America is a land of stories. We love to use stories about individuals to extract general principals about society as a whole. The story of Cliven Bundy is no exception.
His story about an armed standoff versus the Federal Government in April was illustrative to many of the principle that we are a government of the people, that individual rights are sacrosanct, and that states have the right to decide how to govern the lands and people within their territories. But the story didn’t end there unfortunately.
Given the bully pulpit for the first time in his life, Mr. Bundy unfortunately squandered his opportunity to have America hear his story. Instead, he launched into a misguided and racist diatribe about African Americans, stating that he believed the fact that “they never learned to pick cotton,” accounted for the social ills of single motherhood and high black male incarceration rates.
He went on to speculate, “I’ve wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton, and having a family?” The entirety of his rant has been relentlessly reported, and the real principles undergirding his story have been lost in the ensuing media feeding frenzy.
But that does not mean there’s not a story to be told here, and an important one. In fact, Bundy meandered right into one of the essential fault lines of American society: the relationship between states’ rights and slavery, and more generally the relationship of majority rule to the protection of individual civil rights.
A cursory review of the history reveals inextricable links between early states’ rights advocates and proponents of slavery. In fact, some would say that the Civil War, called by some the War Between the States, was not over slavery per se, but whether states had the rights to enact laws governing slavery within their territory.
That might seem to be a minor distinction for some, but the issue continues to rear its head in American law and politics to this day, and not just when it comes to issues of race.
In fact, the expansion of federalism has run rampant into areas such as healthcare, banking, and environmental protection — virtually every area of authority once reserved for the states. In fact, under the guise of protecting racial minorities’ rights, endangered species rights, women’s rights, and a whole host of other individual rights, the federal government has engaged in a decades’ long power grab that has made a sham of the notion of local government and individual rights in America.
And the consequential effects have been catastrophic. It is now mandated that if one chooses not to purchase substandard healthcare from the government, you’ll be taxed.
Gone are the days when people who live in an area in which a species is being threatened can get together and decide an appropriate land use policy that supports the environment while enabling people to use the resources abundant resources our country has afforded us.
In fact, the Bundy case illustrates the absurdity that arises when a bureaucrat in Washington writes land use policy that purports to save a desert tortoise — at the expense of using grazing land that has been managed for over a hundred years in a way that enables high quality beef to arrive at the American table. Oh, and by the way, cattle ranching does not actually harm the tortoise habitat.
But the real harm here, and the reason why power was devolved to the states under the Constitution, was not merely to resolve the issue of government incompetence, but of government corruption — otherwise known as tyranny. The less power the central government has, the Founding Fathers reasoned, the less harm it could do if captured or compromised by special interests.
The very circumstances of the Bundy case seem at least very suspicious. Federal land being claimed for private contracts to build wind farms in the areas adjacent to the Bundy’s ranch suddenly make it much more valuable than grazing land, and somehow make protecting that tortoise worth aiming guns at American citizens.
Bundy inadvertently highlighted this issue in a misguided way, but virtually no one in the conservative camp took him up on the challenge to make a statement distinguishing states’ rights — really the principle of localism — from an excuse to engage in racism and abuse of minorities.
The right is at the risk of squandering a real opportunity to make a statement about how the gradual encroachment of government is diminishing the rights of all Americans, especially minorities. It is really an opportunity to restate the states’ rights thesis as an enabler of freedom, not a tool for oppression.
In fact, it is critical that conservatives do so. With an emerging majority-minority electorate — an ethnic plurality — it is more important than ever that an appeal to principles come across as clear and unfettered from the mistakes of our past.
Armstrong Williams is the author of “Reawakening Virtues.” He is a political commentator who writes a conservative newspaper column, hosts a nationally syndicated TV program called “The Right Side,” and hosts a daily radio show on Sirius/XM Power 128 (6-7 p.m. and 5-6 a.m.) Monday through Friday. Read more reports from Armstrong Williams — Click Here Now.
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