The Corner

Bundy Ranch and the Political Powerlessness of Rural America

Like Rich, I deeply respect the rule of law. As an attorney who practices in federal courts across the nation, I respect the rulings of those courts (indeed, much of my career is spent securing rulings from federal courts to protect individual liberties) and — having reviewed the pleadings in Bundy’s case — I do not fault the courts’ orders. John Hinderaker is right, “Legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”

But, as Hinderaker notes, that’s not the end of the story. I’d urge you to read Hinderaker’s entire analysis and don’t want to repeat it here. Instead, let me back up a bit and place the Bundy controversy in the larger context of America’s urban/rural divide and the resulting polarization of the increasing powerlessness of rural America.

On March 21, the Wall Street Journal published a prescient piece highlighting geography rather than ideology as a key driver in America’s growing partisan divisions. Yes, there are key differences in ideology, but those ideological divisions are nurtured and cultivated according to where we live. When I lived in Midtown, Manhattan, or Center City, Philadelphia, the culture was dramatically different from our current home base in Maury County, Tennessee. And the differences were not just confined to culture, but also included perceived political and economic interests. 

While rural America literally sustains life for urban America, many urbanites dislike large-scale farming (this parody is worth seeing), would like to see the rest of the country essentially transformed into a nature preserve, and argue that to the extent land is “used,” it should be used for selectively-defined “renewable” purposes, like solar energy or wind farms. The result — when urban regions become dominant — has been amply chronicled by Victor Davis Hanson and many others: rural regions increasingly serve urban ones and do so under comprehensive urban regulatory schemes that disrupt lives, destroy livelihoods, and lead to widespread frustration and despair.

And all of it is legal.

As government grows ever-larger, majority rule becomes more consequential for minority populations. The regulatory state grows, and rural Americans are left with little recourse. The courts won’t overturn regulatory actions absent a clearly-identified liberty interest (with the law granting wide discretion to federal agencies), in many states legislatures are dominated by urban voting blocs, and — particularly in the West — massive federal ownership of land means the voice of the local farmer or landowner is diluted into meaninglessness within the larger national debate. 

With few options left within conventional politics, rural Americans are beginning to contemplate more dramatic measures, such as the state secession movements building in Colorado, Maryland, California, and elsewhere. The more viable state secession movements aim to limit urban control by literally removing rural counties from their states and forming new states around geographic regions of common interests.

But until there’s a long-term solution, we may very well see more Bundy Ranch moments, where individual Americans (and their allies) simply refuse to consent to laws that destroy their way of life for the sake of regulations that provide no perceivable benefit to others. (I can only imagine my frustration if I had to end a more-than-century-old family lifestyle, arguably for the sake of a turtle that no one will see). 

The long-term solution is simple to conceptualize but difficult to accomplish: de-escalate the stakes of our political disputes by limiting the power of government over American lives. Americans have always had profound differences, and we live together with those differences when victory for one side doesn’t mean inflicting real harm on the losers. But when victory for one side means the end of a way of life for the losers, instability can and will result. 

I hope and pray that the dangerous standoff at Bundy Ranch was an aberration and not a harbinger, but until we can limit government’s power, I fear that respect for law will increasingly give way to contempt for the lawmakers.

(Final note: Even if one sympathizes with Bundy, nothing — absolutely nothing — justifies this utterly reprehensible nonsense. Deliberately placing women in harm’s way for propaganda value is a Taliban tactic, and I do not use that term lightly).

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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