For a long time, conservatives have laid claim to being the paragons of law and order. And if you believe the correct approach to an ever-increasing array of crimes is longer prison sentences or the death penalty, maybe it’s true.
But the conservative adherence to the rule of law undergoes a kind of evolution when the law in question is a federal one, or when it’s the federal government that seeks to impose order. Suddenly, law and order isn’t so important anymore. And that was true long before anyone had ever heard of the Bundy Ranch.
You can go all the way back to the Civil War to find examples. Then, Southern conservatives concluded that a federal effort to change their way of life was inconsistent with their interests, and chose not to comply. They lost the war, but kept up the fight, doing everything they could to restrict the rights and opportunities of the newly freed slaves. That long struggle reached its zenith in the modern civil rights movement when Southern states started spinning out junk theories that argued there were some federal laws states simply didn’t have to follow if they didn’t want to. Meanwhile, federal efforts to help desegregate the South were met with violence and rioting.
The conservative antipathy towards the federal government didn’t stop in the 1960s, of course — it’s an animating principle of the tea party today. Think of Sharron Angle, the 2010 Republican nominee for the United States Senate in Nevada, suggesting that if the federal government didn’t start acting more in accordance with her world view, Nevadans might resort to “Second Amendment remedies.” Rhetoric like that seemed shocking back then, but its pretty commonplace among the far right these days, where apocalyptic conspiracy theories have become the coin of the realm — the specter of domestic drone strikes or federal tanks rolling through town or secret FEMA camps to hold conservatives “after the revolution," whenever that may be.
And now there’s Cliven Bundy, the rancher who’s been letting his cattle feed on public lands for decades, but has been refusing to pay the United States for the privilege. Just imagine for a moment that Bundy was a mom on welfare who'd been cashing benefits even while she had a good job on the side. Conservatives would hold her up as an example of everything that’s wrong with society. But stand her next to a steer with a Stetson on her head, and stealing from the government makes her a hero. It’s insane.
Juxtapose that with the reaction of conservatives to the Vietnam War protests. At the time, everyone from George Wallace to Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to Richard Nixon found electoral traction by calling for a return to law and order and respect for authority, positioning the protestors as irresponsible, radical and disloyal. But now the law-breakers are on the conservative side so they’re heroes.
To be sure, some laws are unjust, and there are times when resistance is a noble act. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights protesters challenged segregation at risk of actual physical harm and death. Why did they do it? Because they had been living under the yoke of actual oppression, the kind that affects everything about your life and its prospects, and they’d had enough. Now consider the absurd images of Bundy supporters with their rifles trained on federal authorities. Really? Because Bundy is being required pay for his cattle to feed on public lands, just like anyone else? Please.
At times like this, conservatives like Sean Hannity and Alex Jones like to drape themselves in the flag, characterizing their defense of Bundy as part of the fight for some deeper American principle. And this may be the most ridiculous assertion of all. Because America is, at heart, held together not just by people but by the laws they produce, and a profound commitment to the democratic process by which they come into being. We may not like all of them, and when we don’t we should say so, because dissent is an indispensable part of the American experience. But the notion that one group of people operates above the political process and can, by virtue of their superior perspicacity, pick and choose which laws they want to follow is exactly counter to the democratic principles on which so much of our country was founded.
In other words, taking up arms against the government when it is in the process of collecting cattle fees isn’t heroic, it isn’t patriotic and it isn’t even remotely brave. It is, however, one of the least American things you can think of.
Corrected on April 24, 2014: Sharron Angle's name was incorrectly spelled in an earlier version of this post.