Cliven Bundy gets real

Sure enough, as the Feds backed down and out–at least for the moment–the camera has shifted to Cliven Bundy, the rancher who doesn’t want to pay to graze his cattle on public lands.  So far, it’s not such a pretty picture.  At The New York Times, Adam Nagourney reports on the scene.  Sure enough, there are a few dozen supporters, at least some armed and girded for battle with the feds.  (In most contexts, we call people who are willing to shoot government agents in the service of their beliefs “terrorists.”)

Absent confrontation, Bundy has been filling the days with sparsely attended press conferences and opining not only about the grazing stand-off with the Bureau of Land Management, but also his beliefs on abortion, African-Americans, and government more generally.  The comments that sound most racist have been reprinted all over the web:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Expressing some nostalgia for the benefits of slavery is not quite as problematic for an independent rancher in Nevada than more mainstream (and it doesn’t take much to be more mainstream) political figures who might support him.  And it’s lately been important for Bundy to mobilize such support.  Senators who have lauded him or the cause are backing off–or disappearing from the conflict.  Other ranchers, who are accustomed to paying to graze their cattle on public lands, have already dissociated themselves from the case and the cause.  He’s not quite the poster child that even very conservative politicians want to paste everywhere.

Of course, some supporters remain.  Over time, particularly if government action remains measured and low profile, the ones who stay are likely to be at least as unattractive as Bundy himself.

The challenge for the BLM is to resolve the outstanding fees issue without making stylistic mistakes that take the focus off Bundy.  (The BLM can’t exempt Bundy from the responsibilities that it imposes on all other ranchers who want to graze cattle on public lands.)

The challenge for conservative activists who would use the Bundy case is to find a way to valorize independence, vilify the government, and stay away from the details of the case or the person.

In essence, they need to use Cliven Bundy without being associated with him.  If the focus stays on Bundy, this will be increasingly difficult.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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6 Responses to Cliven Bundy gets real

  1. SimplySage says:

    Finally, an objective opinion with candor. Thank you.
    As shocking as his statements regarding slavery have seemed, I can’t help but say I’ve wondered some of the same thoughts. I’ve driven through neighborhoods where strong, young men idle on porches in the middle of the day. In the local hospitals the majority of housekeepers and cooks are black. And don’t get me wrong, they do a fantastic job. Many I consider to be friends. And as I hear their personal stories, it saddens me to hear of broken families, the absence of fathers, dependence on welfare, single moms, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, no high school diplomas, etc. I don’t know the stats but I’ve heard that the African-American population is being whittled down through abortion and shootings. I’ve heard, particularly in the Governor’s race in Illinois, from blacks themselves, that the Democratic Party has done nothing for them, but had whetted their appetites for government handouts for their votes to stay in power. Government dependence is indeed a type of slavery, not freedom.
    In addition, the media seems more concerned now with setting this man up as a fool in preparation to make him the face of the Republican Party. This is indeed a tragic time in American history.

    • I think Cliven Bundy’s comments were honest, but certainly not objective or accurate.

      My point was that some conservative politicians eager to embrace the deadbeat rancher because he stood against the federal government got more than they bargained for–and far more than they wanted. Whatever Dean Heller or Rand Paul really think, they realize that there are certain things they shouldn’t say in public. (This is a good thing! Of course, we should strive for accuracy in what we say, particularly publicly, and particularly when off-hand comments reflect and generate hate or denigrate a group of people.)

      Bundy just wanted to graze his cattle for free, and was ill-prepared to become a cause. (Indeed, it’s still kind of puzzling that he was, for a while, a cause; it’s hard to imagine activists rallying behind people who jump subway turnstiles to get a free ride or parking meter scofflaws–and their violations are MUCH smaller scale.) There’s no reason to expect a coherent Constitutional theory here, just a wish to keep money in his pocket and still get what he wants. I suspect we all feel that sometimes–with more and less justification.

      My sympathies tend to run more quickly to students who are working more hours and borrowing more money for higher education that the US and the states subsidized much more heavily in years past. It’s harder to avoid tuition than, apparently, grazing fees.

      From my read, Bundy’s comments reflected a life lived in relative isolation. He spun a story out of what he thought he saw on one trip to a city once. And America is SO big and SO diverse and it’s SO EASY to find reports that confirm what you want to believe, that lots of people believe firmly in “facts” that just aren’t true. This is a problem.

      Meanwhile, even in the chaos of the internet, accurate information about all kinds of issues has never been more available. On the notions you raise, I haven’t been able to find any empirical support: One site loaded with easily accessible data is the US Census Bureau [ ]. It’s hard to tease out explanations from mountains of data, but it’s relatively easy to test whether the “facts” people sell us are true.

      • SimplySage says:

        First of all, I completely agree with you about the student tuition issue. As to my statement regarding the shootings and abortions, I agree I had no substantial evidence to support that, and I stated so. It was made after conversations with some physicians I work with.
        The conservatives really got burned by a man who, as you say, lives in relative isolation, and wants to graze his cattle “for free”. How is that any different from wanting a government handout??? Perhaps the amount they wanted was oppressive but he should pay something! To use this situation to raise the issue of an oppressive and overreaching government was total foodhardy on the part of conservatives. Much like they used, “Joe, the Plummer”.
        Why has politics now turned into rhetoric tinged with such emotion? Because, unfortunately, people can be persuaded by it, rather than by facts. I agree with you, that if people would actually take the time to investigate the facts, myself included, they would be making different choices as to who they vote for. We seem to have gravitated to making assumptions based on Headlines on our Internet Home Pages. A travesty indeed.
        Thank you for getting back with me.

      • I think you’re right about more mainstream politicians ultimately being tared by association with Cliven Bundy. The real question is why not a few saw a big opportunity in jumping on Bundy as a cause. I’m sure it’s a high pressure environment, and they get asked about absolutely everything. I suspect political figure are reluctant to be slow to hop on the moment. By the way, you post such beautiful photos on your site!

      • SimplySage says:

        I wish the media would show more objective journalism and keep all politicians accountable.
        Thanks for the visit to my site and the compliments. My photography is a work in progress and is a source of joy for me. It’s a source of fun and diversion. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Opportunistic Advocacy (1/x); COVID-19 (4/x) | Politics Outdoors

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