Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who sparked a confrontation between federal agents and ‘patriot’ militias rather than pay his grazing fees, had the endorsement of the Koch brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity, which saw an opportunity to push their agenda of privatizing federal lands. But as Edwin Lyngar noted last week at Salon, Bundy is actually a terrible choice of hero for advocates of the free market.
We could argue about whether the land should belong to the federal government, but what is not in dispute is that Bundy has no ownership of it. He won’t even pay fees to use it. In short, he refuses to pay rent, like thousands of other ranchers do dutifully every year. Again, I’d like to observe if Bundy is not a communist, he’s at least an aggressive socialist.
Bundy’s foundational argument is that he “has been using the land for generations.” He claims to have “ancestors” who worked the land since the late 1800s. If Bundy wants to make this argument, he’ll need to chat to a Native American or two from one of the many different tribes in Nevada who were here far before Bundy’s ancestors. Also, I thought America was about building wealth through capitalism, rather than depending on your daddy to pass on his membership into the landed aristocracy. Bundy seems to think himself a member of the neo-nobility.
In fact, Bundy is a newly-minted hero to the so-called “sovereign citizens” movement, which refuses to recognize the federal government and elevates the individual above the laws. But as the Booman Tribune explains, the history of the area makes Bundy’s claim to special privileges on that land dubious at best.
Cliven Bundy claims that his ancestors began ranching in and around Bunkerville shortly after it was founded. If there were any early Bundy ancestors in Bunkerville, I can’t find them. But his mother’s ancestors stretch back to Dudley Leavitt and James William Huntsman and they were there in Bunkerville’s early days. However, as his maternal ancestors had very large families and the Mormon culture is patriarchal, it’s difficult to accept that ranch land and homesteads were passed down through several generations of women to Cliven Bundy.
Bundy is not some poor rancher being oppressed, he is not leading a freedom movement, and his ‘range war’ is not a patriot’s game. Those armed men bravely hiding behind women and children in Nevada may call themselves ‘patriots,’ but they are not, and neither is their putative hero. The tradition he represents is in fact anti-American, anti-democratic, and rooted in a history of violent sedition against the United States.
The early years of Mormonism were characterized by violence, both by and against the Latter Day Saints. The ‘Danites,’ Joseph Smith’s secret police, suppressed dissent and attacked enemies of the church. Along with their polygamy, that kind of behavior is what got the Saints kicked out of Ohio and then Missouri. After their prophet was lynched in Illinois, Smith’s followers moved further West to set up an Earthly dominion of God (read: theocracy) beyond the reach of federal power. To clear the way for their settlements, new Mormon paramilitary groups harassed and intimidated the Native Americans that were already living in the Utah territory, but when tensions with the federal government hit fever pitch in 1857, those militias struck up an alliance with the Paiute tribe. The most notable achievement of that coalition was the slaughter of a pioneer wagon train. In fact, Bundy’s ancestor Dudley Leavitt, mentioned above, was a participant in that September 11, 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, which sparked the so-called ‘Utah War’ of 1858. Although the conflict ultimately fizzled, it threatened to turn very bloody, and it has long been understood as a prequel to secession and the Civil War.
Past is prologue: Cliven Bundy would rather stir a Second Civil War than recognize federal authority. His false claim to ownership of public pastures is not just a smokescreen for his mooching, but an invocation of some of the darkest chapters in American history.
Video: a short portion of a documentary telling the story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.