Losing Democracy?

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?

6 thoughts on “Losing Democracy?”

  1. D Archerd says:

    While I disagree with Senator Harry Reid’s characterization of the armed people – one hesitates to confer the title of ‘citizen’ on them – who showed up to intimidate the BLM agents from performing their duties as ‘terrorists’, I would characterize their behavior as an armed insurrection, one the Governor of Nevada would be perfectly within his rights to call out the National Guard to put down and protect the federal agents in the performance of their duties. Yes, such an action might further inflame the prejudices of the radical right against the government, but unfortunately, some people only respond to force. Your books have made that point pretty consistently.

  2. Steve says:

    I believe in obeying the law and I feel that Mr. Bundy is wrong. However I think that in the case of Mr. Bundy the law has been used as an instrument of oppression. At what point should a person fight against oppression?

    Because I am a conformist and am happy with the current system I would have told Mr. Bundy to move off the land and make way for the tortoise in 1993. As a conformist I probably would have told Rosa Parks to move to the back of the bus in 1955.

    In hindsight it would have been wrong to support the segregation laws, but I don’t think that history will treat Mr. Bundy so kindly. However, when I imagine what it would be like to be told by the government that my livelihood, even my way of life, was over because of a tortoise, I think I begin to understand why he fights.

    What would it take to make you stay in the front of the bus? A systematic invasion of privacy codified into law under the Patriot Act? Disregard for the Geneva Conventions when dealing with prisoners of war? Killing of American citizens by presidential order? Suppression and aggressive prosecution of activism? First amendment zones? Prosecution of whistleblowers? Surveillance of journalists? A good book burning?

    1. The problem is that his “way of life” was subsidized by cheap federal grazing fees, a subsidy picked up by all taxpayers, and that overgrazing destroys the lands, desert tortoise or not. To demand, with a rifle, that everyone else subsidize his way of life, is not fighting oppression. “Occupy Wall Street” had better reasons than Bundy does.

      1. James G says:

        May I add that he is not losing a “way of life” because of a Tortoise. The environmental and anti-environmental movements often single out a particular indicator animal to help contextualize a much larger problem. Which leads to the inevitable cry, “I’m more important than Fish X, Badger Y, etc.”. However, when your “way of life” is in fact detrimental to your environment and your decedents you should be prepared to change it.

        Technology is changing our world in ways we have never faced before. Creating a world where more people are alive today than have ever lived previously. This population growths impact on our ecology isn’t myth. We have to learn to adjust our wants and needs as a culture, as a species if we want to persist. We have to fight what seems to be human nature to hang on to the old as comforting and right. This means we have to have cultural shift away from “ME, NOW” to “US, FUTURE”.

  3. Plovdiv says:

    As an outsider, I agree with D Archerd, in that people like this only seem to understand force, and calling out the National Guard would have been the best option. You said they were heavily armed, but how exactly were they armed? If they were carrying automatic rifles with military spec 30 round clips then in my mind the use of the National Guard would have been entirely justified, and even if they weren’t using this much firepower, then “overwhelming force” would have given them a real fright, and would have sent a message hat everyone has to obey the law, no matter who you are.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    Perhaps Harry Reid could intervene. the head of the BLM has strong ties to Harry Reid… unfortunately, I’m not sure that Bundy shares that high regard by the rancher.

    Any move by the national guard would be seen as overkill with echoes of Waco, Texas (or, Whacko, depending on your outlook). Plus there’s a serious chance that some members of the NG might not obey the order, since I would bet that there are those sympathetic to Bundy within the NG.

    Bundy himself has said that he does not recognize the US government though he recognizes the ‘Sovereign State of Nevada.’ So… he’s in rebellion? Kind of?

    The whole situation is a mess and both sides should hang their heads for asserting rights that are suspect and ignoring clear responsibilities.

    Bundy: ignoring court rulings and attempting to assert his rights despite clear evidence to the contrary and not paying his fair share of use of fed range lands. How much would he complain if someone stole $1m worth of cattle? Why should we accept him stealing from federal coffers.

    Gov’t: not doing anything about it when the final rulings came out in 1999 and being more worried about looking bad in front of the media and the ‘court’ of public opinion and not worried enough about doing their job.

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