The Paramount+ series, “Yellowstone,” now in the middle of its fifth season, has become something of a cultural phenomenon. The show depicts the struggles of the Dutton family of Montana as it seeks to preserve its legacy in the face of threats from both the future and the past.
The future threat arises from those who see Montana as a playground for rich outsiders and the financial powers that enable them. As showrunner and creator Taylor Sheridan put it, the American West is a fantasy, “and land developers sell that fantasy. And people who can afford the fantasy are very, very wealthy people from L.A. to New York, Dallas and Florida . . . In the process, those land values and inheritance taxes are killing a way of life.”
The other threat to the Duttons arises from the remnants of native tribes that once claimed the land themselves and consider it to have been “stolen” by the white man. Although relegated to reservations on less favorable lands, the Indians have learned the ways of the white man and adapted the tools of the white man—his own laws—to fight for the old ways.
The Case Against Yellowstone’s “Conservativism”
The culturally conservative aspects of “Yellowstone” are apparent. A New York Times columnist has called it a “conservative fantasy.” Other commentators have called it “anti-woke” and a sop to red state audiences. It certainly possesses features that appeal to conservatives, especially insofar as they stress family, defense of one’s property, the importance of keeping one’s word, and an appeal to masculinity and rejection of modern concepts of “progress.”
But apart from these, the show does not really advance conservative principles.
For instance, although conservatives may identify with John Dutton’s platform for governor of Montana—“I am the wall progress hits and I will not be the one that breaks”—other aspects of “Yellowstone” should trouble them. One is the willingness to use the power of government to secure private interests. In both “1923” and “Yellowstone,” a Dutton serves in the very powerful office of livestock commissioner. In “Yellowstone,” John Dutton becomes governor while making it clear that his actions will be determined by what is best for the Dutton ranch.
But worse is the rejection of natural right and natural justice.
John Dutton makes this rejection explicit: “No one has a right. You have to take the right. Or stop it from being taken from you.” In other words, he adopts the perspective of Thrasymachus: that justice is merely the interest of the stronger. Or as Thucydides reports the reply of the Athenians at Melos, “justice arises only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must.”
The fact is that “Yellowstone” and its prequels, “1883” and “1923,” support the argument of Thrasymachus. Whether it is the modern day Duttons and the developers, or the cattlemen versus the sheepherders, or the white man and the Indians, or even among the Indian tribes themselves, he who can take the land and hold it will prevail.
A Microcosm of the Great American Agon
On the one hand, Yellowstone can be dismissed as just another soapy melodrama about a dysfunctional family, albeit with stunning vistas and a realistic portrayal of cowboy life. But on the other hand, the series can be seen as a microcosm of the great American agon: the struggle for control of the land?
This struggle predates the arrival of European settlers in America. The various Indian tribes fought over territory, with stronger tribes displacing weaker ones. Once Europeans arrived, Indian tribes formed alliances among themselves and with Europeans in accordance with their respective interests. As the French and British struggled for dominance in the Northeast, the Huron allied with the French and the Iroquois with the British. The British-Iroquois alliance continued during the American Revolution and even after the end of the Revolution, the British persisted in supporting Indian tribes east of the Mississippi in an attempt to block American settlement of the Old Northwest.
Our understanding of the Indians in North America has been warped by the “bury my heart at Wounded Knee” narrative, which portrays the Indians as helpless victims of the white man. But for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the native peoples gave as good as they got. In the Northern Plains, the various sects of the Sioux long resisted Western expansion. But the most serious obstacle to Western expansion came from the Comanche of the South and Central Plains. Masters of the horse, the Comanche created a veritable empire that, at various times, held Spain, Mexico, and the United States at bay.
The tribes that the early Duttons encountered in Montana would have been Crow and Blackfoot. The Lakota Sioux had driven the Crow west from the Black Hills of the Dakotas and for that reason the Crow allied with the U.S. government against the alliance of Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho that defeated Custer at Little Big Horn during the Sioux Wars. In “Yellowstone,” their descendants occupy the fictional Broken Rock Reservation.
Of course the European settlers—British, French, and Spanish—brought their old struggles to the New World. But even among the British settlers, ancestral differences played a role in the development of the United States. In Albion’s Seed, the historian David Hackett Fischer illustrated how four great waves of British settlement each brought a distinct political and social culture to North America.
The first wave, the Pilgrims and other religious dissenters came from East Anglia to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They shaped the culture and politics of New England and brought it to the Old Northwest as they migrated west.
The second wave, the losers of the English Civil War, immigrated to the Tidewater region of Virginia and the Carolinas from the Southlands of England. They shaped the politics and culture of the South, especially during the antebellum period.
The third wave, the Friends or Quakers, migrated from the English Midlands to the Delaware Valley and its environs, shaping the culture of the Mid-Atlantic states, Pennsylvania—the keystone of the American Republic—in particular.
The final wave, the border-men of Scotland and Ireland, as well as the Scotch-Irish moved to the American highlands. These constituted the vanguard of Western expansion and provided the soldiery of both sides during the Civil War. The Duttons are descendants of this group. Of course, other groups immigrated to America later, but even so, these four groups shaped the political and social foundations of the United States.
These social and cultural differences, sharpened and deepened by subsequent immigration, especially from Ireland, persisted as the United States expanded westward. We see this in the first episode of the “Yellowstone” prequel, “1923.” The narrator begins by noting, “Violence has always haunted this family,” and observes that violence followed the Duttons to America from Europe. “And where it doesn’t follow, we hunt it down. We seek it.”
In this case, the violence arises from the conflict between sheepherders, mostly Scots, and cattlemen, led by Jacob Dutton, John’s great uncle, over grazing land, exacerbated by drought and a plague of locusts. Sheep and cattle graze differently and cattlemen believed that sheep destroyed the land. As a result, range wars were common between cattlemen, who fenced off their holding and sheepherders, who sought open grazing. However “1923” is anachronistic in that most of the range wars occurred in the 19th century and not in Montana. Still, such struggles were real.
In the end, what appeals to me about “Yellowstone” is its tribute to such old-fashioned virtues as honor, courage, and loyalty. For all his foibles, these are what inform John Dutton’s life. There is something stoic about him. His commitment to principle trumps even his economic interests. It is clear that he could become rich by selling his land but because of a promise he made to his father to keep the land whole, he refuses. As he acknowledges at one point, “This is going to be the end of us. But we’re going to do it anyway.”
The sad truth is that, in the end, John Dutton is fighting a losing battle to an array of forces, especially social and economic ones. In doing so, he is fighting the same battle that many Americans now find themselves fighting. The undeniable nobility and manliness (there, I said it) of Dutton’s struggle in the face of overwhelming odds is at bottom what drives “Yellowstone’s” appeal.