In the most popular show on American television, “Yellowstone,” the heroes are the rich owners of a vast, gorgeous spread of Montana real estate. The villains are anyone else who wants to live there.
I exaggerate; the show is a little more complicated than this. There are times when the Duttons, the ranch-owning family patriarched by Kevin Costner’s John Dutton, play more like HBO-style antiheroes than sympathetic protagonists (when they commit the occasional murder, for instance), and their rivals for Montanan power include a nearby Native American tribe whose aspiration to reclaim their ancestral lands is treated with respect.
But fundamentally “Yellowstone” is about the preservation of a particular vision of the West (cowboys, ranches, open spaces, families that understand stewardship and that aren’t just there for the views), and its sympathies are with the preservationists, no matter what their sins. Indeed, the Duttons’ main Native American rival is himself a sympathetic figure precisely because he, too, wants to protect the West from its coastal new-money invaders — by using casino money to rewind the Dutton ranch even farther back in time and letting his people live there in some kind of harmony with nature once again.
“Yellowstone” is a big hit because it makes this vision of pastoral stewardship so seductive. I recommend reading Kathryn VanArendonk’s New York magazine essay on the show for a case study in how the most red-state show on television can reel in even a blue-state TV critic. I also recommend watching the show in tandem with the structurally similar but radically different “Succession.” Both are about what you might call family capitalism, the portion of American business that remains right wing even as corporate power centers like Wall Street and Silicon Valley tilt to the cultural left. But the HBO show is a savage jeremiad, inspiring sympathy for its characters only insofar as they’re prisoners of familial pathology. Whereas the central theme of “Yellowstone” is that family capitalism is flawed and sinful but corporate capitalism is worse and it’s better to be ruled by a patriarchy than a private-equity raider or a faceless board.
Finally, if you watch the show from outside the Mountain West, as clearly most of its fans do, I recommend experiencing firsthand the territory in which “Yellowstone” is set — as my family just did on a road trip that took us through the region — and seeing how it changes your responses to the show.
My own shift was complicated. On the one hand, as an Easterner accustomed to big cities and dense suburbs, to experience the West’s mixture of majesty and emptiness is to feel more intensely what John Dutton’s various foils and rivals feel — that something extraordinary is being effectively hoarded here, with whatever admirable intentions, and that more Americans should be able to live in the shadow of such beauty, even if they are just there for the views.
At every semiurban stop along the way, from Rapid City, South Dakota, to Missoula, Montana, to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, I laughed at what passes for density and congestion west of the Mississippi. Yes, there are conservationist reasons to keep the human footprint light, and yes, the water in the high plains would probably never support the sprawl outside, say, Atlanta. I’m not suggesting that we should build an American version of Saudi Arabia’s planned desert supercity just east of the Bighorn Range. (Let’s see how the Saudi version goes first.)
A bigger Rapid City, though, or a more bustling Great Falls, Montana? A Wyoming with, say, three inhabitants for every hundred-odd acres instead of just one? That all sounds like a reasonable and desirable future. And not just because the landscapes are so ridiculously beautiful or even because people may be healthier and thinner at higher altitudes. More population growth out West might also be good for the American republic, giving regions that often feel neglected more representation in the House and giving liberal coast dwellers less reason to complain about rural-state power in the Senate.
Just when these kind of thoughts had me ready to hand the Dutton Ranch over to its development-minded enemies, though, I would hit a place where significant population growth is already happening — a boomtown like Bozeman, Montana, or one of the Californian outposts that have sprung up across Idaho — and suddenly see the world from the Dutton family’s perspective once again.
That’s because growth in these places doesn’t feel like some kind of upwardly mobile Laura Ingalls-type westward migration; it feels as if an alien starship had beamed little chunks of coastal supergentrification down into the West. The median single-family home price in Bozeman costs around $900,000; the main street in a place like Sandpoint, Idaho, is a festival of liberal haute-bourgeois taste with Western flourishes. At least where I encountered it, the growing diaspora in the Mountain West isn’t bringing the mountains to the middle-class masses; it’s red-state colonization by the blue-state rich.
Not that there’s anything wrong with coastal rich people (perish the thought!). But in any city or region, whether it’s Whitefish, Montana, or Washington, D.C., the case for development and pro-growth zoning, for a yes-in-my-backyard spirit, depends, to a large extent, on the benefits to potential newcomers and migrants. That always makes YIMBYism a relatively hard sell to incumbents — and when all the newcomers seem privileged, when they make developers rich but start pricing normal people out, when they make your relatively egalitarian state a case study in zooming inequality, you can see why a politics of preservation would be as popular as a hit like “Yellowstone.”
But the problem is that preservationism in this context is likely to be self-defeating. If the rich really like your state or region, the rich will always find a way to come. What zoning limits and housing regulations really affect is whether anyone except the rich can afford your state’s nicest precincts. If they can’t, then the attractiveness of purple-mountain-majesty to coastal elites will just recreate coastal inequalities and fuel working-class resentments, in a dynamic that’s already visible in the mountain states wherever the posh colonies give way to the alienation of Trump country.
If you look at zoning rules in Montana’s most attractive cities, they point to this kind of Western future. For instance: According to the Frontier Institute, a Montana-based libertarian think tank, a city like Missoula, which is still more middle class and affordable than Bozeman, has exclusionary zoning — restrictions on town homes and multifamily units, minimum lot requirements — that make it difficult for young families and working-class newcomers to get a foothold in the city. That suggests that Missoula’s relative middle-class-ness won’t last: If I were a Silicon Valley or Seattle exile, I would already be looking there rather than Bozeman. If I were a property speculator, I’d be buying there right now. And if I didn’t have much money to spend, I’d be drifting into the hinterlands or looking in a different state.
Part of the appeal of the Dutton family drama is the knowledge that the “Yellowstone” patriarch can’t ultimately win — that you’re watching and appreciating something familiar in Western lore, the doomed last stand. But in reality, when regions are experiencing growth they can’t and shouldn’t stop, they still have important choices to make: not whether change and new inhabitants will come but in what form, with what consequences for the society that takes shape next.
More Americans should live in the West, and more Americans assuredly will. The question for mountain-state incumbents — the real ones, not the Costner facsimile — is whether that more will include everybody or whether their glorious share of the American inheritance will pass on mostly to the rich.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.