What most people in the United States accept without thinking about it too much is that American democracy – or our representative democratic republic, if one wants to be technical about it – rests largely on voluntary compliance with the laws of the land. We also have a Congress designed to update and make new laws as necessary, and an elaborate judicial system designed to interpret those laws under the guidelines laid out by the Constitution.
The situation that developed in Bunkerville, Nevada, between rancher Cliven Bundy and the BLM is an example of what can happen when people adopt a view of what laws apply to them and what do not, and defend their position with force. There is absolutely no doubt that Bundy is a fairly big-time law-breaker. He is grazing his cattle on federal lands without permission; he has not paid grazing fees for over fifteen years; he owes the federal government over a million dollars; and he and the other ranchers and close to a thousand hangers-on with fairly heavy weapons gathered to oppose the BLM round-up of the offending cattle. Fearing bloodshed, the BLM backed down, at least for the moment. Bundy justifies this on the grounds that his family has grazed on the lands since the 1870s and that he therefore has a “right” to those lands. Unfortunately, according to news reports, some local officials are sympathetic.
I’m not sympathetic to Bundy’s views. I’m outraged, and anyone who understands American democracy and values it should be equally so. Why?
First, Bundy’s claims aren’t even good law. Second, allowing the force of arms to flout two fundamental bases of the American system sets an example that could more easily than many understand lead to an even greater breakdown of law and order…or equally unpleasant, an even greater establishment of preferential law enforcement based on the power of arms and money. As for the legal “issues,” those are basic. According to the treaty of Guadalupe Hildago in 1848 that ended the Mexican War, all of the states of Utah and Nevada became U.S. territory, and any lands owned by Mexican citizens remained theirs and all others belonged to the federal government. Since Bundy’s ancestors weren’t there at that time, and the only inhabitants were native Americans, either the lands belonged to the federal government or to the local inhabitants. If Bundy is claiming that land rights belong to who was there first, then the lands rightfully belong to the native Americans. Otherwise, legally, they’re federal lands.
The more troubling issue is the use of “second amendment rights” to flout federal law on federal lands. If the government used force to arrest Bundy and seize his cattle, it would have resulted in bloodshed and outrage on the part of the ranchers, which would, in turn, have justified in their minds the need for arms and protection against the government for taking away “their rights.” But, by backing off, the BLM reinforced the idea that the government defers to power of some sort, especially if one considers the economic meltdown of 2008, where hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes, their jobs, and often everything… and where not a single bank or mortgage company has ever been indicted for fraudulent loans, and where financial executives are once again getting enormous bonuses. We have the highest rate of imprisoning people in the industrialized world, and possibly in the entire world, and most of them are people without power. More and more government is portrayed as the enemy. As an illustration, one right-wing Washington, D.C., newspaper put it this way, “the elites in D.C. aren’t happy about the drubbing that they took at the hands of a citizen’s movement in Nevada… Their protest sent a message to anyone with a beef against Washington that if you stick to your guns, you can win.”
Exactly how long before voluntary compliance with law and ethics erodes even further? Especially with about one quarter of the population stockpiling weapons, and with continuing dissatisfaction, and with more and more examples of corporations and others with power either avoiding the law or paying it off?
And how long can one keep a democracy when it’s clearer and clearer that power trumps ethics and law – apparently always? And even if the BLM does punish Bundy, how many people will just see it as a case where justice is only enforced against those without the power to oppose it?