Politics

04.19.14

Cliven Bundy Is Angry—Just Like the Rest of Us

The Nevada rancher’s escalating standoff with the feds raises a worrisome question: Can Americans’ relationship with their government—and each other—be saved?

When Rand Paul is the most prominent voice for peace on a polarizing issue, you know something strange is happening to America.

Who would have expected a political furor to erupt around a single Nevada rancher? But Cliven Bundy is exactly the sort of weird person that today’s ideological camps struggle to understand. To vocal conservatives, he’s a folk hero, a model of civil disobedience. To Sen. Harry Reid, on the other hand, his supporters are “nothing more than domestic terrorists.”

Meanwhile, Larry Sheets, an Iowa state representative, is drawing headlines for a speech on the floor of the statehouse that makes Reid seem prescient: “The government must be careful not to appear to be out of control and must follow the law,” he intoned, “or there will be violence like in the case of the Oklahoma City horror.”

Cliven Bundy isn’t the only one spoiling for a fight. And he’s not the only one with an increasingly apocalyptic sense of the confrontation between government and citizen.

So the task falls to Sen. Paul to insist on Fox News, in the face of skepticism from his interview host, that we should de-escalate the controversy surrounding Bundy’s legal relationship with the federal Bureau of Land Management.

In one sense, Bundy’s 15 minutes of fame is more or less as apt to pass as everyone else’s. In another, however, we’re only just getting started with the issues he’s raised. Americans are so confused and passionate about their relationship with the government that we’re drawn to the Bundy story like moths to a flame.

We Americans can’t stand the thought that Bundy is neither a hero nor a villain. At National Review, the point had to be made by one lonely Englishman. Taking the quaint position that “Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes,” Charles C. W. Cooke cautions that, however romantic Bundy’s stand may seem, irate conservatives should remember their “government of laws and not of men.”

We’d sooner revere the government than revere its rules and regulations. That’s why the left is apt to fear Bundy and the right is apt to celebrate him.

This is true enough, but one of the silliest and most serious paradoxes of American life is how little the wisdom of the Founders actually guides our political conduct today. If we obeyed the wisdom of the Founders, we would never have formed political parties. Even a fellow American waving the Declaration of Independence and the Collected Speeches of Abraham Lincoln will not cool the heads of normal Americans.

That’s because the realm of politics can’t provide us a foundation for neighborliness and forbearance. At a time when so many expect government to save us because nothing else seems up to the task, we ought to realize that one thing government definitely can’t save us from is our mutual enmity. In fact, the more we believe that our political challenges can only be solved at the national level, the more angry we’ll grow with one another, as all possibilities of governance become an all-or-nothing game. Lincoln was just wrong to hope that “reverence for the laws” would become our “political religion.”

We’d sooner revere the government than revere its rules and regulations. That’s why the left is apt to fear Bundy and the right is apt to celebrate him. Bundy wants to challenge the scope of government authority, not harm the agents of its power. For liberals, that’s a much more serious political problem than terrorism. For conservatives, that’s a call—sometimes literally—to arms. Each side offends the other by seeming to justify their sense of doom.

Rand Paul wants us to focus calmly on the issue of whether governmental authority has exceeded its legitimate scope. In an all-or-nothing world where the federal government dwarfs everything, that’s a tall order. Democrats dig in their heels, certain that ceding ground to “the crazies” will set a dangerous precedent of retreat. Republicans cling to real-life examples of “out-of-control government,” whatever the risk to their reputation, because they know that abstract ideals just aren’t enough to inspire Americans to restore limited government.

Paul is right that we must deal with the Bundy crisis in the spirit of neighborly forbearance. To do so, however, we need to turn our gaze away from politics for a moment. For devout Christians—and not just the devout—Easter weekend is an especially propitious time to do exactly that. Before religion was conscripted into the nationalization of all political issues, more of us could see clearly that the realms of church and of faith ameliorated the burdensome work of forgiving enemies, reconciling with foes, and recognizing one another as beings plunged up to our necks in the same hard predicaments.

Americans have long shown a genius for creatively refreshing and reinterpreting the basic ideas of spiritual order: that we are creatures who can live together in peace only when we realize there is no rest and no repose outside our doors in the frenzy, loneliness, and bitter struggle of this mortal world.

When we meet each other anew on that footing, politics can become a place of collaborative experimentation, and cease to seem so much like a bloody patch of bombed-out ground.

Even when our hope for sanity in politics seems to have gone as dry as the Nevada desert, it can rise again—if only we think of each other as more than Republicans, Democrats, or even Americans.