Just as we were speaking of paranoia and polarization last week, that modern political style was putting up a new icon, a rebel Nevada rancher.
As a token of the paranoid movement that has transfixed the base of one of the national political parties, you can’t beat Cliven Bundy, who has made his fortune mooching off the public while proclaiming himself its victim.
For a few days last week Bundy looked like the Republican poster boy for the 2014 elections. Fox News’ Sean Hannity proclaimed him a hero for leading a band of armed buddies and backing down Bureau of Land Management agents who were following court orders to remove 400 of his cattle from public lands. When a Democrat entered the White House 21 years ago, Bundy stopped paying the tiny fee for grazing his cows there and he now owes either $300,000 by his accounting or $1 million by the BLM’s. He has ignored repeated court orders over the years to pay it or move his cattle to his 160-acre ranch or other private lands because he says the government of the United States is not legitimate and the old laws he is violating are unenforceable. John C. Calhoun would think that was a little extreme.
Bundy’s militia chased away federal workers at gunpoint, so it was a great symbolic triumph over the tyrant Barack Obama, although the BLM was carrying out court orders and not those of the president.
Candidates from presidential aspirant Rand Paul to congressional wannabes rallied to his cause. But Bundy couldn’t restrain his well-known bigotry in front of the cameras and volunteered that blacks were better slaves than free citizens. See, they didn’t demand food stamps when they were slaves.
Bundy had violated the subtlety rule, so Sen. Paul had to retract his praise and say there was no place for such overt racism. A few other Republicans followed suit.
But the wider response was that Bundy’s racial animosity was beside the point. No one could have been shocked that a rancher in one of the sundown states held such views. What matters are his notions about the government of the United States, which happen in varying degrees of subtlety to be those of the minor but dominant wing of the GOP.
Dale Bumpers spent a good part of his 24 years in the Senate in a one-man losing battle against the federal policy since President Grant of spending vast tax dollars to conserve and improve public lands while letting profiteers — energy companies, mineral speculators, timber companies and big ranchers — exploit the land and pay only pennies (or nothing in Bundy’s case) back to the people. More about that in a minute.
Some commentators had fun pointing out that the $1.35 per cow a month that Bundy had refused to pay for foraging was not a demand from Obama but an executive order from President Reagan in 1986. Some conservatives said Reagan shouldn’t be forgiven for such lapses.
But that little bit of tyranny — the description that is applied to executive orders by Obama — was unintentional. Reagan actually issued it to mollify ranchers who feared that the government, under a formula of the 1978 Public Rangelands Improvement Act, would raise the grazing fee much higher. Reagan’s order said fees had to be at least $1.35 but not much higher.
Even at $1.35 or its peak, $1.98 per cow, the fee amounts to a vast government subsidy to the ranchers. National agricultural statistics showed that in 1993, when Bill Clinton took office, the market price for foraging was $9.80 per cow on private lands rented by ranchers and $4.58 on public lands owned by the states—three to five times the fee for federal grazing.
The 1978 law, drafted by Western senators to take care of the largely hereditary ranchers, appropriated from $15 million to $30 million a year to prevent erosion, conserve foraging plants and preserve irrigation on rangelands, and it enacted a formula for a small grazing fee. Even the Republican sponsors recognized that the huge subsidy to ranchers morally had to be offset by at least a tiny cost to the ranchers.
Only six senators, one of them Bumpers, voted against it. They said it was a policy of extravagance, waste and ecological degradation. Bumpers saved his biggest battles for the coal, oil, gas and timber companies, which were getting an even more scandalous deal — paying a few dollars without bids to hold mineral rights and leases on thousands of acres of federal lands. Western senators, Democrat and Republican, beat him year after year, but Bumpers finally forced competitive bidding on leases on federal lands around his boyhood home at Charleston, which brought millions of dollars to the state and to the schools as well as the federal treasury.
The Texas gas companies exploiting Fort Chaffee lands didn’t make credible victims. The Koch billionaires, who beg for our sympathy because they must pay taxes and operate under onerous safety and environmental rules, make only slightly better ones. A black-hating millionaire rancher, on the other hand, is perfect for the times.