raising and educating the children, etc., etc.
    Believe me Professor when I say I am not a “studies” guy in higher education, but underestimating women’s contribution to the ethos, culture and development of the frontier is a real disservice to history.
    All the rest of those Euroweenie collectivists can go suck eggs.

    Comment by Donald Wolfe — January 5, 2021 @ 8:55 am

  4. @Mercer, what the hell you talking about? It’s linked. Click on the name.

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — January 5, 2021 @ 11:25 am

  5. @Donald Wolfe

    I’m guessing you mean Islamic societies, in which case you should just come out and say so.

    Has anyone else noticed that it’s precisely the more modern, semi-liberal Islamic countries (where women and religious minorities are afforded at least some protection by the State) that have been targeted for destruction by the attack dog of modern liberalism, the US Empire? Or that the most backward, regressive Islamic nations are given full support? Ever wonder why that is?

    Comment by Dieselboom! — January 5, 2021 @ 12:26 pm

  6. Well, there is N. Korea, Mexico, various countries in S. America and Africa, besides which you have strayed from the theme of the post, American individualism. Thanks for your help Deiselboom.

    Comment by Donald Wolfe — January 5, 2021 @ 1:23 pm

  7. North Korea as bastion of patriarchy? Kim Jong-un’s sister is widely regarded as his successor (and probably de facto ruler since he’s a fat-fuck in bad health), you can’t possibly be serious now.

    Of course women played a vital role in the expansion of the frontier. It was still a subservient role to that of men, however. To regard this as a variety of individualism just shows how liberalism has poisoned the minds of even those who claim to oppose it.

    Comment by Dieselboom! — January 5, 2021 @ 1:34 pm

  8. @DM,

    What shock, Trump lost narrowly, 44.000 votes in three states made Biden, a doddering 78-year old white guy from the Party of Youth and Diversity. Republicans won down ballot and advanced in many states. It was a narrow repudiation of a buffoon. Most of us on the right supported Trump ion substance, not his buffoonery which arguably was the cause of his loss. He expanded Republican reach into traditional Democrat areas—minorities, working class whites, and increased R votes over 2016. IF one GA Republican Senator is elected today, Biden and Dems will be blocked from acting. Likely, if both seats turn Democrat, not much will happen, too narrow in both houses.

    Comment by The Pilot — January 5, 2021 @ 2:45 pm

  9. I have a question about American democracy. In the years before the British Great Reform Act of 1832, women – meaning of course some women – had the vote in some parliamentary constituencies. So I’d expect that English emigrants might have had women voting in any least some of their settlements. Did they?

    On the subject of British democracy – note that the GRA swept away those votes for women. Rather shameful, but there we are.

    Comment by dearieme — January 5, 2021 @ 7:28 pm

  10. @dearieme

    Those rare instances prior to the GRA when British women could vote were based on property ownership, were they not? So I think you have the answer to your question there (as to whether women had any, limited franchise rights in early America, i.e. probably not).

    Comment by Dieselboom! — January 5, 2021 @ 8:48 pm

  11. @Pembroke: I thought you were being serious – colour me shocked that publishers declined this sure-fire best-seller. Didn’t Russ Meyer do a film about something similar?

    Comment by David Mercer — January 6, 2021 @ 6:04 am

  12. @Dieselboom: the idea was that a household (of sufficient wealth) should have a vote. So if a woman was head of a qualifying household – a widow or a spinster – she had the vote.

    I don’t see why (some) American settlements shouldn’t have used this same, rather enlightened, argument.

    P.S. WKPD: “Criteria for qualification for the franchise varied greatly among boroughs, from the requirement to own land, to merely living in a house with a hearth sufficient to boil a pot.”

    Comment by dearieme — January 6, 2021 @ 10:24 am

  13. @ Happy new year,
    Maybe frontier culture is in decline because you are not a frontier anymore- just a thought…

    Comment by Viennacapitalist — January 6, 2021 @ 12:48 pm

  14. Russ Meyers made millions from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! In fact, it is one of history’s biggest grossing films, in terms of cost-to-revenue, so your analogy is fortuitous.

    It was also one of the inspirations for CLASS WAR BABY!, though there were many, including Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise.

    Woke editors have more issues with the content in other ways. Here is the back cover blurb from CLASS WAR BABY!:

    “Embittered by the patriarchy, former model and Ivy League grad Lydia Aspinall embraces life as a stripper, whore and pornographer, driven by a fervid curiosity in licentiousness. When her deep state, diplomat father finds out and cuts all ties with her, she directs her fierce rage against the liberal values he embodies by devision a distinctive form of terrorism. Recruiting two other beautiful sex workers as allies, they concoct a scheme to bring devastation to Main Stream Media by targeting leftwing journalists for assassination, applying principles of Critical Theory to vet each journalist’s crimes against the people. The three head out across America thereafter, in a roving class war marked by periods of intense philosophical reflection—though they never forget to deliver their swift, often gruesome brand of justice against journalist enemies of the people.”

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — January 6, 2021 @ 1:54 pm

  15. @Pembroke: That’s the one.

    The blurb makes your book sound quite wokey – you’d have lost Craig and others at the very mention of the Ivy League. Also, does Amazon have a bargain basement for such offerings?

    Comment by David Mercer — January 6, 2021 @ 2:26 pm

  16. SWP talks about the American individualist with an unbreakable frontier spirit, while MAGA sheeple storm the capital because their Orange leader said so.

    Comment by [email protected] — January 6, 2021 @ 3:57 pm

  17. As far as today’s farce in DC, we’ve been here before in 1954 when the Capitol was attacked by Puerto Rican nationists. Tried, convicted and sentenced, pardoned by Jimmy Carter.

    Today is the denouement of the past five elections where a Democrats sued, claimed #notmypresident, stood in Congress to halt electoral college votes, voiced conspiracy theories and tried to rule by “phone and pencil”. We need to find out what “consent of the governed” really means and it isn’t “elections have consequences”, “make him a one-term president” or 50%+1 voting. People want changes, fine, stop promising the moon and get your skates in the amend the Constitution. That’s consent of the governed.

    Comment by The Pilot — January 6, 2021 @ 5:42 pm

  18. And how can man die better
    Than facing fearful odds,
    For the ashes of his fathers,
    And the temples of his gods.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — January 7, 2021 @ 6:07 am

  19. Craig, are you OK?
    Time for discussion with sneering libtards has passed. I scroll down skipping their snot, looking only for your comments.
    It was reichstag fire, over again, as if ppl haven’t learned anything form history.
    We do, lived thru it once already, recognize the signs. Time to determine who’s an ally and who is a lipsyncer.

    Comment by Tatyana — January 7, 2021 @ 10:54 am

  20. @18 Ex-Global … right on target.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 7, 2021 @ 7:28 pm

  21. SWP:

    My European friends inform me that Germany will enforce a 13km driving limit. Greece has a requirement that ‘citizens’ (or should it be ‘subjects’ of The State?) txt in order to obtain permission to leave home.

    Vis-a-vis your frontier individualist v Euroweenie comparison, it would seem that we still tend towards the former.

    VP VVP

    Comment by Vlad — January 7, 2021 @ 9:34 pm

  22. @libte: Hopefully they’ll finally get the message they’re on the wrong side of history, esp when they’re being given sermons on democracy by a smirking Ayatollah and Chinese apparatchik. On the back of America’s Day of Shame (one cop + one vet dead), perhaps they should consider disposing of their MAGA merch and quietly shuffling off into the sunset? Deutschland ’45 comes to mind.

    Comment by David Mercer — January 8, 2021 @ 5:45 am

  23. on the wrong side of history

    It’s hard to believe that anyone could still use this loathsome, empty phrase unironically; especially in such shocking circumstances.

    I recommend anyone who has not seen it to watch the video of the killing of Ashli Babbett (if it’s still available anywhere), dreadful though it is. The mask is off (if only metaphorically: the Securitate-style goon who pulled the trigger was fully Covid-safe).

    What is the likelihood of the killer standing trial for murder?

    Comment by Fen Tiger — January 8, 2021 @ 9:25 am

  24. @21 America suffered a Day of Betrayal. The shame lays elsewhere.

    See the vote trends in MI and WI in Figure 1 and Figure 2 here. Big spikes favoring Biden only, at 4:30 am in both states. That’s fraud in plain sight.

    Following his statistical analysis of voting patterns in Pennsylvania, Seth Kalkala wrote, “the observed outcomes are puzzling and counterintuitive, and surely consistent with reports of suspicious activities … The oddly systematic nature of Biden’s vote gains …, provide support for the view that allegations of systematic fraud should be taken seriously.

    [T]he analysis is supportive of calls for judicial review of whether the mail-in process as implemented in Pennsylvania violated basic constitutional guarantees of free and fair elections.

    And in the author note: “The author has a BA in mathematics and Ph.D. in economics, has many years experience in economic research, and is now semi-retired. While he considers himself a political independent, he does not pretend to be completely objective — his personal view is that President Trump’s opponents have used shamefully duplicitous if not unlawful tactics in their quest to derail the president, ongoing since 2016.

    You never fail to be on the wrong side of mindful, David.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 8, 2021 @ 10:51 am

  25. A very large evidence base of illegal, duplicitous, or stonewalling activities by government officials that facilitated corruption of the vote can be found at hereistheevidence_dot_com.

    On the stats page

    2,036,041 Ballots Touched By Admissible Anomalies

    923 Fact Witnesses

    50+ Courts Blocked an Evidentiary Hearing

    The page notes that, “No election contest in American history has had 923 citizens stake their personal freedom on sworn testimony to attest to irregularities and legal issues.

    Stuff all that in your libte and smoke it, David.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 8, 2021 @ 2:14 pm

  26. Too bad the top-notch Trump lawyer team consisting of Rudi Giuliani and Sydney Powell couldn’t demonstrate any of that, Pat. In two months.

    Comment by [email protected] — January 8, 2021 @ 4:58 pm

  27. @25 libte, courts adjudicate law (at best). They have no competence to judge analytics. Your observation is irrelevant.

    Craig, I believe the spam filter ate my prior comment.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 8, 2021 @ 6:31 pm

  28. @Fen: No mention of the policeman bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher (I mentioned both for balance). What’s your excuse for this?

    @Pat: Of course courts they can discuss – and rule on – analytics, via expert witnesses etc. They handle complex fraud cases all of the time. As such your observations are irrelevant. The fact is that case after case was examined, on numerous occasions by Trump-appointed judges, and is the vast majority of instances nothing noteworthy was found. Chew on that.

    Comment by David Mercer — January 9, 2021 @ 6:43 am

  29. @27 Judges decide on witness testimony. They don’t do the analytics. What judge can see through a fraud hidden in statistics?

    The whole global warming business is a prime example of that last.

    What does your deep numeracy say about negative votes in Arizona, David?


    790,175 manipulated votes in 8 Arizona counties.

    Which court made a judgment on that evidence?

    Fortunately the video is on Rumble, so Twitter can’t censor it into oblivion.

    DOJ Adviser Says 368,000 Fraudulent ‘Excess Votes’ Tipped Election to Joe Biden


    Independent review of John Lott’s study by Luis Locay Prof. of Economics, University of Miami: https-colon//

    Pennsylvania mailed out 1.8 million absentee ballots, received back 1.4 million absentee ballots and counted 2.5 million mail-in ballots.

    Isn’t that wonderful. 1,100,000 absentee ballots magicked right out of thin air. Wonder who the spirits voted for.

    Which court made a judgment on that evidence?

    Taking libte with numbers makes you wrong again, David.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 9, 2021 @ 4:09 pm

  30. Hi Pat, happy new year.

    I won’t engage with the other examples you gave, but on the subject of Pennsylvania mail-in ballots (mailed out 1.8m, received back 2.5m), you are wrong. Here is a link (not sure if it will work, but otherwise please google: how much mail in ballots pennsylvania) and you should get this fact check article from AP. – here another link FYI

    Rudi Giuliani and his acolytes made that statement and mixed up 1.8m absentee ballots mailed out in the PRIMARIES and 2.5m received mail-in ballots in the GENERAL ELECTION.

    Come one please, let’s agree on this basic fact at the very least, please just look up that this is wrong information. I haven’t commented on the other examples you gave because I hope we can at least put this “Pennsylvania extra ballots” story to bed.

    Comment by [email protected] — January 9, 2021 @ 6:20 pm

  31. @Tatyana–Yes, I’m OK. Thanks for your concern. I have just been insanely busy with work and my mom’s health issues. Hopefully I will have more time in the coming weeks.

    Yes, what happened Wednesday was our Reichstag fire. My post today intimates that.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 9, 2021 @ 10:08 pm

  32. Craig, glad to see you’re OK. Best wishes to your mom’s health.
    See your new post.

    After today’s news about coordinated attack on free speech – and trying and failing to open accounts on alternative media – I regret not having plan B for contacts of the people/sites/ideas I care.
    As well as alternate email addresses itself.

    Should have been more prepared.

    Comment by Tatyana — January 10, 2021 @ 8:13 am

  33. @29, libte – you’re right about that, thanks. I should have checked the claim before posting. My mistake for taking an otherwise knowledgeable guy at his word. 🙂

    However, that doesn’t save the Pennsylvania vote. See John Lott’s A Simple Test for the extent of Vote Fraud with Absentee Ballots in the 2020 Presidential Election: Georgia and Pennsylvania Data, available here (pdf)

    He finds significant statistical anomalies in the Georgia and Pennsylvania votes. Statistics doesn’t establish causality, but it can tell you where to look.

    The anomalies in vote totals are large enough to change the outcome, and extend also to MI, WI, AZ, and NV. They must be investigated to establish whether there is a real impact on the outcome, or not.

    See also Jovan Pulitzer’s discoveries about systematic ballot misprinting here. Richard Barron is the Fulton County Georgia State Election Director, and he says, “We have scanned thus far 113,130 votes and have adjudicated 106,000 of those.” where “votes” means absentee ballots.

    That 93.7% adjudication rate is 78x the 2016 rate and 45x the 2018 rate.

    Adjudication requires an inspector to look at the electronic ballot and assign the vote. Someone assigned the vote for 106,000 absentee ballots, when the number should have been about 2200.

    That’s a serious indicator of something amiss that needs investigation. The votes in all the swing states have similar problems. They need to be investigated before the election can be called. But all the involved state officials are doing their best to frustrate a proper audit.

    All the bizarre anomalies end up favoring Joe Biden. That alone is cause for skepticism. Each anomaly in isolation can be hand-waved away. In their total, they cannot.

    Most obvious is that we need to go back to paper ballots, hand-counted. Electronic balloting is far too open to tampering.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 10, 2021 @ 1:38 pm

  34. Happy New Year to you, too, libte. Meant to put that in my last comment. 🙂

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 10, 2021 @ 1:39 pm

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