Cliven Bundy is What’s Wrong with Conservatism

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A lot of my fellow conservatives have claimed either to support (the minority) or be perplexed and ambivalent (the huge majority) about the current drama with Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher currently leading dozens of ‘militia’ in an armed standoff with Federal Marshals of the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the perplexed and ambivalent crowd, moreover, only said they pulled back their support when Bundy made some racist comments in an interview.

I will say right now- Bundy’s racist comments have not at all affected my political view on Bundy, and I am ashamed that my fellow conservatives were only swayed by that. For that matter, damn the details- several people have justified Bundy’s stand to me by pointing out that the Bundy family supposedly settled on the land well before the Federal Government came in. Let’s leave that to the lawyers, and talk about principle.

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Bundy, top-center, with militia volunteers. These are not the defenders of freedom.

And the principle at stake here is not some vague question of the sovereignty of private property or the scope and purpose of the federal government or the real meaning of the Second Amendment or anything like that, no matter how much the militiamen claim to be standing for the Spirit of ’76. No, the principle at stake here is the question of law and order- of the legitimate authority in the land- of the question of whether or not the United States of America shall remain one nation under God, or an ever-swirling cauldron of factions willing to use violence upon each other when they perceive the sacred trust has been broken.

Now I am normally refuted with something along the following lines: “Our country was founded by ordinary people who rose up against an oppressive, over-expansive government that trampled on their rights. The militia movement is only the natural expression of that truly American sentiment! These men are patriots!” I might reply to them that Thomas Jefferson, that improperly revered god of the homesteaders and survivalists, suggested in the same line of thinking that every generation ought to have its own violent revolution to “water the tree of liberty.” At this point those I argue against would be in the confusing situation of whether to endorse anarchy, or whether to concede and admit that a certain restraint on freedom is essential to true liberty.

But more importantly, what of the precedent? I will never, ever deny that our nation was founded by men who wished to be free. But the sacred pact of the Constitution, as interpreted by the Federalists and even their enemies (who wound up pursuing quite Federalist policies once in office) required a subordination of the spirit of rebelliousness endemic to the Scotch-Irish portion of our national character and an acceptance of a strong, imperfect government if we would remain a nation. And our greatest presidents tended to follow this precedent to its utmost extremes. A ragtag band of farmers rose up against President Washington, protesting the tax on whiskey; many were Revolutionary War veterans who believed themselves to be fighting tyranny and supporting their rights as free men. Washington marched an army to the countryside and dispersed the rabble. Yet more extreme was President Lincoln’s response to the increasing assertiveness of the Southern states; the Civil War and its solution should have answered the question of where the power lies in the United States, once and for all.

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A Whiskey Rebellion tax riot, with protestors attacking a tax collector. The militia movement’s true forebears.

Later Presidents kept national unity high in their priority list. It became common practice to quell strikes, rebellions, riots, and any sort of uprising that threatened the unity of the country, already torn by so many other divides. Of course this empowered the federal government. But unity and order, so espoused in Washington’s Farewell Address, were maintained, much to the benefit of the country and its citizens as a whole. 

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Some more of the militia movement’s forebears. Also fun fact: there were a surprisingly large number of black confederate VOLUNTEERS

Since the Reagan Revolution and the modern GOP’s radical misinterpretation of the Gipper’s message, conservatives in the United States have made bashing the federal government (and, unknowingly, the benefits it enables for us all) a party-wide pastime. Gone are the Nelson Rockefellers, the Dwight Eisenhowers, the Richard Nixons of the party, moderate voices who understood the necessity of a strong government yet, unlike the Democrats, understood that that government had to be efficient and lean. Their heirs today are derided as “Republicans In Name Only” (RINOs) and considered a threat to the ideological purity of the party. The Left, indeed, has gone farther left; but the Right has gone further Right, and become a problem in our never-ending quest for national unity and good governance.

The conservatives of today, no matter how much they purport to respect the sacrifice of the military and the law and order provided by police officers, seem to make a sudden about-face when the primary source of military and police power- the state- comes into conversation. Their insistence on the defense of rights even to the point of violence or threats of it is, indeed, noble in some ways and true heritage in others. But it is not at all conducive to the national unity necessary for good governance in one American nation. To wave the flag and proclaim a love for founding ideals, while aiming one’s Second Amendment-protected weapon at the very individuals whom that flag represents- is that not the slightest bit comical?

Also ironic is the fact that so many conservative commentators and hosts, when observing the angry mobs and worthless bums of the Occupy Wall Street movement, tend to deride such protestors as the scum of society, the product of entitlement, the bane of republican liberty. They lecture the crowds, commanding them that life in a free society presupposes living in accordance with its laws. They condemn anarchy and praise order.

Yet when their own ideological kindred are out in the deserts of Nevada doing precisely the same thing, the speak out of the other side of their mouth and lash out against the federal government with the exact accusations the rabble in the urban streets proclaimed.

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President Washington set the right and proper precedent for how to deal with domestic unrest, applicable to militia and Occupy and everything in between.

The principle at stake here is one of the defining principles of true conservatism, and that is respect for the law and subordination to a higher authority. Now I am not saying the ranchers are psycho, evil, or anything beyond misinformed and overly passionate. In fact, I would argue that the federal government DESERVES this disruption of the peace to be happening on its watch, because for too long it has been so incredulously bloated, so improperly overextended, so intrusive, so idealistic, so inefficient, that it could only be expected that popular sentiment would begin to turn against it. This- and whatever protests follow- really ought to be a wakeup call for those in the halls of Washington, both Republican and Democrat, politician and bureaucrat, that the current state of affairs and the current ideological balance is insufficient to properly serve the American people. The demands of the far Right cannot be met- the budget will always remain huge because we are a huge country, and funding must continue to flow to certain programs and agencies because they are necessary checks on the excesses of capitalism. Nor will the demands of the far Left be met- any way you slice it, the government really shouldn’t be expanding programs right now, and most of the social justice legislation proposed is not supported by a huge majority of the American people. Compromises will be made, balances must be struck- and what America needs now, more than ever, is the truly conservative idea of powerful, effective government and governance. It is a question of whether or not America will return to its TRUE founding principles- those espoused by Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, the true geniuses of the founding era- and modernize its politics for something that can compete this century. The world isn’t going to wait for us to catch up.

I challenge all my fellow conservatives to look hard at their views and then at the broad scope of American history, and see if social conservatism, restricted government, and state’s pre-eminence really are the critical bits about American history and what made us great as a nation. I sense, if they are honest with themselves, that they will come to a similar conclusion that I did, and condemn Cliven Bundy to the same vault of Purgatory reserved for the architects of the Confederacy.

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