The standoff in Oregon between a group of armed extremists and the federal government shows no signs of abating. Among other things, the group is angry over the treatment of local ranchers by the Bureau of Land Management.
"What people in Western states are dealing with is the destruction of their way of life," a resident of Bend, Ore., told The Washington Post this week. "When frustration builds up, people lash out."
As for that frustration with the government, there's plenty to go around and not just out West. Last fall, the Pew Research Center polled Americans on their attitudes toward the federal government. Asked to describe how they felt about the government, 79 percent of Americans chose either "frustrated" or "angry." Among white Americans, that figure was 85 percent. Among conservative Republicans, it was 92 percent.
But words like "frustration" and "anger" only begin to scratch the surface of how many Americans feel about federal authorities. Asked to place themselves on a scale from 1 to 10 “where ‘1’ means you think the federal government is your enemy and ‘10’ means you think the federal government is your friend,” well over one-quarter of Americans said they viewed the government as more of an "enemy" (1-4), up from 19 percent in 1996.
These feelings are especially pronounced among Republicans: 35 percent of Republicans now view the government as more of an enemy; 21 percent view it as a friend. Twenty years ago these numbers were basically reversed. There's been a similar though less dramatic shift among independents. Democrats, on the other hand, have become friendlier toward the federal government over the same period.
It's one thing to express anger or frustration with something. We can be angry at things or people we like, or love, or are otherwise indifferent toward. But thinking of an entity as an "enemy" is another thing entirely -- especially when that entity is the government of the nation that you're a citizen of. The implication is that the government's interests and your own interests are fundamentally at odds and that you're actively working to undermine each other. This is reflected in the 76 percent of Americans who say that the government is run by a few big interests out for themselves, rather than for the benefit of all people.
But many people -- especially those who are angriest at government -- may not see the ways in which government programs benefit them directly. There are all the obvious functions of government, like building roads and protecting people from overseas threats. But there are also more subtle federal actions that directly benefit individuals -- even wealthy ones.
In the case of the Bundy family -- the folks leading the Oregon occupation -- they've been benefiting from federal cattle grazing fees that are just a fraction of what they'd pay in an open marketplace. The Bundys argue that the federal government has taken control of too much land and that they shouldn't owe any grazing fees at all. Still, those federal fees are so low that they don't even cover the cost to the federal government of maintaining those lands, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental goup. In essence, the Bundys are benefiting from taxpayer-subsidized cattle feed.
Mother Jones is also reporting that Ammon Bundy's truck repair business benefited from a $500,000 federal small business loan with an estimated cost to taxpayers of $22,000. That's enough money to put seven families on food stamps for a whole year.
There is, of course, plenty of room to agree with certain federal practices while disapproving of others. In fact, we have an entire robust process in place that allows citizens to remake the government as they'd like to see it -- voting. But the pace of change can sometimes be slow, and sometimes you may not find as many people agree with you as you'd like, and before you know it you find yourself holed up in a bird refuge with your assault rifle, cans of Pringles, and demands that the government hand over 1.4 million acres of taxpayer-owned land.
If you find yourself in such a situation, you might do well to take a deep breath, step back and ask yourself if there's another way.
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