I don’t know who’s right in the case of the Nevada rancher vs. the federal government. But I do know that the government is losing the public relations battle, and for good reason.
When the government moved to seize Cliven Bundy’s cattle for his failure to pay grazing fees on public land, a growing group of supporters came to his defense – literally. On April 12, after a tense and heated standoff with them, heavily armed federal agents released the cattle back and retreated.
The situation was eerily reminiscent of past ill-fated federal standoffs, such as Ruby Ridge and Waco, where federal agents raided the Branch Davidian compound and 76 people died.
This situation is different, though.
Whether right or wrong in their actions, the Bundy family can’t be caricatured as a cult or a danger to anyone. And the family’s predicament has ignited a firestorm of anti-government fervor, particularly in the West. Bundy backers traveled miles to show their support and face down the feds. Conservative locales in cyberspace and on the radio dial crackled with anti-government rhetoric.
The thing is, I suspect the government and media elites, if they’re paying any attention to this powder keg at all, likely don’t get it.
The West, thanks to geographic and ideological distances, has always had an arm’s length relationship with both government and media. But the flashpoint in Nevada can’t be dismissed as cowboy rebelliousness. There’s plenty of sympathy for their position around the country.
The Eastern elites probably have no clue why, either.
They doubtless have no idea how poorly the federal government is viewed today – despite all the evidence in polls and surveys. After being spied on by the NSA and targeted by the IRS and having jackbooted federal agents show up to tell them how it’s going to be, folks – good, hardworking, taxpaying, God-fearing people – are tired of being abused.
As a practical matter, whether the Bundy family is in the right has ceased to matter. Like any other civil rights hotspot, all it needed was a spark.
Nor does it help that the Obama administration is so loath to deal with illegal immigrants in such a manner as it has the Bundy family. The government can’t secure the border – and is even insisting on amnesty for the illegals already here. But they send armed officers to crack down on American ranchers? Outrageous.
And the manner in which they’ve done it is just as galling. As The Las Vegas Review-Journal noted in a recent editorial, to tamp down protests, government officials “closed off hundreds of square miles of public land. They’ve closed roads. And they prohibited protected assembly and expression across huge areas of Clark County. They even took the step of creating ‘First Amendment areas’ – where no federal official or contractor directly involved in the roundup would ever have to see protesters.
“You see, even peaceful protests can be intimidating to government types. If government types feel slightly threatened, they arm themselves to the teeth. When they arm themselves to the teeth, they’re far more likely to view a peaceful protest as cover for an attack on the government. And if they believe someone holding a sign or a camera might also have a gun, agents are more likely to hurt someone. Thus, the government suspends the First Amendment as a public safety measure: Citizens are denied their rights to peacefully assemble and engage in political speech because the content of that expression might be ‘intimidating’ enough to make government agents overreact and hurt them.”
The problem is, inside the government it is impossible to consider the possibility that the government can ever do any wrong.
I don’t know if the Bundy family is the best rallying point. But the support they’ve gotten from angry citizens is evidence that the government has a much bigger problem on its hands than a few head of hungry cattle.
Michael Ryan is editorial page editor at The Augusta (GA.) Chronicle, and executive director of the new Morris Civics Initiative, which aims to help create a renaissance of American responsibility and civics.