The presidential campaign of 2008 will be recalled for many firsts: the first African-American presidential nominee, the near-miss campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, the record spending and record turnout. But what was not new was its reliance on a very old standard of American political culture, the frontier myth. Perhaps no other set of ideas about America is more powerful politically, and the two autumn campaigns were reverential in their implicit bow to, or explicit exploitation of, the dense complex of frontier images and values attached to the American experience. The limitless possibilities of the American dream, the expansion of American values, the national effort to tame faraway places, the promise of a bounty just over the horizon, and the essential virtue of the American people who explore and settle these frontiers—all of these tropes fortified the hopes of the campaigns to situate their candidate in the company of legendary pioneers. It is a testament to the power of this myth that it grips us still—its self-gratifying qualities having ensured its long lineage—even as the actual frontier of American action is swiftly closing. A century ago, the closure of the continental frontier obsessed politicians and intellectuals alike. Today, when the global frontier is closing, our political leaders have little sense of its significance.

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