Even before uttering his disgusting, racist remarks, Cliven Bundy was bad news. He waged a legal fight over a fee for grazing rights for more than a decade — and lost everywhere. His solution? Meet federal officials with guns when they tried to enforce a lawful court order to remove his cattle from government land. Why in the world would talk show hosts and U.S. senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) think such a character was admirable?
On this I am in full agreement with the Weekly Standard’s Scrapbook: “Cliven Bundy is no hero of any kind. No conservative would pick and choose the laws he intends to obey, defy the rest, and challenge the rule of democracy with guns. No hero would adopt the terrorist’s tactic of placing innocents in harm’s way. Any fool can pick up a weapon and aim at an officer of the law; the moral power of civil disobedience lies in the willingness to defer to the law and accept punishment on principle.”
The Bundy situation is not an isolated one. The far-right — including talk show hosts, bloggers and some elected officials — often show zeal for bad causes because they imagine harebrained or illegal ideas are true expressions of liberty and opposition to the scourge of big government. These are the people who thought the shutdown was a great idea because it is “important to fight.” Many of them perpetrated the falsity that the National Security Agency was “listening to your phone calls” and that a surveillance program with zero instances of abuse that was helpful to our national security had to be dumped.
They are drawn to unsavory cranks like a moth to a flame. Not only did Rand Paul, for example, embrace Bundy before his racist comments, he also hired on the pro-Confederate “Southern Avenger” and dubbed Edward Snowden a modern-day Martin Luther King Jr. Others in the right-wing groups spent hundreds millions of dollars and climbed on the bandwagon for crank Senate candidates who challenged strong conservative incumbents.
The habit of leaping before they look, embracing crack-pots and celebrating defiance of the government by violence or criminal means (e.g. stealing government secrets) is a bad one, frankly a disqualifying one for office. A basic requirement of political leadership is the ability to assess character and evaluate the soundness of new faces and political tactics. Elected officials, after all, take an oath to the Constitution; to elevate characters like Bundy and Snowden is to encourage violation of our system of elected representatives and duly appointed judges.
This virulent anti-government sentiment is decidedly unconservative, as Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson wrote:
A truly conservative response to the advance of a liberal or progressive ideology, however, would not involve the adoption of an opposite and equally narrow ideology. Just as the breakdown of family structures does not prove the illegitimacy of family life but instead points to the urgency of its revitalization, the alternative to government overreach is not the dogmatic disparagement of government but the restoration of government to its proper and honored place in American life.
It is historically erroneous to regard America’s founders as proto-libertarians. Hamilton warned about “a zeal for liberty more ardent than enlightened,” while Madison cautioned that “liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.” Similarly mistaken are exaggerated claims of galloping tyranny and utopian visions of a wholesale dismantling of much of the modern state. None of this lays a foundation for an appealing public philosophy. American citizenship has evolved around the exercise of liberty in a complex, mutually dependent web of institutions. One of those institutions is and must be government — effective, respected, and limited.
When right-wing politicians and extreme libertarians embrace an anti-government vision, they reduce the appeal of their message to a narrow subset of the electorate. It is impossible to expand the party to take in more African American and Hispanic voters, let alone retain middle-class moderates, with a paranoid vision of government. The purveyors of the anti-government message do not breed confidence with voters. (The reaction to the shutdown demonstrated the public’s lack of patience for those who delighted in disabling government.) To the contrary, they scare off all but the true believers and do harm to their party and the conservative movement, which is blemished by the worst characteristics of the most extreme right-wingers.
Mainstream conservatives and the GOP as a whole should shun not only the Bundys out there, but also the politicians and media figures who defend them. If they can’t tell right away that Bundy is a nut, Snowden is a traitor and a “Southern Avenger” is a racist, do we really think they will get the big questions and tough calls right?