Cliven Bundy’s family roots in Nevada stretch back to the 1880s but his awkward articulation of constitutional rights and federalism are hurting his case and the broader case for greater self-determination in western lands management. Our western states are severely handicapped by the federal government’s ownership of massive amounts of land. It is true. And it is high time that citizens in these western states do something about it. Unfortunately, Cliven Bundy’s justifications and methods are politically counterproductive and legally, well, wrong.
Our western states have plenty of tragic examples where federal encroachment is destroying economic prosperity and driving generations of families from the lands they’ve called home. Bundy’s mistake is that he’s shifted the focus from that legitimate argument to arcane constitutional polemics that few Americans understand or are comfortable with.
In complaining about the federal government to entertainment conservative Sean Hannity, Mr. Bundy stated, “What they have done is seized Nevada statehood, Nevada law, Clark County public land, [and] access to the land….” To The Guardian newspaper he’s quoted as saying, “We definitely don’t recognize [Bureau of Land Management] jurisdiction or authority….” During an interview on the radio program “The Dana Show,” Mr. Bundy told listeners, “I abide by all of Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”
Well, he’s wrong. And even if he were right, he’d still lose with that argument.
The Bundy family has the right to civil disobedience. They do not have the right to avoid its consequences. The fact is Cliven Bundy quit making lease payments on BLM land to herd his cattle over 20 years ago. Notwithstanding how we perceive the behavior of federal agents in this matter, we can’t argue with the fact that they’ve been pretty patient with Mr. Bundy.
The Nevada Constitution (Article 1, Section 2), the law to which Mr. Bundy expresses patriotic fidelity, contains a “paramount allegiance” clause that states, “All political power is inherent in the people…But the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all of its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” Oops.
The legitimate fight to return federal lands to the states is tough enough without media spectacles such as Mr. Bundy doing just about everything the wrong way. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says “this isn’t over,” he isn’t just being his typically scheming political self. He’s stating a fact backed by the rule of law. Mr. Bundy will probably lose this one and, in so doing, he could irreparably damage the cause of federalism in the process.
If we fail to make a good faith effort to exhaust the political and legal processes established by our Constitution, we not only usurp the system that allows our society to succeed and prosper, but we undermine our own arguments, both with the law and with the public – arguments that we need if we’re going to win.
It takes courage and sacrifice to stand up against unjust laws. But those actions complement, not replace, the hard work that’s needed to win the long-term battle to change hearts and minds in the cause of freedom.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.
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