If you’ve been following the ranchers’ fight against the federal government and seen the latest news that armed ranchers have come to the aid of Cliven Bundy to keep the Bureau of Land Management from seizing his cattle grazing on federal lands, you will have noticed some commentators who praise their stand as a kind of “civil disobedience” (the National Review has even compared Bundy to Gandhi!). Others–including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid–say Bundy is engaged in simple lawlessness, as he’s not paid ranching fees for decades and is flouting multiple federal court orders. Either answer, of course, is too simplistic.
In fact, the Bundy standoff is best understood as an organized effort to assert popular sovereignty. But what kind of theory of power and community does the saga represent? In my quick and dirty take (subject to further refinement), rancher sovereignty appears to be a combination of the legacy of pioneer constitutionalism, a tactical resort to states’ rights, and a healthy dose of contemporary radical localism.
The aspect of rancher sovereignty that has received the most media attention is states’ rights. In some of Bundy’s statements, he has said that the land belongs to Nevada, but notice that it’s always done to undermine the federal government’s claim to the land. He probably does believe that, relatively speaking, the state has more of a claim to the land than the feds. However, the rest of his statements and actions suggest he is only tactically relying on states’ rights.
In fact, rights foundationalism is most important to rancher sovereignty. Bundy contends that his family has made productive use of the land since the 1880s, and the fact that his labor has mixed with the land gives rise to a fundamental liberty/property right to continue using that land as he sees fit. That individual right, he asserts, trumps countervailing federal law and the Nevada State Constitution (to the extent it recognizes the supremacy of federal law). This sounds bizarre to anyone who has taken Constitutional Law I, but I assure you that this conception of rights is fairly widely shared. It derives from a natural law view of rights, one that has been deeply inflected by the American frontier experience. The belief system that once made sense in the world inhabited by ranchers living on open lands, when legal rules were openly flouted and productive use of land could ripen to legal title.
Moreover, there is a strong dose of radical localism. Apparently, having lost repeatedly in the federal courts, he has turned to filing documents with not only state officials, but also the Clark County Sheriff, county commissioners, and even the district attorney. These documents give emergency notice of a “range war against the police state” and demand the protection of state and local laws against the power of the national government. Bundy states:
First I’m fighting this thing on paper. Then I’ll go after the contract cowboys. And then if I assume they’re (BLM) ready to go (confiscate the cattle) then I’ll go after them with the media, with ‘we the people’ and whatever else it takes….What I am organizing are lots of groups. They’ll come from hundreds of miles away. They’ll be multiple users; the hunters, campers, off-roaders, miners, sightseers, Tea Party people.
But it’s clear to Bundy that the sheriff is the most important actor in this constitutional theory. “The sheriff is the only one with the policing power and arresting power in Clark County,” he states. “The Clark County sheriff has more constitutional policing power in Clark County than the president of the United States and his army.”
Again, this statement will look absolutely ridiculous to anyone who practices law in the courts, as it inverts the entire structure of government created by the 1787 Constitution. But that’s the point of the ideas of radical localism that persist among some members of the Tea Party, Patriot movement, and those who call themselves “sovereign citizens.” Elevating the sheriff is the best way to subvert the hierarchical features of mainstream constitutionalism. According to this theory of government, the county sheriff (not the U.S. Attorney General) is the highest law enforcement officer. Some practitioners try to tie this view to older historical accounts of the township and shire; others are content that the sheriff evokes older American rule of law traditions. Bundy himself in one interview has said he and his supporters refuse to accept the authority or jurisdiction of the BLM–and may even go so far as to deny the legitimacy of the federal government as a whole.
I said earlier that Bundy’s reliance on states’ rights was largely tactical, but there are tactical benefits to radical localism as well. The approach aligns seamlessly with practical efforts to subvert the conventional constitutional order by taking over key local offices through elections and, failing that, appointing oneself as sheriff and deputizing true believers.