You may have noticed that among the many and varied topics touched upon by COMMENTARY writers in recent weeks, none of us chose to weigh in on the Bundy Ranch controversy that attracted so much notice on cable news, talk radio, and the blogosphere. The reason was that none of us considered the standoff between a Nevada tax scofflaw and the federal government over grazing rights fees to rise to the level of an issue of national interest. The government may own too much land in the West and may have acted in a heavy-handed manner in this case but anyone with sense realized that stiffing the feds is likely to end badly for those who play that game, something that even a bomb-thrower like Glenn Beck appeared to be able to understand. Moreover, there was something slightly absurd about the same people who froth at the mouth when “amnesty” for illegal immigrants is mentioned demanding that Cliven Bundy be let off the hook for what he owed Uncle Sam.
Unfortunately some other conservatives liked the imagery of a rancher and his supporters opposing the arrogant power of the federal government and Bundy became, albeit briefly, the flavor of the month in some libertarian circles. So when he was caught uttering some utterly repulsive racist sentiments by the New York Times earlier this week some of the same pundits that had embraced him were sent running for cover. As they have fled, they have found themselves being pursued by jubilant liberals who have attempted to use Bundy’s lunatic rants to brand all of conservatives and Tea Partiers as racists. This was a popular theme today taken up by left-wingers at the New York Times, Salon, and New York magazine who all claimed that Bundy exposed the dark underside of libertarianism in general and conservative media in particular. While Jonathan Chait may consider to be an Onion-like coincidence that libertarian sympathizers are all crackpot racists, that is about as cogent an observation as an attempt to argue that most liberals are unwashed socialist/anti-Semitic lawbreakers just because many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters they embraced fell into those categories.
But there is another moral to this story that should give some on the right pause. In their enthusiasm to embrace anyone who sings from the same “agin the government” hymnal, some libertarians have proved themselves willing to lionize people that were liable to besmirch the causes they cherish. As our Pete Wehner pointed out recently, that some figures identified with conservatism have embraced sympathizers with the Confederacy as well as open racists and anti-Semites is a matter of record.
That the liberal attempt to tar all Tea Partiers as racists is unfair is beside the point. It is one thing to believe in small government, federalism, and to fear the willingness of liberals to undermine the rule of law. It is quite another to treat the government as not just a problem but as the enemy. The U.S. government is not the enemy. When run by responsible patriots it is, as it was designed to be, the best defense of our liberty, not its foe. As Charles Krauthammer ably stated on Fox News earlier this week:
First of all, it isn’t enough to say I don’t agree with what he [Bundy] said. This is a despicable statement. It’s not the statement, you have to disassociate yourself entirely from the man. It’s not like the words exist here and the man exists here. And why conservatives, some conservatives, end up in bed with people who, you know, — he makes an anti-government statement, he takes an anti-government stand, he wears a nice big hat and he rides a horse and all of the sudden he is a champion of democracy. This is a man who said that he doesn’t recognize the authority of the United States of America. That makes him a patriot?
I love this country and I love the constitution and it’s the constitution that established a government that all of us have to recognize. And for him to reject it was the beginning of all of this. And now what he said today is just the end of this. And I think it is truly appalling that as Chuck [Lane] says, there are times when somehow simply because somebody takes an opposition, he becomes a conservative hero. You’ve you got to wait, you’ve got to watch, you have got to think about. And look, do I have the right to go graze sheep in Central Park? I think not. You have to have some respect for the federal government, some respect for our system, and to say you don’t and you don’t recognize it and that makes you a conservative hero, to me, is completely contradictory and rather appalling. And he has now proved it.
The Bundy ranch standoff is a teachable moment for libertarians and conservatives. We don’t need to waste much time debunking the claim that a belief in limited government and calls for an end to the orgy of taxing and spending in Washington are racist. These are risible, lame arguments that fail on their own. But like liberals who need to draw a distinction between their positions and those of the anti-American, anti-capitalist far left, those on the right do need to draw equally bright lines between themselves and the likes of Cliven Bundy. If they don’t, spectacles such as the one we witnessed this week are inevitable.