Obamacare is doing better than expected. Benghazi lacks traction. The vast enterprise of "conservative" politics needs something, anything, to keep the red-state proles in the state of constant agitation that is so profitable for the oligarchs that bankroll it. Could Cliven Bundy be the ticket?
This is the man who has been flouting the law for years, grazing his cattle on public lands northeast of Las Vegas. When the feds finally moved in to seize the livestock, an armed protest caused them to withdraw.
To the right he is a hero standing up against federal "tyranny." A National Review writer likened his "little sedition" to the non-violent movement of Ghandi.
I broke away from a larger Rogue project to offer a few thoughts, given the interest by our readers here. You should especially read Soleri's excellent comments on l'affaire Bundy on the thread below the previous post.
Actually being someone from the West, among my first thoughts was how could Bundy be grazing 900 head in such desolate country? At least when I was growing up, a 640-acre "section" of Arizona rangeland could support only about 20 head — and that was barring drought.
But then I read deeper in the story and saw Bundy is no hardy throwback protecting what he sees as his family's modest home. He has been grazing these cattle on as much as 150 square miles of the public lands.
He is breaking the law, including the foundational Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 that restored the health of public grazing land. Despite the sweet love story of Charley and Sue and the free-riding cattlemen fighting the fencing plutocrat in the film Open Range, real life was different. The open range had to be closed off by the Taylor Act, both for the survival of the land and the long-term sustainability of cattle ranching in the West. It has worked well since.
Bundy is also cheating some 16,000 ranchers who use the National Forests and BLM lands for their profits and in turn pay a fee. This "land of many uses" doctrine is hardly tyranny.
But beyond that, Bundy is engaging in one of the biggest socio-economic problems in America today: sociopathic "rent seeking." Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote about it in this essential Vanity Fair essay. In part, he states:
If the government gave a company the exclusive right to import a certain amount of a certain good, such as sugar, then the extra return was called a “quota rent.” The acquisition of rights to mine or drill produces a form of rent. So does preferential tax treatment for special interests. In a broad sense, “rent seeking” defines many of the ways by which our current political process helps the rich at the expense of everyone else, including transfers and subsidies from the government, laws that make the marketplace less competitive, laws that allow C.E.O.’s to take a disproportionate share of corporate revenue (though Dodd-Frank has made matters better by requiring a non-binding shareholder vote on compensation at least once every three years), and laws that permit corporations to make profits as they degrade the environment.
In Bundy's case, he has been stiffing the federal taxpayers since 1989, using the lands we all own to produce profits that went solely to him. No doubt he also bemoans the federal deficit to which his freeloading has contributed.
Behind all the "patriot" bluster, is a kook and a taker.
His claim to a Mormon ranchstead of the 1880s is also bogus. Nevada's 1864 state constitution predates it and pledged to "forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States."
The right would love to see a reprise of the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s. Nevada, where 84 percent of the state is owned by the federal government (in other words, all of us), was a hotbed. The protests helped energize backers of Ronald Reagan, although after he was president there was no massive privatization of public lands, James Watt notwithstanding.
It would surprise me if it happened. For one thing, so much of the West has been exurbanized and defiled that the old disputes over permits, grazing fees and environmental effects are almost irrelevant. Land swaps to put subdivisions in the wilderness, run through Congress with little transparency, helped destroy the empty majesty of such places as the Mogollon Rim.
One thing is clear. The Republicans of today have nothing in common with the conservationist ethic of Theodore Roosevelt and his forester Gifford Pinchot. Also, the enthusiasm for Bundy in "respectable" conservative circles shows how there really is no such thing nowadays.
Bundy is advocating armed rebellion against federal officers; his drama has drawn armed allies and has brought anonymous threats against others. Imagine if a left-winger did that? He or she would be in Gitmo faster than you can say "terrorist." The fringe right has been allowed to run free with extreme violence throughout the Obama years with virtually no censure from their ideological mates.
Bundy makes good theater, especially for people who don't care about the West, who would be happy to destroy it further if only they can add to their fortunes. They epitomize the "rich asshole" Cadillac ad, not any Western ideal of freedom.
[UPDATE 1] Bundy standoff is only the start for America's right-wing militias, writes Grace Wyler on Vice. Read more here.
[UPDATE 2] Here's a delightful take from Slate: What if the Bundy "ranch" were owned by black people? Bet the right-wing media wouldn't care. Read more here.
[UPDATE 3] Everybody on the right loves Cliven Bundy — except for Glenn Beck. Mother Jones explains what's going on. Read more here.
[UPDATE 4] Edwin Lyngar writes on Salon, "The latest right-wing media poster-victim, Cliven Bundy, is just the latest in a long line of desert dwellers who thinks he or she should not have to follow the law and has a god-given right to unlimited use of public resources... Read more here.
[UPDATE 5] Joan McCarter on Daily Kos: "Being a Westerner and the daughter and granddaughter of cattle ranchers, I think it's about time that the non-crazy Western ranchers get some equal national media time." Read more here.
[UPDATE 6] Tim Steller of the Arizona Daily Star writes about the connections of the Bundy case to southern Arizona. Read more here.
[UPDATE 7] Even the conservative Federalist is not in the Bundy camp: "The problem with Bundy’s stance is that he has no higher end in this fight than his own interests." Read more here.
[UPDATE 8] Salon says the rise of Bundy's cause says much about "our waning democracy." Read more here.
[UPDATE 9] "Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff with the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the latest flare-up in a long, ongoing, often-paranoid revolt against federal ownership public lands, even the idea of a public interest at all." From the Guardian. Read more here.
[UPDATE 10] Shocked, shocked, that Bundy goes off on a racist rant — and the right still defends him.