States’ rights, slavery and the strange symbolism of Cliven Bundy

Armstrong Williams | 5/29/2014, 3:30 p.m.
America is a land of stories. We love to use stories about individuals to extract general principals about society as ...
Armstrong Williams

America is a land of stories. We love to use stories about individuals to extract general principals about society as a whole. The story of Cliven Bundy is no exception. His story about an armed standoff against the federal government this past April was illustrative of many of the principles proving that we are a government of the people, that individual rights are sacrosanct and that states have the right to decide how to govern the lands and people within their territories. Unfortunately, the story didn’t end there.

Given the bully pulpit for the first time in his life, Bundy foolishly squandered his opportunity to have America hear his story. Instead, he launched into a misguided and racist diatribe about African-Americans, stating that he believed that “they never learned to pick cotton” and accounted for the social ills of single motherhood and high Black male incarceration rates. He went on to speculate, “I’ve wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family?” The entirety of his rant has been relentlessly reported, and the real principles undergirding his story have been lost in the ensuing media feeding frenzy.

But that does not mean there’s not an important story to be told here. In fact, Bundy meandered right into one of the essential fault lines of American society: the relationship between states’ rights and slavery, and more generally, the relationship of majority rule to the protection of individual civil rights. A cursory review of the history reveals inextricable links between early states’ rights advocates and proponents of slavery. In fact, some would say that the Civil War, called by some “the War between the States,” was not over slavery per se, but whether states had the rights to enact laws governing slavery within their territory. That might seem to be a minor distinction for some, but the issue continues to rear its head in American law and politics to this day—and not just when it comes to issues of race.

In fact, the expansion of federalism has run rampant into areas such as health care, banking and environmental protection—virtually every area of authority once reserved for the states. In fact, under the guise of protecting racial minorities’ rights, endangered species’ rights, women’s rights and a whole host of other individual rights, the federal government has engaged in a decades-long power grab that has made a sham of the notion of local government and individual rights in America.

And the consequences have been catastrophic. It is now mandated that if one chooses not to purchase mediocre health care from the government, often at a higher price than existing private plans, you’ll be taxed. Gone are the days when people who live in an area in which a species is being threatened can get together and decide an appropriate land use policy that supports the environment while enabling people to use the abundant resources our country has afforded us. In fact, the Bundy case illustrates the absurdity that arises when a bureaucrat in Washington writes a land use policy that purports to save a desert tortoise at the expense of using grazing land that has been managed for over a hundred years in a way that enables high-quality beef to arrive at the American table. Oh, and by the way, there’s significant evidence that cattle ranching helps, rather than harms, the desert tortoise.

But the real harm here, and the reason why power was devolved to the states under the constitution, was not merely to avoid the harm caused by government incompetence. It was to prevent the destructive effects of government corruption, otherwise known as tyranny. The smaller and more strictly enumerated the powers of the central government were, the founding fathers reasoned, the less harm those powers could do if captured or compromised by special interests. The very circumstances of the Bundy case seem at least very suspicious when viewed in that light. Federal land being claimed for private contracts to build wind farms in the areas adjacent to the Bundys’ ranch suddenly make it much more valuable to the government than grazing land and somehow make protecting that tortoise worth aiming guns at American citizens. The line is clear. The bigger the reach of government, the more resources it controls, the more susceptible it is to corruption and the more tyrannical the effects of that corruption become.

Bundy inadvertently highlighted this issue in a misguided way, but virtually no one took him up on the challenge to make a statement distinguishing states’ rights—really the principle of localism—from an excuse to engage in racism and the abuse of minorities. Instead, almost every Bundy supporter cut and run when the controversy got too hot to handle. Instead, we should have condemned Bundy’s ignorance—states do not have a right to violate individual civil rights—and outlined principles of a new brand of federalism that enables the protection of minorities while protecting the will of the democratic majority.

If we let Bundy’s story get lost in the noise—admittedly, noise Bundy himself helped to create—we are at risk of squandering a real opportunity to make a statement about how the encroachment of government and diminishment of the rights of all Americans, especially minorities. It is really an opportunity to restate the states’ rights thesis as an enabler of freedom, not a tool for oppression.

In fact, it is critical that we do so. With an emerging majority minority electorate—an ethnic plurality—it is more important than ever that principles that will appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans come across as clear and unsullied by the mistakes of our past.

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